Deciphering Specs: Understanding fire alarm system design requirements

Shutterstock / SophieCat / stock.adobe.com / Jailce / Aeroking
Shutterstock / SophieCat / stock.adobe.com / Jailce / Aeroking
Published On
Sep 15, 2021

In my opinion, engineers traditionally have a difficult time communicating their design information to the contractor performing the system installation (fire alarm, or any system for that matter).

Generally, upon receipt of drawings and specifications for a new project, you begin the takeoff of the number and type of fire alarm system devices as well as the location and type of fire alarm control units from the drawings. You then attempt to wade through the specifications. Hopefully, the engineer has produced specs that reference current codes and standards and products the manufacturer is currently producing.

Assuming it is what I consider a “proper” specification, what is expected and what you need to price out for equipment is clear. It is undoubtedly the engineer’s responsibility to provide unambiguous, current specifications, and not to confuse the reader with a bunch of repetitive requirements that installers should already know.

Whether or not you get proper specifications that meet engineers’ criteria, it is your responsibility to understand them and know the fire alarm system requirements of the building code and the National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code. If you miss something in the specifications, you will still “own it” and be responsible for meeting the requirement.

While you and your estimators may be busy, if you find an issue with a specification—it’s unclear, refers to obsolete equipment or incorrect codes and standards or simply isn’t code-compliant—meet with the engineer and general contractor (or owner if that makes more sense) to discuss your questions and issues.

You may find that the system design exceeds the base code requirements. Don’t ignore the design and only bid on a system that meets just minimum requirements for code compliance. You also shouldn’t run to the general contractor showing him how you can save money for them by supplying a “straight code-compliant” system installation instead of the “overkill design” they provided. The engineer may have discussed the increased coverage or special operation of the fire alarm system with the owner and received approval to move forward with that design.

Fully engaged engineers will write a specification applicable to the project you are bidding that will “explain” the design you see on the plans and have necessary information to guide you to a code-compliant installation. However, as you already know, not every engineer is fully engaged in doing their best for the owner.

Who is responsible?

Having said that, what is your responsibility? Ethically, you should never bid and install a system that you know will not be code-compliant or that fails to meet the owner’s goals. At this point you might be thinking, “But that’s how I can charge for extras!”

I ask many contractors who have said the same thing in one of my seminars: “Do you want to charge the extras on this project and never see the owner again? Or would you rather increase your value to the owner, becoming a trusted adviser and the single source of responsibility for all future life safety systems or fire alarm system issues?”

If you are regularly involved with new projects, develop a checklist for your estimators that pulls key elements out of a specification to ensure you will be bidding competitively. For example, if you are bidding an in-building emergency voice/alarm communications system (EVACS), you know the code requires two-hour circuit integrity (CI) cable or a two-hour cable system for the riser circuits feeding the loudspeakers on each floor. Confirm that the spec states that to ensure all bidders will be meeting this requirement. If this requirement is not found in the specifications, then contact the engineer to issue a follow-up to the specs so that all bidders will be including this expensive EVACS component. In this example, if the engineer does not respond appropriately to your RFI, break out the cost for the CI cable installation so that your base bid will be on an even par with other bidders.

The AHJ’s place

And how does the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) fit in to the specification requirements? Unfortunately, not all fire departments have a licensed fire protection engineer on staff. This means that the typical fire department plans reviewer may not have a good grasp on what constitutes a code-compliant fire alarm system design and may not understand what the specs say, or more important, what they do not say.

Recently, in a response to a question posed on the Society of Fire Protection Engineers member forum, an AHJ stated that he understands what he sees on paper does not always match the field conditions once the project has started—specifically, there may be deviations from the approved plans, and specifications will be allowed to ensure code compliance.

Herein lies another stumbling block for many contractors. If you have not followed the approved plans and specifications, including any approved deviations caused by field conditions, the Certificate of Occupancy (COO) may not be issued on time. As you know, if you are the reason the owner did not receive their COO on time, then you might lose future business. This may lead to not being paid until you make the changes required by a misinterpretation of either the plans or specifications at no cost to the owner. More important, you may get a reputation in the construction industry of poor performance when it counts.

As with asking the engineer for clarification of issues, you need to do the same with the AHJ. This is important because, if nothing else, it helps to understand how the AHJ has interpreted the plans and specifications and whether they agree with your interpretation.

Your approach to the design and specification process will define how you are viewed by customers. Establishing a quality-assurance program for your estimators and project foremen to follow that governs the items above—which has a robust corrective action program to ensure compliance with the approved plans and specifications—will go a long way in improving responsiveness to issues as they develop during the job. Create these programs for all your projects and provide training to your estimator so they will know what potential deal-breakers to look for when putting their bids together.

Throughout the bidding and installation process, emphasize these two important concepts: communication and coordination. Your bottom line will thank you!

About the Author

Wayne D. Moore

Fire/Life Safety Columnist

Wayne D. Moore, a licensed fire protection engineer, frequent speaker, writer and expert in the life safety field, has been a principal member and chair of NFPA 72, Chapter 24, as well as a former principal member of NFPA 909 and NFPA 914. He is the...

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