Don't Miss the Future: Retrofitting With A Mind on Future Changes

As President John F. Kennedy said: “Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.” This quote applies to all we do in the fire alarm systems business.

Buildings exist in a constant state of change. Customers often ask electrical contractors to retrofit a fire alarm system. As an EC, do you continue to design and install fire alarm systems as you have in the past, or maybe as you do now in the present? If you do not change, you will miss opportunities to grow your business.

Understand that a request for a retrofit is most often just focused on the system. Step back and look at what the building presents. For example, have renovations taken place since the first fire alarm system was installed? If so, advise the owner that a new design will need to be created to meet the code requirements. The existing system likely has out-of-date equipment and features that will not comply.

Another reason to review the building is to ensure the occupancy has remained the same since someone installed the existing system. If the occupancy has changed, consult the jurisdiction’s current building codes to determine the mandatory requirements for the new occupancy. As I have stated many times, it is wise to use the building code requirements as the starting point of any system design conversations with the owner.

At this point in any fire alarm system retrofit discussion, ask the owner and any other stakeholders what goals they have set for the building and occupancy. Based on those goals, make recommendations for any additional detection devices or other services initiated by the fire alarm system.

One more building review discussion concerns whether the existing system has experienced false alarms. Those answers would help determine whether more detection should be added or if there should be changes to the detectors in the locations that have proven most troublesome.

In gathering all of the pertinent information about the existing system, do not ignore the audibility, intelligibility and visibility of the installed notification appliances. After all, the fire alarm system is not performing its function if it does not provide proper notification to the building occupants.

Reviewing the existing notification appliance placement will provide an additional discussion point with the owner. Inevitably, the new system will need many more notification appliances, which will impact the design. Additional power supplies will be needed as well.

But, with all the above considerations, have we still missed the future, as President Kennedy stated?

What about a mass notification system to meet the owner’s future communication needs? The customer relies on your expertise for all life safety system information and may not have thought about these issues.

For example, if during review of an existing fire alarm system, you notice an aging sound or paging system. A new in-building fire emergency voice/alarm communications systems could be proposed, which the code now permits to also provide background music or internal paging.

Two final issues remain. The first concerns all other systems monitored or operated by the existing fire alarm system. Does the current system monitor the status of an automatic sprinkler or special hazard system? Does it operate a smoke control system? Do these—or other related systems—connect to the existing fire alarm system in a code-compliant manner? Will any changes need to be made to the design to accommodate these interfaced systems? Obviously, verify that any existing interfaced systems still perform in an acceptable, code-compliant manner.

The second issue relates to the future of all the building systems. Have the owners or other stakeholders considered the option of integrating all the disparate systems into a single building management system? With the advent of the internet of things, systems integration has become much more possible.

A project to retrofit a replacement fire alarm system has now taken on a whole new meaning. Prepare to expand your knowledge of what the future might bring to the fire alarm and electrical installation industry. I have no doubt that you can rise to the challenge and grow your business into the future. If you don’t grow—but choose to stay in the past or the present—you will miss the future.

About the Author

Wayne D. Moore

Fire/Life Safety Columnist

Wayne D. Moore, a licensed fire protection engineer, frequent speaker and expert in the life safety field, is a principal member and past chair of NFPA 72, Chapter 24. He is a vice president with Jensen Hughes at the Warwick, R.I., office and can be...

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