Code Change Brings Twist to Military Facility Fire Alarms

If you have not purchased and read the 2007 edition of the National Fire Alarm Code, it is possible your next fire alarm system installation in a military or government facility will hold a surprise.

Based on a requirement of a military standard, the Unified Facilities Criteria (UFC); 4-021-01, Design and O&M: Mass Notification Systems, every military facility must have a mass notification system (MNS).

The December 2002 edition of the UFC defines mass notification as “the capability to provide real-time information to all building occupants or personnel in the immediate vicinity of a building during emergency situations. To reduce the risk of mass casualties, there must be a timely means to notify building occupants of threats and what should be done in response to those threats. Prerecorded and live voice emergency messages are required by this UFC to provide this capability.”

The goal of the UFC is to ensure consistency between government agencies. However, establishing uniformity among a disparate group of military and government agencies is difficult at best.

In addition, the UFC requires the following:

  • Systems shall be designed to operate from one or more locations within the building. 
  • The Department of Defense (DoD) MNS are required in all new inhabited (more than 11 people normally working in the building) and new billeting buildings.
  • The UFC provides guidance that, in most cases, a combined fire alarm and MNS system is the most economical approach.
  • Systems shall be designed under the supervision of a registered fire protection engineer, by a registered professional engineer having at least four years of current experience in the design of fire protection and detection systems or by an engineering technician certified at National Institute for Certification of Engineering Technologies (NICET) Level IV in fire alarm systems.
  • Systems shall be capable of interfacing with wide-area MNS.
  • Systems are required to satisfy speech intelligibility requirements. Specific common intelligibility scale (CIS) scores are defined in the UFC for various conditions and branches of the military.

NFPA 72-2007, section 3.3.102 defines mass notification as a “system used to provide information and instructions to people, in a building, area site or other space.”

The code adds in the annex, a “mass notification system may use intelligible voice communications, visible signals, text, graphics, tactile or other communications methods.” The system may be used to initiate evacuation or relocation or to provide information to occupants. The system may be intended for fire emergencies, weather emergencies, terrorist events, biological, chemical or nuclear emergencies, or any combination of these. The system may be automatic, manual or both. Access to and control of the system may be from a single, on-site location or may include multiple command locations, including some remote from the area served. Systems may be wired, wireless or some combination of the two.”

Be smart about the code

This may sound innocent enough, but if you are not aware of the impact that UFC 4-021-0 had on the National Fire Alarm Code, you will lose money on your next military facility fire alarm system installation.

For the first time in the history of the code, it is allowing a nonfire alarm system notification to take precedence over a fire alarm system in an alarm condition. Specifically, NFPA 72-2007, section states in part that in “combination systems, fire alarm signals shall be distinctive, clearly recognizable and with the exception of mass notification inputs, [emphasis added] take precedence over any other signal even when a non-fire alarm signal is initiated first.”

These systems have been required due to the threat of terrorism in our country, but also can be used for other emergencies. Although it is unlikely the fire alarm system will be in an alarm condition when the other emergency occurs, the system designer must assume a worst-case scenario.

Combo voice alarm and MNS

The audible notification appliances used in a mass notification system are obviously speakers. Now with the change to the code, all fire alarm systems in a military facility will be voice communication systems and will be integrated (most of the time, depending on the branch of the military) with MNS. The various military services have realized a combination voice communication fire alarm and mass notification is the most economical approach, although the code and the UFC allow separate systems that are interfaced.

NFPA 72-2007 now has an entire Annex E dedicated to mass notification systems with plans in the future for this annex to become a separate chapter within the code. The annex contains additional information as it relates to each chapter of the code and offers guidance to those who will be installing these new systems.

The importance of coordinating the functions of a mass notification system with those of a fire alarm system to ensure effective communication in an emergency situation is stressed. Obviously, conflicting or competing signals or messages could be very confusing to the occupants and have a negative impact on their expected response. If independent systems are used, it is critical to interface the systems properly to ensure all related control functions are coordinated and response or egress is not hindered.

MNS and emergency voice/alarm communications (EVAC) are designed for the protection of life by indicating an emergency condition exists and providing instructions, either manually or automatically, to the occupants to ensure they will take the necessary and appropriate response and action. The properly designed MNS/EVAC system will provide the occupants with concise, accurate, timely and well-directed messages that communicate how the occupants should react during a variety of emergency situations.

It is important that the contractor be aware of the different requirements as specified in each branch of the military. As stated earlier, the goal of the UFC is to ensure consistency between government agencies. The sidebar highlights some requirements for each branch of the military.

There are many military installations where mass notification systems already have been installed. One of the major issues for the contractor is how to hit the moving target of requirements. Obviously, it will be important for the contractor to work closely with a supplier who understands the nuances and different requirements for each branch of the military (and General Services Administration) for these important systems.

Partly because of the work of the U.S. Air Force with the National Fire Alarm Code Technical Committees, there are many commercial, nonmilitary institutions requiring MNS in their facilities. Educational, industrial and large corporate entities have embraced the mass notification concept and are installing these systems in their new buildings.

As with any system affecting the life safety of building occupants, contractors should be aware of the owner’s objectives and goals. For those who wish to review the Unified Facilities Criteria (UFC); 4-021-01, Design and O&M: Mass Notification Systems in more detail, a downloadable version of the standard is available on the Internet.

Remember the professional installing technician and contractor has an obligation to stay abreast of new developments in the field, such as MNS, and use that knowledge to help support the life safety parameters of the building and its occupants.           

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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