Testing and Maintaining Life Safety Systems

Most electrical contracting firms are involved in installing life safety systems for new building construction and the renovation and expansion of existing buildings, but not in the ongoing system inspection, testing, maintenance, and upgrade. Customers are required to regularly inspect, test, and maintain fire alarm systems. If customers lack qualified in-house staff, they need to outsource this work. The contractor can provide single-point responsibility for the customer’s fire alarm system, starting with installation and then providing ongoing support. This means that knowledgeable personnel will not only be available to maintain the system, but also to upgrade and expand it when needed. What do life safety systems include? The term “life safety system” applies to any system incorporated into a building whose purpose is the protection and preservation of human life during an emergency or failure of a critical building system. This broad definition includes architectural systems that provide emergency egress and protected areas within buildings through physical layout and construction and mechanical systems that include fire suppression systems such as sprinklers, smoke removal, stairwell pressurization, water storage and pressurization, and other similar systems. In addition, life safety systems include power, communication, and control systems that the electrical contracting firm is involved with, including emergency detection and notification; emergency and standby power systems; emergency and exit lighting, and similar systems. For this article, the term “life safety system” will be restricted to systems that provide emergency detection, notification, and control functions. The term “life safety system” is often used interchangeably with “fire alarm system” to mean the system that provides the detection, notification, and control functions in a building. However, for many people, “fire alarm system” means only visible detection devices, such as pull stations and smoke detectors, notification devices like horns and strobes, and fire control panels. Fire alarm systems include more than visible detection and notification devices, and the term “life safety system” better describes its mission and connotes a more comprehensive and sophisticated system, which fire alarm systems are in today’s buildings. Life safety systems involve more than detection and notification of an emergency condition—they also include supervisory, control, and communication functions. The supervisory function of a life safety system monitors and reports on the status of detection and notification devices, sprinkler, and other fire suppression systems; critical doors and dampers; and other related equipment and systems. The control function automatically reacts to an emergency to ensure the safety of building inhabitants, facilitate building evacuation, and aid in firefighting and rescue operations. Control functions include the operation of fire doors and smoke dampers, elevator capture and shutdown, initiating smoke removal and stairwell pressurization among other critical functions. Communications goes beyond alarms to include the fireman’s telephone, emergency public address systems and wireless intercommunication systems, which need to be tested and maintained regularly. National Electrical Code Electrical contracting firms are most familiar with Article 760 of the National Electrical Code (NEC), which the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) publishes as NFPA 70. NEC Article 760 provides the requirements for the interconnection of fire alarm equipment and components. This wiring includes anything that provides a detection annunciation or control function and is powered from the fire alarm system itself. NEC Article 760 provides no requirements regarding when fire alarm systems are needed or how their equipment and components that require interconnection should be selected or located. Further, NEC Article 760 provides no requirements for inspection, testing, or maintaining fire alarm systems. Requirements for when a fire alarm system must be provided, how it must operate, and how it must be tested and maintained, are found elsewhere. Life Safety Code NFPA 101 is entitled the Life Safety Code. NFPA 101 provides guidance and, if adopted in full or part by the local authority having jurisdiction (AHJ), the requirements for fire alarm systems in various occupancy types. Also, the contractor should be aware of any additional requirements or local codes enforced by the local AHJ involving fire alarm systems. Section 7-6 of NFPA 101 covers the requirements for fire detection, alarm, and communications systems when mandated for particular occupancies by other parts of NFPA 101. In general, NFPA 101 does not specify how fire alarm systems should be installed, tested, or maintained. Paragraph 7-6.1.4 of NFPA 101 requires that fire alarm systems be installed, tested, and maintained in accordance with NEC Article 760 and NFPA 72, which is the National Fire Alarm Code (NFAC). However, the requirements for fire alarm systems for specific occupancies contained in NFPA 101 may be more stringent than those in NFPA 72, and NFPA 101 should be consulted to ensure that the requirements for specific occupancy are met. The same is true for local codes and requirements. For example, in Paragraph 7-6.1.7, NFPA 101 requires that an approved NFPA 72-compliant maintenance and testing program be developed and implemented. The term “approved” in NFPA 101 means what it does in NEC Article 100, which is acceptable to the local authority having jurisdiction, which in the case of fire alarm systems is typically the local fire marshal. Another example is Paragraph, which requires notifying the local AHJ anytime that the fire alarm system or any portion of it is shut down for four hours or more in any 24-hour period. Those areas left unprotected by the fire alarm shutdown must either be evacuated during the shutdown or have a fire watch set. National Fire Alarm Code The NFAC’s purpose, provided in NFAC Paragraph 1-2.1, is to define the means of signal initiation, transmission, notification, and annunciation; the levels of performance; and the reliability of the various types of fire alarm systems. Chapter 7 of NFPA 72 provides the minimum requirements for inspection, testing, and maintenance of fire alarm systems. Just like the NEC, the NFAC provides the minimum requirements that may be modified by the local AHJ, owner, manufacturer, or insurance carrier to be more stringent. When providing fire alarm inspection, testing, and maintenance services for a customer, the company must know the exact requirements and establish a program based on them. NFAC, however, provides a very good starting point and checklist for establishing fire alarm inspection and testing requirements. NFAC Section 7.2 provides testing methods for systems and equipment that are either an integral part of the fire alarm system or provide a critical support function. In addition to control panels and detection and notification devices, inspection requirements are provided for emergency power supplies and transient surge suppressors (TSS), among other systems and equipment. Similarly, NFAC Section 7-3 provides a schedule for the frequency of visual inspections required for specific systems and equipment, which includes everything from detection and notification devices to fiber optic cable connections. Inspection frequencies vary between systems and equipment and include monthly, quarterly, semiannual, and annual inspection intervals. Minimum required testing frequencies are also provided in NFAC Section 7-3 and cover a wide range of equipment and systems. Testing frequencies are also tied back to the test methods specified in NFAC Section 7-2. It also requires that fire alarm systems and associated equipment be maintained in accordance with manufacturer recommendations in NFAC Section 7-4. Also, NFAC Section 7-5 contains the requirements for inspection, testing, and maintenance record keeping. These requirements address the content, availability, and retention of these records. Who can test and maintain safety systems? NFAC Paragraph 7-1.2 makes it the facility owner’s responsibility to inspect, test, and maintain fire alarm systems. However, the owner can delegate his or her responsibility to the electrical contractor. This must be in writing, available to the local AHJ, and can be the maintenance agreement between the owner and the contractor. Only qualified service personnel are allowed to inspect and maintain fire alarm systems per NFAC Subparagraph 7-1.2.2. The definition of “qualified fire alarm service personnel” varies and depends on the type of occupancy, the local AHJ, manufacturer requirements, local, state, and Federal requirements, regulatory agency requirements having jurisdiction over the installation, and the owner’s insurance carrier requirements. The company needs to know the specific qualifications for inspecting, testing, and maintaining each customer’s life safety system and ensure that service personnel and the contractor have all the necessary certifications, licenses, and permits. Providing a valuable service Qualified firms offer the customer single-point responsibility for inspecting, testing, and maintenance of not only the detection, notification, and control portions of their life safety system, but also of all associated systems, including emergency and standby power systems, uninterruptible power systems (UPS), security and access control systems, emergency public address supply, and others. Acknowledgement This article is the result of ongoing research into the development of service contracting business by electrical contracting firms sponsored by the Electrical Contracting Foundation, Inc. The author would like to thank the foundation for its continuing support. GLAVINICH is Chair and Associate Professor of Architectural Engineering at The University of Kansas. He can be reached at (785) 864-3435 or tglavinich@ukans.edu.

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