Hey, Where's the Fire? Keeping Safe While Doing Fire Safety

0519 Life Safety Systems
Image credit: Shutterstock / thanatphoto

We must consider safety issues when installing a fire alarm system, interconnecting to other building systems, and testing and/or repairing fire alarm systems. We must also consider occupant safety during an alarm. Individuals who test for a NICET certification for fire alarm systems typically have to answer safety questions based on different documents that I describe below. Obviously, NFPA 72 references the National Electrical Code (NEC) in numerous locations for fire alarm circuit and equipment installation primarily to reduce the chance of electrical shock.

NICET references various safety-related documents, and it now allows test takers to bring a copy of NFPA 70E, Safety for Electrical Safety in the Workplace, into the test for Level IV. In addition to the NEC and NFPA 70E, NICET also suggests reviewing the following general references that are not allowed to be taken into the test center: Electrical Safety (Student Manual); Electrical Safety-Related Work Practices; First Aid/CPR/AED Participants Manual; NFPA 704, Standard System for the Identification of the Hazards of Materials for Emergency Response; OSHA 29 CFR 1904, Recording and Reporting Occupational Injuries and Illness; OSHA 29 CFR 1910, Occupational Safety and Health Standards; OSHA 29 CFR 1926, Safety and Health Regulations for Construction; and Safety and Health for Engineers.

This list has grown considerably over the last few years. All of these OSHA documents can be downloaded for free at www.osha.gov. I’m sure the rest are available online, possibley for purchase.

When installing fire alarms, you know each job site is different, and each has different levels of enforcement of personal safety requirements. I’ve been on job sites where you are required to wear steel-toed boots and hard hats, and I have been on job sites where you could get away with sneakers and no hard hats. I’ve seen many workers stand on top of ladders to reach their work. I have seen guys actually stand on top of a railing 30 feet in the air to reach equipment. Sometimes, it amazes me that we don’t hear about more construction-related deaths.

To provide consistency and improve employee safety, fire alarm installation companies should have their own requirements. A regular schedule of safety training sessions for all employees is beneficial. As we all know, construction sites present many injury hazards. Being observant is always a good starting point on any job site. One safety problem I believe we have is caused by the “rush job” mentality of today’s construction market. Some people are in such a hurry to finish a job that they overlook safety.

Interconnecting fire alarms to other building equipment, such as elevators, offers its own safety issues. How do you install or test the heat or smoke detectors at the top of elevator hoistways? Historically, you rode on the top of the elevator to detectors located on the ceiling of the hoistways. Sometimes, you even have to step from one elevator car to another while at the top of the hoistway. Not very safe, right? NFPA 72, 2019 edition, requires all fire alarm equipment installed in elevator hoistways to be accessible from outside of the hoistway.

How about testing duct smoke detectors? We all know they often are not accessible. I’ve seen technicians crawl on top of ductwork to repair or test duct detectors. When you are testing fire alarm systems, observe other safety issues in the building. Help your customer by letting them know of safety concerns you may find. If they are using stairwells as storage closets, how is that going to affect egress during a fire incident? Remember that they view you as the expert for fire safety issues.

When troubleshooting fire alarms, be aware of other circuits near the fire alarm circuits. That may not be low-voltage like the fire alarm. In some cases, you may have fire alarm circuits installed in cable trays with other circuits, or other trades may even pull their circuit conductors in your raceway. Don’t assume it is all installed correctly. When in doubt, find the source of the circuits, or, at least, test the voltage of conductors you are unsure of before handling them.

Remember that trainees will typically follow their supervisor’s example. If a supervisor sets a bad example about safety, the trainee may adopt the same habits. By this principle, if you lead by example, you can greatly improve safety in the workplace.

About the Author
Tom Hammerberg

Thomas P. Hammerberg

Life Safety Columnist

Thomas P. Hammerberg, SET, CFPS is president of Hammerberg & Associates Inc. Retired from the Automatic Fire Alarm Association (AFAA) after 23 years, he represents the AFAA on the NFPA 72 Technical Correlating Committee and Protected Premises...

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