Don’t Fall into a Trap: Fire alarm inspection

iStock/ Alexandrmoroz/ Djmilic

If you provide fire alarm system inspection, testing and maintenance (ITM), you already know that everyone of your potential customers will be an easy sale. Why, you ask, is that premise true? The answer is simple, you don’t have to sell to them. NFPA 72, National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code, states in Section 14.2.3.1, “The property or building or system owner or the owner’s designated representative shall be responsible for inspection, testing, and maintenance of the system and for alterations or additions to this system.”

Given that requirement, becoming the ITM company of choice is the only real reason for the customer to hire or not hire you. If you present your ITM operation as a professional organization, well-versed in the code and knowledgeable about the manufacturer’s product installed in the building, then there should be a high capture rate of customers. Equally important is that Chapter 14, Inspection, Testing and Maintenance, applies to both new and existing systems.

There are two basic reasons why periodic visual inspections and functional tests of installed fire alarm systems is important. The first is to assure that obvious damages or changes that might affect system operability are visually identified. The purpose of the second is to statistically assure operational reliability. Obviously, visual inspections will contribute to the assurance of operational and mission reliability but do not ensure either.

As you already should know, periodic testing of fire alarm and signaling systems is not necessarily done as a complete system test. NFPA 72 requires parts of the systems to be tested at different frequencies, therefore at “any one particular test, only a fraction of the system can be tested. Periodic testing contributes to the assurance of operational and mission reliability but, like visual inspections, does not ensure either.”

We know that periodic testing with the addition of monitoring the integrity of the fire alarm control unit, batteries and the installed wiring, provides a good chance the system will operate reliably and in accordance with the original design in the event of a fire.

There are some common traps to look for when providing ITM. The first is assuming the initial system was originally installed in accordance with the applicable codes at the time. If you find a code violation, it is your responsibility to notify the owner immediately. If the code violation affects the safety of the occupants, and the system is out of service, then you must notify the authority having jurisdiction within eight hours. As stated in the annex to Section 10.21.4: “It is important for the authority having jurisdiction, typically the local fire official, to be informed when systems have been out of service for more than 8 hours so that appropriate measures can be taken. The term out of service is meant to refer to the entire system or a substantial portion thereof.”

Chapters 10 and 14 discuss the measures to be taken during any system impairment. Here is another trap that many ITM contractors fall into: the system is impaired when you test it. The trap is not preparing for a real alarm, if that occurs during the testing.

The code requires that all system deficiencies be corrected at the end of all tests. It also states in Section 14.2.2.2.3 that, if a deficiency is not corrected at the end of system ITM, the system owner or the designated representative shall be informed of the remaining deficiency in writing within 24 hours.

The trap here is not having a follow-up program to ensure the deficiency is corrected. An additional trap is for you not to have immediate access for the correct replacement parts. If you plan to perform ITM functions for an owner, it is important for you to be trained on the equipment installed in the building. If the system requires replacement parts, you will be in a good position to know where to quickly obtain them. Another reason to have a connection to the equipment manufacturer is that the code requires any equipment observed during your ITM procedures to be part of a recall program, and the system owner or the designated representative must be notified in writing.

When periodically testing the interface between a fire alarm or signaling system and some other system or emergency control function, NFPA 72 allows the testing to be performed without operating the interfaced system or function.

When working on a fire alarm system, documentation is extremely important. For example, if you determine the installed equipment is obsolete, then you need to inform the owner immediately and in writing. You should never consider eBay an authorized source for replacement parts for obsolete equipment. If the owner refuses to acknowledge that obsolete equipment must be replaced, you should explain the higher costs of emergency replacement of systems compared to planned replacements.

The ITM business can be a profitable venture to add to your existing business if you choose to do your homework and plan upfront. Don’t get caught in the traps.

About the Author

Wayne D. Moore

Fire/Life Safety Columnist

Wayne D. Moore, a licensed fire protection engineer, frequent speaker and expert in the life safety field, is a principal member and past chair of NFPA 72, Chapter 24. He is a vice president with Jensen Hughes at the Warwick, R.I., office and can be...

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