Know the Drill

Security and life safety systems are a necessity in educational facilities. NFPA 101, the Life Safety Code, provides specific rules related to required means of egress and emergency lighting systems in addition to fire alarm systems governed by NFPA 72, the National Fire Alarm Code. Schools are one type of occupancy addressed in Chapters 14 and 15 of NFPA 101. There are a few important performance aspects of life safety systems for educational facilities that are often overlooked or treated as a back-burner item.

Section 14.7.2 of NFPA 101 has a general requirement for conducting emergency egress drills on a regular basis, typically not less than once a month. All occupants must participate in the drill. The drill is the process of executing the emergency egress plan required in accordance with Section 4.8. Often grammar schools and high schools have regular fire drills and emergency drills, such as those related to bomb threats and loss of power. Students are taught the importance of prompt reaction to being alerted by building life safety and other security systems.

So what does this have to do with performance testing and maintenance of life safety systems? The safety of the occupants can be directly affected if these systems fail to function as designed. Drills prepare occupants for the real event but are only a simulation. It is important to exercise emergency systems and equipment on a regular basis so that they will perform as intended during a real emergency situation.

Performance testing

Article 700 of the National Electrical Code (NEC) provides some general requirements in Part I that are related to performance of an emergency system in any occupancy, including educational facilities. Section 700.4 provides testing and maintenance requirements for life safety systems on completion of the initial installation and then addresses a periodic set of tests that ensure these systems remain in proper operating condition.

This performance testing has to simulate maximum anticipated load conditions as required in 700.4(E). Electrical contractors typically coordinate the required performance and witness testing for the authority having jurisdiction in accordance with 700.4(A). This test should simulate a real failure and verify all emergency system components operate as intended, including verifying the time of transfer and amount of illumination in the egress path, operation of essential ventilating systems, fire alarms, etc. Whether a generator provides an emergency source of power or unit equipment provides the emergency lighting, the authority having jurisdiction should evaluate a performance witness test.


Section 700.7 includes a requirement to provide audible and visible signals where practicable to monitor the ready status of an emergency system. Any generator control wiring between the transfer equipment and the generator must be kept separate from other wiring in the building and must meet the requirements fire ratings in 700.9(D)(1). The signal wiring is generally installed between the generator and transfer equipment and then routed to a remote annunciation device in a location that can be monitored.

A generator status-monitoring signal, often located at a facility’s engineering office and watched on a regular basis, is an example of such a signal. This signaling equipment is required to indicate any derangement of the emergency source, whether the battery charger is not functioning, the battery is carrying a load, or if there is a ground fault on the system. This signaling equipment is an essential component of emergency systems that can provide owners and occupants with warnings that the system functionality may be compromised. The key is that qualified people should react to such signals and ensure the emergency system is operational when called on.

Battery testing and maintenance

Periodic system testing and routine maintenance of battery-power systems must be provided in accordance with Section 700.4(C). This includes the batteries for a generator, the batteries in unit equipment emergency lighting units, and battery backups for security and fire alarm systems.

Who performs this periodic testing and maintenance once a building has been issued a Certificate of Occupancy? This is where a lot of finger pointing can happen, especially if this requirement is not met and there is the dreaded failure of the emergency system. The bottom line is that the owner is responsible for compliance with applicable codes and standards, especially those related to life safety and fire alarm systems operation. Written records of the required testing and maintenance must be kept. There are multiple codes and standards that apply to life safety systems in buildings. A few are mentioned previously; these focus on some specific rules in the NEC related to testing and maintenance of emergency systems. NFPA 110, the Standard for Emergency and Standby Power Systems, also provides additional details about maintaining and testing procedures for such systems.

It is important to retain the following information. People are taught about emergency drills at an early age. Security and life safety systems must operate satisfactorily when they are called on. Emergency and life safety systems in educational facilities or other occupancies must function as intended when a failure occurs. Witness and performance testing are required when an emergency system is first installed with all emergency loads connected to the source. It is best to simulate an actual failure that triggers the operation of such systems. Periodic maintenance and testing is required after the initial acceptance testing. This ensures these systems remain in operational condition. Signal devices, such as those required by NEC 700.7, can indicate a derangement of the emergency source and other important symptoms of possible problems with emergency systems that can lead to failure. The key is to maintain these systems, react to monitoring signals, and exercise these systems periodically, so they will function in the event of an actual emergency.

JOHNSTON is NECA’s executive director of standards and safety. He is former director of education, codes and standards for IAEI; a member of the IBEW; and an active member of the NFPA Electrical Section, Education Section and the UL Electrical Council. Reach him at

About the Author

Michael Johnston

Executive Director of Standards, NECA
Michael Johnston is NECA’s executive director of standards and safety. He is chair of the NEC Technical Correlating Committee. He served as a principal representative on NEC CMP-5 representing IAEI for the 2002, 2005, and 2008 cycles and is currently...

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