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Understanding the Codes Process for Fire Alarm System Installations

Fire alarm.
Published On
May 25, 2021

Because there are many in our profession who believe that all they need to know about fire alarm system application, design and installations is contained in NFPA 72, the National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code, it is important to review the codes process and what traps to avoid when estimating and planning for a fire alarm system installation.

Starting with new construction first, you will need to first determine when a fire alarm system is required and then what type of system will meet that requirement.

There has been a building code adopted by the state or local jurisdiction in essentially every state. The first objective in understanding when a fire alarm system needs to be installed is to determine what building code has been adopted and what edition is enforced. For this discussion, I will use the 2018 edition of the International Building Code (IBC).

Building codes have the requirements broken down by occupancy, so the fire alarm system requirements for a residential occupancy will be stricter than those for a storage building. The first step will be to know the occupancy, which is straightforward, and then review the fire alarm requirements for it.

In addition to the occupancy chapter, you will need to review Chapter 9, Fire Protection and Life Safety Systems, starting with Section 907, which covers the application, installation, performance and maintenance of fire alarm systems and their components. Section 907 requires fire alarm systems to be installed in accordance with this section and NFPA 72. The edition of NFPA 72 referenced is the 2016 edition. All references such as this also become law since the IBC has been adopted as law in the jurisdiction.

The referenced editions of the IBC and NFPA 72 are the minimum requirements that must be met for your fire alarm system installation in any newly constructed building or structure. If the 2019 edition of NFPA 72 allows something different that may be to your benefit, then you would need to seek permission or variance from the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) to use the newer edition of the code. Because you are installing the fire alarm system using wire, the National Electrical Code will apply to the installation.

There may also be Occupational Safety and Health Administration requirements for your building, and if it is being constructed by the General Services Administration (GSA), you will need to refer to their Facilities Standards P-100 to avoid costly additions to the fire alarm system design and installation.

In planning for existing construction and upgrades, there are usually similar approaches. When an owner asks you to design and install a fire alarm system in an existing building, you should always ask if they have determined their fire protection goals. If the answer is to “meet the code,” then you should follow the above approach using the code that is enforced at the time of the work (not when the building was originally built).

If you are asked to upgrade an existing fire alarm system, you will also be required to comply with the currently adopted building code and follow the process outline above. Never simply install new equipment in the same locations as the existing equipment. The system will not be code compliant. The argument that the system was code compliant when originally installed does not hold water when defending your action in a court of law and most likely will not meet with the approval of the AHJ. Unless you thoroughly evaluate the existing system against the codes enforced at the time of original installation, and determine whether the AHJ approved the original installation, you will most likely wind up in trouble and will be adding equipment.

And finally, you should know what happens when you are requested by an owner to install a non-required fire alarm system.

There are situations where the building owner wants to install a fire alarm system or component to meet site-specific needs or objectives. A building owner always has the option of installing protection that is above the minimum requirements of the code. NFPA 72 requires that any fire alarm system, or system components installed voluntarily by a building owner, must meet the requirements of the applicable portions of the code. However, as stated in the Annex of NFPA 72, “it is not the intent of the Code that the installation of a nonrequired fire alarm system, or fire alarm system components, trigger requirements for the installation of additional fire alarm system components or features. For example, the installation of a fire alarm control unit and fire detectors to service a specific area, such as a computer room or flammable liquid storage room, does not trigger a requirement for audible or visual notification appliances, manual fire alarm boxes, or other fire alarm system features in other parts of the building.”

There are requirements that are applicable to systems installed for site-specific protection, such as to address a hazard or fire protection goal. The one exception to the rule that all non-required systems must meet the same requirements as required systems is detection. In this area, when nonrequired detectors are installed to achieve specific fire safety objectives, the code states clearly that additional detectors not necessary to achieve the objectives are not required to be installed.

As you can see, understanding the codes process is not something to be taken lightly if you don’t want the fire alarm system installation to negatively impact your bottom line.

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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