Be the Expert

As an electrical contractor, you field calls from prospective customers asking for a fire alarm system installation. Interestingly, although you may be knowledgeable in these installations, you may rarely ask the owner about his or her fire protection goals. Never assume that because the owner has decided to have a nonrequired fire alarm system, he or she knows what is needed for protection. Unless an owner is a fire protection engineer, he or she cannot determine what those needs may actually be.

In fact, owners may not even know how to determine their fire protection goals. I have found asking this very probing first question often helps: “What do you want to have left after the fire?” Although tongue-in-cheek, this question tends to get owners focusing on the issues surrounding their request for a fire alarm system.

Fire protection engineers have generally identified four basic fire protection goals that owners should consider. These goals include the following:

• Life safety

• Property protection

• Mission continuity

• Heritage preservation

Each physical property will usually have some combination of all four of these goals. In many facilities, one or two of these will take on a special significance.

For example, many owners decide that life safety is their priority-one goal. This will require you to provide a fire alarm system that includes early warning smoke detection and the most efficient off-premises fire department connection available. You will want to ensure that all of the occupied areas have smoke detection. You will make certain that the alarm signal generated by the fire alarm system will meet the audibility requirements—and for a voice/alarm communication system, the intelligibility requirements—of the National Fire Alarm Code. As you develop your system design, you will need to know if a particular facility has any sleeping accommodations, as the answer to this question will change your design.

A property protection priority-one goal will require you to ask additional questions regarding construction of the facility type and the specific combustibility of the material, equipment and stock within it. You will need to know whether the building contains high-value storage or difficult-to-replace equipment. Ask if the facility stores flammable liquids or gases and inquire about the manufacturing processes, so you can develop a list of special property-protection needs. As you begin your design, you will decide on the need for special detection technology, such as flame or spark/ember detection. You also will have to deal with any interface to automatic sprinkler protection or special hazards suppression systems.

When mission continuity is priority one, your design must provide detection and annunciation that preserves the facility’s functionality. In effect, you will participate in preserving the integrity of whatever product or service the facility provides. Satisfying this goal may involve a complex and balanced interrelationship with both life safety and property--protection goals. For adequate and effective design, you will need to fully understand the business operation of your customer. Examples of facilities that may choose mission continuity as their primary fire protection goal include newspapers, hospitals, stock trading companies, sewage treatment plants, and any facility where loss of the building or contents would severely affect the continued operation. Most of the time, these facilities will demand rapid detection that will significantly minimize the size of fires and limit fire spread and growth.

Owners who choose heritage preservation as their priority-one goal either represent facilities with great historical significance or buildings that deal with records or information that must survive a fire. This goal may require you to maintain sensitivity to the historic fabric of the building and not allow the installation of a fire alarm system to damage the historic significance in any way. This limitation will require detailed planning for the actual installation of the system. In addition, you will have to make design decisions that will balance this goal with other goals, such as life safety for the occupants, property protection for the building and contents, and business continuity.

Asking questions about goals always provides a good place to start. Be wary, though, when an owner states that he or she only wishes to meet the code. First of all, you can be relatively sure the owner does not know what the code requires or what codes apply to his or her situation. Such owners really mean to say, “I want the least expensive system that a code official will accept.”

Once again, you become the one who has the expertise to know what codes apply. And, you still owe the owner a chance to think beyond this request and bring up the list of fire protection goals that he or she should consider. To counter this kind of input from an owner, explain that the building code requires the minimum protection. Such minimum protection may not really meet the owner’s goals. Is that really what an owner wants?

This may present the best time to ask the probing question mentioned earlier to help direct the owner to rethink what he or she really wants. Regardless, the owner should not direct the detection installed. You are the expert. You should provide the best possible detection to meet your customer’s needs. To do this, understand their fire protection goals.

MOORE, a licensed fire protection engineer, frequent speaker and an expert in the life safety field, is a co-editor of the current National Fire Alarm Code Handbook. Moore is a principal with Hughes Associates Inc. at the Warwick, R.I., office.

About the Author

Wayne D. Moore

Fire/Life Safety Columnist
Wayne D. Moore, a licensed fire protection engineer, frequent speaker and an expert in the life safety field, is a principal member and past chair of NFPA 72, Chapter 24. Moore is a vice president with JENSEN HUGHES at the Warwick, R.I., office. He c...

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