The Commish

Conducting Proper tests and maintenance helps ensure an installed fire alarm system remains reliable. The new computer-based technology offered today complicates the process as building owners cannot as easily use their ordinary maintenance electricians to keep their fire alarm system in complete operating condition. In addition, the new fire alarm systems integrate with other important building systems, including mass notification, security and building automation systems. This makes the fire alarm systems more complicated to install, test and maintain.

The integration and complication of these systems make it necessary to properly commission them. “Commissioning” means more than simple acceptance testing of a fire alarm system. The National Fire Protection Association has a proposed new document, NFPA 3 2012, Recommended Practice on Commissioning and Integrated Testing of Fire Protection and Life Safety Systems.

As stated in the scope of the document, “This recommended practice provides the recommended procedures, methods, and documentation for commissioning and integrated testing of active and passive fire protection and life safety systems and their interconnections with other building systems.” The purpose of the recommended practice is to “describe the commissioning process and integrated testing that will ensure fire protection and life safety systems perform in conformity with the design intent.”

The proposed NFPA 3 explains that commissioning starts at the design process and should confirm achievement of the following items:
“(1) Documentation of the owner’s project requirements (OPR) and the basis of design (BOD) provided
“(2) Equipment and systems installed as required
“(3) Integrated testing for all integrated fire and life safety systems performed and documented
“(4) Delivery of operation and maintenance (O&M) documentation
“(5) Training of facility operating and maintenance staff
“(6) Identification and documentation of the requirements for maintaining system performance to meet the original design intent during the occupancy phase.”

These initial proposed recommendations encourage more than a simple operational test of the fire alarm system.

Commissioning is not a new concept, but it is new to fire protection. Some in the field consider it to be more than simply verifying the correct operation of a system. The new recommended practice promotes the concept that a third-party commissioning agent should become involved in the project from design through system operational verification. The process helps ensure that all life safety systems in a building work in concert with each other. It also helps ensure that the total system performance meets the owner’s goals and provides a cost-effective maintenance program.

In fact, NFPA 3 states, “Commissioning of fire protection and life safety systems should include, but not be limited to, the planning phase, design phase, construction phase, and occupancy phase.”

Recommendations include the development of a “fire protection and life safety commissioning team.” And, although the exact number and who should be on the team will vary depending on project type, size and complexity, it could include the following members:
“(1) Owner
“(2) Commissioning authority
“(3) Fire Commissioning Agent (FCxA)
“(4) Installation contractor(s)
“(5) Manufacturer’s representatives
“(6) RDP(s)
“(7) Construction manager/general contractor
“(8) Owner’s technical support personnel
“(9) Facility manager or operations personnel
“(10) Insurance representative
“(11) Third-party test entity
“(12) AHJ
“(13) Integrated testing agent (ITa)”

The document also recommends that “the commissioning plan should be continuously updated by the fire protection and life safety commissioning team throughout the planning, design, construction, and occupancy phases of the building life cycle” and that the plan should include 10 important pieces of information:
“(1) Commissioning scope and overview specific to the project
“(2) General project information
“(3) Fire protection and life safety commissioning team members, roles, and responsibilities
“(4) General communication plan and protocol
“(5) Commissioning process tasks and activities through all phases
“(6) Commissioning schedule
“(7) Commissioning process documentation and deliverables
“(8) Testing procedures, including integrated testing
“(9) Recommended training
“(10) Establishment of an integrated testing frequency, as applicable”

Although the above overview of NFPA 3 might at first seem onerous, you should remember that, as a recommended practice, it does not provide a required method of commissioning. That said, the broad goal of NFPA 3 is clearly to ensure the operational reliability of the fire alarm system. This coordinates rather well with what is, essentially, the same goal of the National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code.

The inspection, testing and maintenance chapter of NFPA 72 2010 requires that the inspection, testing and maintenance programs satisfy the requirements of the code, conform to the equipment manufacturer’s published instructions, and verify correct system operation. However, it does not mention understanding the owner’s project requirements or the basis of design, as NFPA 3 does.

NFPA 72 2010 contains the requirements for testing all fire alarm systems and, as stated in section 14.1.4, “The requirements of this chapter shall apply to both new and existing systems.”

Most problems occur during the acceptance test with the fire official present because some contractors are not familiar with the code requirements. Specifically, the acceptance test will include checking all of the other safety systems integrated with the fire alarm system. The fire official will not normally allow the fire alarm contractor to skip the integrated systems testing just because no one has coordinated their integration and operation.

Code requirements
The code requires testing personnel be qualified and experienced in the arrangement and operation of all interface equipment and emergency control functions. So, you have no excuse for not conducting the tests as required. However, if your technicians do not have the expertise, you must coordinate a multi-discipline effort with the integrated systems equipment technicians. The code gives the example of testing elevator recall operations, but the concept applies to all integrated systems.

The code recommends in the annex that a test plan “should be considered to ensure that the testing of these features is accomplished in a coordinated and timely manner. This plan should also ensure that all appropriate parties and personnel are present when needed, and that the testing requirements for both the fire alarm system and the integrated systems are fulfilled.”

NFPA 3 actually assigns specific responsibilities to the installing contractor, the manufacturer’s representative and the system design professional.

The contractor’s responsibilities include ensuring all of the commissioning services and activities appear in their scope of services, with compliance verified at each commissioning milestone. He or she must also implement the training program, attend commissioning team meetings, provide submittals and develop a test plan. Additionally, the contractor must notify all parties when the system is ready for testing, perform it, and continuously maintain the construction documents (as-built drawings).

The fire alarm supplier or manufacturer’s representative also has defined responsibilities outlined in NFPA 3. The manufacturer/supplier needs to provide technical support, the operation and maintenance manuals, and must assist the contractor in developing the test plan. The manufacturer’s representative also should assist the contractor with the installation verification and testing and with the development and implementation of the system training program.

And finally, the design professional, who develops the basis of design documents, must review and comment on all submissions as well as remain responsible for reviewing and accepting the record documents. In the NFPA 3 process, the design professional is responsible to recommend final acceptance of the systems to the owner.

Commissioning and integrating fire alarm system with other safety systems presents an important aspect of the total safety provided for the owner, his or her building, and the occupants. Not an easy task, but it’s a task that a professional contractor can certainly perform well.

MOORE, a licensed fire protection engineer, frequent speaker and an expert in the life safety field, is a past chair of the NFPA 72 Technical Correlating Committee. Moore is a principal with Hughes Associates Inc. at the Warwick, R.I., office. He can be reached at

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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