Will The Owner Know?

As a contractor, you bid on numerous fire alarm system projects based on plans and specifications developed by an engineer. You assume the engineer has discussed such things as quality and reliability with the owner because the specifications focus on those issues. In developing this example, I assume you believe the specifications and the plans constitute the basis for the fire alarm system design. I have heard some contractors excuse their failure to properly install a fire alarm system as designed by saying that they only follow the drawings and not the specifications.


Some issues arise in almost every bid process for fire alarm systems. First, the specifications may seem unclear, and you cannot get any direction from the engineer other than, “Just follow the code!” Naturally, you respond, “Which code are you referring to?”


As a matter of fact, I have seen one-sentence specifications that state just that: “Follow the code.” But for those times when the designer intends to have a reliable fire alarm system installed, yet the specifications and drawings seem unclear, you may find yourself caught in the proverbial “low-bid syndrome.”


How does it happen that you and other bidders review the same design drawings and specifications and that three out of four bids end up within a few dollars of each other while one bid comes in at hundreds of dollars less? The obvious answer: the low bidder either misread the specifications or simply didn’t grasp the nature of the fire alarm system design.


Certainly, the owner should realize the low-bid contractor made a mistake, right? While you would think so, owners frequently wrongly choose to omit bid reviews in the scope of work performed by the design engineer. The owner assumes everyone will bid the same design and specifications. Because owners typically have no knowledge of what constitutes a compliant bid, they evaluate bids solely on the basis of proposed cost. Most owners have not asked the design engineer for the metrics they should use to evaluate the bids, so they assume a spreadsheet analysis will work as well as anything else.


This problem occurs quite often, yet I don’t see many contractors trying to change the process. In these columns, I have frequently discussed educating customers. Their education must take place before the bid evaluation. You cannot sit at your desk hoping you will have time during the bid process to educate a customer about what to look for. Start the education process before you receive the call to submit a bid for the fire alarm system installation.


In cases where you have not had the opportunity to educate the owner, begin your dialogue with the customer by asking, “Was the system designed by an engineer with your fire protection goals in mind?” If the customer answers affirmatively, ask, “Will the engineer provide assistance to you in the evaluating the bids?” The answer you receive will provide insight into how the bid process will likely proceed and will guide you on the steps you should take.


Assuming the engineer will assist the owner in evaluating the bids, ensure you present your bid clearly to show how it meets the specifications, and demonstrate that you understand the nuances of this particular design.


If the answers to your questions indicate that someone else—possibly less qualified—has designed the system and that a professional will not participate in reviewing the technical aspects of the bids, you should proceed with an abundance of caution. Also, you should probably avoid bidding a project altogether where the fire alarm system specifications simply tell you to follow the code.


If you detect either of these situations, you have the opportunity to offer the owner your expertise and explain the importance of having the system designed to meet the customer’s fire protection goals. Also, when you ask these critical questions outlined above, you give the customer the opportunity to inquire why you have asked these questions. You may then demonstrate your knowledge of NFPA 72, National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code, and the International Building Code. You may help the customer understand what constitutes a reliable fire alarm system installation and why it must meet their life safety and property protection goals. Take this opportunity to discuss reliability issues of an inappropriate design and the impact a poorly designed system will have on increasing false alarms.


By educating the customer, you can help move the owner’s focus away from a spreadsheet analysis of pricing and toward a focus on a quality design and installation. Such an effort will also lessen communication mishaps.


I recall a cartoon that showed two people talking about buying a car. The bubble over the head of one person contained the drawing of a Volkswagen. The bubble over the other person’s head contained the drawing of a Cadillac. Obviously, they were not on the same page.


In the world of fire safety, if the specifications and design drawings do not clearly communicate the intent of the installation, make it your job to find out what the owner really wants and needs.

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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