Design/Build Fire Alarm Systems

Most professional contractors are comfortable advising what building owners should include in an electrical design project; the contractors’ expertise is based on their years of experience and knowledge of the National Electrical Code. As a contractor, using that experience, you can also confidently advise the owner about which electrical products offer the most economy both from an initial installation cost and from a long-term maintenance cost.

However, you may not feel quite as confident offering advice when it comes to fire alarm systems. In addition to the state building code requirements, local jurisdictional requirements and insurance company requirements that you will need to understand, you must have a thorough working knowledge of NFPA 72 2010, the National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code.

In this regard, NFPA 72 2010 states in Section 1.2.4 that it (the code) “shall not be interpreted to require a level of protection that is greater than that which would otherwise be required by the applicable building or fire code.” And, although NFPA 72 by itself does not require you to install a fire alarm system, once the owner makes a decision to move forward on it, you must then follow the requirements in the code.
In most cases, the owner does not know what a particular building needs. He or she will rely on you, as the electrical contractor, to supply whatever components that will provide a code-compliant fire alarm system. In fact, most owner’s will simply state they want you to “just follow the code” without really knowing what the code requires. Instead, they assume that particular statement will guarantee the least expensive installation.

Because the owner relies on your expertise, you need to ask questions to ensure you meet the owner’s fire protection goals. Questions, such as the following, will serve to start a serious discussion of the owner’s goals: What is your motivation for installing the fire alarm system? What do you want to have left after a fire? Do you desire to stay in business after a fire incident?

A fire alarm system that just meets the building code constitutes a minimum of protection. Don’t assume that supplying a system that only meets the minimum requirements of the building code will satisfy what the owner really wants.

Involving the local fire official early in the design/decision process will save a lot of headaches later. The local jurisdiction may have requirements that could prove very costly if you learn about them at the time of the final acceptance test of the system. As you may have found out with previous fire alarm system installations, if the fire alarm system does not pass muster, the local jurisdiction may not permit the owner to occupy his or her building.

Remember that a fire alarm system, as outlined in NFPA 72 2010, exists “primarily to provide notification of alarm, supervisory, and trouble conditions; to alert the occupants; to summon aid; and to control emergency control functions.”

And, as stated in the code, “Fire alarm systems intended for life safety should be designed, installed, and maintained to provide indication and warning of abnormal fire conditions. The system should alert building occupants and summon appropriate aid in adequate time to allow for occupants to travel to a safe place and for rescue operations to occur. The fire alarm system should be part of a life safety plan that also includes a combination of prevention, protection, egress, and other features particular to that occupancy.”

Because the owner relies on you, especially in a design/build process, you need to ensure you have the expertise to do the job. You may need to work with a fire protection engineer to design the system. Or, you may need to work with an engineered systems distributor (ESD) to provide both design services and the equipment needed for the project.

In most states, regardless of the design/build scenario, a state-licensed professional engineer will need to perform the fire alarm system design and seal (stamp) the design drawings and specifications. Overlooking this critical requirement may prove very costly. It is another good reason to speak with the fire official early on in the planning process.

Remember that the code “establishes minimum required levels of performance, extent of redundancy, and quality of installation but does not establish the only methods by which the requirements are to be achieved.” You will always have different ways to approach the design of a fire alarm system. Based on your conversations with the owner; your knowledge of the state, local and insurance company requirements; and your own experience, you should be able to provide a cost-effective system installation.

When you attempt to work in the design/build world, your responsibilities change. In this world, you have more responsibility to provide input concerning the electrical design, which includes the fire alarm system.

Ultimately, of course, you have the responsibility to do the right thing. But, in order to do so, you must learn all you can about the proper way to install a fire alarm system.

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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