Promote Pandemic Safety: Maintain and upgrade fire alarm systems in empty buildings

iStock / Art Is Me / Lolon / AlonzoDesign
iStock / Art Is Me / Lolon / AlonzoDesign

The COVID-19 Pandemic has changed our lives in many ways. Being under lockdown to avoid the spread of the virus has required that those of us who are able work from home instead of reporting to our office buildings. This has left office buildings mostly unoccupied and turned the commercial rental sector on its head. Some tenants have had to close their companies, reducing rental income. It costs building owners money to heat, cool and maintain offices to stay ready for the workforce’s eventual return. However, corporate owners are realizing that a combination of working from home and working in the office may be the best option in the future.

How can you turn this pandemic chaos into profitable work?

First, explain to customers that now— while the building is empty—is a perfect time to perform a complete annual test and inspection of their fire alarm systems. With the building empty, you can check all the notification appliances to ensure they are working and not have to perform this phase of the tests after-hours at greater expense to the owner.

Second, you should inquire about customers’ maintenance staff. There is a good chance there have been layoffs where the owner has decided they can’t afford to bring certain people back due to the reduced rental revenues. You may find opportunities to fill in for the tasks previously performed by in-house maintenance staff. Industry prognostications indicate that more companies are outsourcing. Contract employees are a normal extension of the owner’s business and need to properly represent their company and brand. With the workforce shifting to a higher percentage of contract workers, it is key for businesses to integrate contractors as if they were their own employees. This is obviously an advantage where those owners were using their own facility people to perform the fire alarm maintenance work.

In colder climates, building owners often try to reduce costs by lowering the heat to compensate for reduced rental income. Advise customers to be diligent in maintaining the heat at a minimum of 40°F. This will ensure that the sprinkler piping will not freeze. Otherwise, you will be getting a call when the heat is raised, occupants return to the building and the sprinkler piping fails, causing a serious water problem in the building.

I realize that you may not be not an automatic sprinkler system contractor, but you need to ensure the waterflow device will work when the disaster strikes. Understand that your fire alarm control unit (FACU) is not designed to operate below 32°F either, so you may experience multiple trouble signals and possible nonoperation or false alarms in addition to possible automatic sprinkler system freeze-ups.

The same holds true for electronic fire alarm system equipment. Be aware of the potential for water incursion at the FACU, which could take down the unit or the whole system. Also, ensure the battery standby is enough to operate during outages.

Hopefully, you have an audit of your customer’s fire alarm system that will help you know whether the FACU is obsolete. If so, you should notify the owner in writing that they have an obsolete panel and that there may be difficulty in finding a replacement if that work is needed. You should also inform the owner how much of the existing system will need to be replaced to bring the building back online. Additionally, advise the owner that the fire marshal may require a fire watch in the building during the unplanned system outage, using fire department personnel, which further increases the replacement costs. While work is underway, watch out for any damage to the FACU that could create an emergency system retrofit.

Another issue to check is the AC feed to the FACU. When the owner decides to turn off power to unoccupied parts of the building, you will want to ensure the FACU feed is properly marked and locked to avoid mistakenly interrupting the power to the fire alarm system. This issue may apply to multiple floors where fire alarm system control equipment resides. If the building fire alarm system is not monitored by a remote supervising station, you should strongly recommend the owner connect to one. You and the owner need to be alerted to system faults caused by low temperature in the building and possible water flows.

Remodeling or reconfiguring

Query customers to determine if they may be thinking of reconfiguring their buildings in part or completely. The open-plan office trend to encourage employee collaboration does not appear feasible anymore. It goes without saying that reconfiguring the building in almost any way will change the fire alarm system needs. If the owner reconfigures an open floor plan into closed offices, that will greatly affect the audibility of notification appliances and will no doubt require a redesign of the notification appliance layout and possibly call for additional power supplies.

Reconfiguring the spaces may also dictate the need for additional protection.

Some progressive customers may upgrade their building systems while their buildings are empty. Here is another area where you need to be involved early in that process. One example would be the required installation of duct smoke detectors. Another very important change could be an upgrade to the building management system (BMS), which may affect the fire alarm system operation. The new BMS may also be configured to provide a smoke control system, which normally would dictate a changeout of the FACU to one that is listed for smoke control use.

Finally, smart technology has made tremendous gains in the past few years. Customers may have decided to move forward with plans to convert their building using smart technology. Smart technologies with an established track record can be deployed to address many issues in buildings. In fact, there are some who believe smart technologies are poised for wider use in the next five years. When you step up to help in this area, the customer will take notice and you will be on your way to becoming a trusted adviser.

The bottom line to all is this: you should know that in the middle of every challenge lies opportunity. You should take the focus off the negative effects we are experiencing from the COVID-19 pandemic and focus on customers’ needs during these challenging times. A better understanding of what might be needed to meet customers’ challenges will help develop opportunities going forward. Establishing best practices for building trust, engaging, monitoring, measuring and evaluating customers’ needs more efficiently will build sales and profits. Help the customer build a better business continuity plan for our new normal, and remind them that the pandemic does not change the fact that fires still happen. Despite all the distractions, fire safety remains important.

Remember the axiom taught by motivational writer and speaker Zig Ziglar, who said, “You can have everything in life you want, if you will just help enough other people get what they want.”

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...

Stay Informed Join our Newsletter

Having trouble finding time to sit down with the latest issue of
ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR? Don't worry, we'll come to you.