Compare And Contrast

For healthcare facilities, many states use only National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 101, Life Safety Code, because it is the code that the joint commission references. However, some states use the International Building Code (IBC) with the fire alarm requirements from NFPA 101 instead of the International Fire Code. 

What if the requirements conflict? The prevailing method is to use the most restrictive requirement, but that approach may not always work. State laws regarding promulgation of the codes vary. For example, Georgia (where I live) adopted both the IBC and NFPA 101, but through state law, the fire alarm requirements adhere to NFPA 101. Still, it is a good idea to be familiar with the differences, and it is always a good idea to verify the requirements with the local authorities having jurisdiction (AHJs).

Let’s review some significant differences between the 2015 editions of the IBC and NFPA 101. The document structures are completely different. For instance, the IBC contains fire alarm requirements by occupancy in Chapter 9, Section 907. Also, Chapter 4 contains some specific requirements for special occupancies, such as high-rise buildings, covered malls, atriums, underground buildings and institutional occupancies. The IBC contains no requirements for existing buildings. Those are in Chapter 11 of the International Fire Code. 

In NFPA 101, each occupancy type has two chapters—one for new and one for existing. Modifying a fire alarm system or installing a new system in an existing building will follow the appropriate requirements. It is also helpful to note that the fire alarm requirements are always in paragraph 3.4 of each occupancy chapter.

There are some significant differences in the two documents’ fire alarm code requirements. First, for assembly occupancies, the threshold for installing an emergency voice alarm communications system (EVACS) is an occupant load of more than 1,000 for the IBC and more than 300 for NFPA 101. Also note that, in the IBC, all emergency messages must be broadcast using an EVACS, while in NFPA 101, most occupancies allow a paging system to be used.

Another significant change is the requirement for an EVACS in educational occupancies. In the IBC, any educational occupancy over 100 people requires an EVACS. NFPA 101 contains no similar requirement.

In hotels, the IBC (Group R-1) requires smoke detectors in sleeping-room corridors regardless of whether a fire sprinkler system is installed. NFPA 101 allows these smoke detectors to be eliminated in fully sprinklered buildings.

In 2012, a new IBC requirement for college or university dormitories specified that system smoke detectors must be installed in common spaces outside of dwelling units and sleeping units, in laundry rooms, in equipment and storage rooms, and in all corridors serving sleeping units or dwelling units. This requirement is exclusive to dorm buildings under the control of a college or university, not all apartments, even if the off-campus apartment houses students. Again, NFPA 101 has no similar requirements. 

The IBC references the International Mechanical Code for duct-detector installations. It requires only duct detectors on the return side of air handler units over 2,000 cubic feet per minute (cfm). In contrast, NFPA 101 references NFPA 90A, Standard for the Installation of HVAC Systems, which requires a duct detector on the supply side on air handlers over 2,000 cfm and on the return side of units over 15,000 cfm and serving more than one story.

NFPA 101 allows smoke detectors used exclusively for recalling elevators, closing dampers or shutting down heating, ventilating and air conditioning (HVAC) systems to be supervisory signals and not activate the building evacuation alarm. The IBC does not have similar provisions.

For high-rise buildings, NFPA 101 does not have any special smoke detector requirements other than what the occupancy chapters require. The IBC requires additional smoke detectors in mechanical, electrical, transformer and telephone equipment or similar rooms not provided with sprinklers.

The IBC and NFPA 101 began adding carbon-monoxide requirements in the 2012 editions and increased the requirements in 2015. The requirements are relatively the same.

The above covers most of the significant changes between the two most used codes. It is always best to be on the safe side and discuss fire alarm requirements with your AHJ before you submit a bid.

About the Author
Tom Hammerberg

Thomas P. Hammerberg

Life Safety Columnist

Thomas P. Hammerberg, SET, CFPS is an independent fire alarm presenter and consultant in The Villages, Fla. He can be reached at

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