Campus Fire Alarm System Upgrades

President George W Bush signed the Higher Education Opportunity Act on August 14, 2008. This bill contains several important campus-safety components, including the core provisions of the original Campus Fire Safety Right-to-Know Act. The law will require colleges to report fire safety information to the U.S. Department of Education.

Specific reporting details include the following:

• The number of fires and the cause of each fire

• The number of injuries and deaths related to a fire

• The value of property damage caused by a fire

• Description of the fire protection equipment (sprinklers/alarms) in each on-campus housing unit

• The number of regular mandatory supervised fire drills

• Policies or rules regarding fire-safety education and training programs provided to students and faculty members

• Plans for future improvements in fire safety, if determined necessary by the institution

This law creates a number of opportunities for the professional contractor. First, you can offer to conduct comprehensive surveys for your local college campus. These surveys should be detailed and include such things as performing a visual inspection in the form of a building walk-through to inspect the fire alarm systems for the following:

• Evaluate the fire alarm system general conditions for all head-end equipment, excluding functional testing (functional testing can be included as an option).

• Identify the model and manufacturer of the fire alarm system and components at a level adequate to obtain the system manufacturer’s product support.

• Evaluate notification arrangements for general adequacy, age and code compliance.

• Identify the general system control functions (smoke control and elevator functions, etc.).

• Evaluate the existing facility drawings, maintenance records, and operations and maintenance manuals where available.

In addition, you can develop and submit fire alarm system assessment reports or checklists. The fire alarm system assessment report should include the system-design summary and whether the existing system meets the requirements of the current edition of NFPA 72 for such items as detection device and notification appliance placement and adequacy. You should review and report on the overall condition, approximate age and remaining life expectancy of the system, and issues concerning the panel discovered during the survey, such as if trouble, alarm or supervisory signals are activated.

You may need to research the panel and component manufacturers for availability of spare parts and product support to determine if the equipment currently installed is obsolete.

With all of this information in hand, you can do a thorough evaluation of the existing system and present a proposal with a rough order of magnitude cost to upgrade or replace the system to ensure its reliability as required by the new law.

During the discussion about upgrading or replacing the fire alarm system, the professional contractor also will want to determine the campus mass notification needs. If the existing fire alarm system is a non-voice system and the recommendation is that the system needs to be replaced, you will want to consider discussing a combination in-building fire alarm/voice communications system.

A new chapter for all communications systems, including mass-notification systems (MNS), is included in the proposed 2010 edition of the National Fire Alarm Code. This new Chapter 12, titled Emergency Communications Systems, will provide guidance and requirements for mass notification and fire alarm/voice communication systems. The proposed content of the new chapter is available for review on the NFPA Web site (

As stated in the purpose section of the proposed chapter, “The systems covered under Chapter 12 are for the protection of life by indicating the existence of an emergency situation and communicating information necessary to facilitate an appropriate response and action. […] An emergency communications system is intended to communicate information about emergencies including but not limited to fire, terrorist activities, other dangerous situations, accidents, and natural disasters.”

Some highlights include major changes regarding the use of fire alarm/voice communications systems for other uses.

For example, there are proposed requirements that permit the use of code-compliant fire alarm/voice communications systems for routine, frequent use, such as for paging, without requiring the approval of the authority having jurisdiction. The code will also have requirements that permit mass notification systems to use the same loudspeakers as alarm notification appliances on fire alarm/voice communications systems.

These changes provide the astute contractor with the guidance to assist colleges and universities to meet the requirements of the new law for future improvements to the fire safety systems. The goal of any college or university communications system is to disseminate information to the population throughout the campus. The objective of these systems is to allow the campus security personnel to provide real-time, actionable information to everyone on the campus. In addition, the new requirements spell out the required system interfaces between mass notification systems and the fire alarm system.

The proposed 2010 National Fire Alarm Code will require the system to be designed to ensure both the safety of the occupants and the transmission of some type of intelligible messages to those occupants during any adverse conditions. In all cases, the design must assign local building fire alarm operation the highest priority. This priority must include the fire alarm system’s own voice message. No other message may override this fire alarm message, except under certain circumstances, such as for emergency mass notification operation.

As one may expect, not all mass notification messages should take priority over the fire alarm messages. The proposed code suggests the development of messages using risk analysis and offers the following voice message priority suggestions:

1. “Live voice messages from qualified personnel on site should be the highest priority. Systems could permit microphone locations that are usable by non-emergency personnel, but those microphones should be disabled during emergency operations.”

2. “Automatic fire alarm messages/other high priority messages as determined by risk analysis criteria.”

3. “Message priority for emergency conditions such as severe weather warnings, gas leaks, chemical spills, and other hazardous conditions should be determined by risk analysis criteria.”

4. “Non-emergency messages, such as general announcements and time function signaling (work breaks, class change, etc.) should have the lowest priority.”

“In multi-building, campus, area or regional systems, local buildings could be controlled and overridden from a central control station. When the local fire alarm system is not in an alarm condition, the central control station can override without restriction. If a local system is active for any reason, the central control station should only be able to override if authorized personnel can determine the status of the local system. If the local fire alarm system is actively in alarm mode, it can only be overridden by a central control station where the interface meets all requirements of the proposed Code.”

It should be obvious that, in order for contractors to take advantage of these new opportunities, they have to increase their knowledge of communication systems beyond those used in the past for fire alarm/voice communications systems.

Typically, contractors do not have a strong communications systems background, so it will be imperative to obtain this specialized knowledge through training programs or an alliance with a sound and communications contractor.

Regardless of the economy, fire safety and security on college campuses will still be a priority. The contractor who takes the initiative to help college and university customers meet the requirements of the new law will continue to generate new business.

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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