Fire Alarm Longevity: Turning System Maintenance Into Recurring Revenue

Many contractors wish for some form of recurring revenue that keeps on giving while they keep busy bidding or working on their installation projects. Fire alarm system maintenance can meet this goal. As with any business objective, you must first develop a strategy and provide the right training for technicians.

This strategy includes marketing and selling periodic inspection, testing and maintenance (ITM) contracts; obtaining software to properly track the testing periods; developing the standard documentation of ITMs; and determining how much to invest in keeping replacement parts in stock.

Once you have developed a plan to sell periodic ITM services, it is time to ensure a rapid response to on-call maintenance or system-trouble requests. The key to everything in the field of life safety revolves around the necessity to maintain all fire protection, in this case fire alarm systems, with little to no downtime for the protection system.

Of course, nothing happens without sales, but you probably don’t have enough “personal bandwidth” to sell periodic ITM contracts while still bidding and supervising electrical and fire alarm system installations.

The easy first step in the sales of periodic ITM is approaching the owners of your previous fire alarm system installations and offering a free system audit. After completing the audit, if any faults are discovered—there likely will be some—offer repairs and an ITM contact. This first step will help turn increased safety—in this case through fire alarm systems’ ITM—into some form of recurring revenue.

In my opinion, the better way to improve profits in providing ITM contracts is when you establish a separate division or profit center within the present company to deal strictly with all ITM sales and administration.

Knowing the periodic ITM requirements of NFPA 72 2016, National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code, will help those assigned to the ITM group understand the services needed and how to best sell ITM contracts. The reason I have specifically referenced the 2016 edition of NFPA 72 is because Chapter 14, Inspection, Testing and Maintenance, is the only chapter in NFPA 72 that applies to new and existing systems (see Section 14.1.4).

The code also helps make periodic ITM sales relatively easy by having salespeople inform the system owners of their code-required responsibility. Section 14.2.3.1 clearly states, “The property or building or system owner or the owner’s designated representative shall be responsible for inspection, testing, and maintenance of the system and for alterations or additions to this system.”

The periodic testing of fire alarm and signaling systems is performed in a different manner than a complete system acceptance test that is performed on new system installations. In many cases, the system size will dictate how much, and at what intervals, the required testing will be performed.

The code requires testing various parts of the system to occur at different frequencies. At any one test, you will likely test only a fraction of the system. The code reminds us in the Annex A discussions on testing that “Periodic testing contributes to the assurance of operational and mission reliability but does not ensure either.”

However, we can expect a higher reliability for all systems that receive complete tests at least annually. In addition, the code allows periodic testing of the interface between a fire alarm or signaling system and some other system or emergency control function to occur without operating the interfaced system or function.

For example, owners will often insist they do not want to shut down HVAC systems or initiate smoke control systems too often. Repeated operation of these types of interfaced system could cause damage.

Understand what other functions or systems connect to the fire alarm system. If an owner asks for integrated systems testing, you will need to know the requirements of NFPA 4, Standard for Integrated Fire Protection and Life Safety System Testing.

Another caution: never assume that, during the acceptance test, the system received a complete test. Also, never assume, because the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) accepted the system, a complete test was performed. We don’t know what issues might have arisen during the original acceptance test, either with regard to system installation, or from pressure to approve the system by the AHJ’s superior, owner, system designer or some other stakeholder.

Both salespeople and technicians will need to know if the system design intended to meet a specific mission or goal. For example, during the acceptance testing of the notification appliances’ audibility, the ambient noise level did not reach the level of the original design. If the occupancy conditions at the time of the test did not properly simulate normal conditions, the measured values would be inaccurate.

As stated in Annex A of Chapter 14, “At this stage of a system’s life, the responsibilities for such inspections rest with the designers of the systems and with the various applicable authorities having jurisdiction.” The system designers should have already documented and communicated the design audibility levels to the AHJ.

Although you should always ask for the as-built drawings whenever you intend to issue an ITM contract for the periodic testing of a fire alarm system, in most cases, the system will need to be audited to determine the existing equipment and how it should operate.

The documentation for system testing is important. Chapter 7, Section 7.8.2 of the code spells out the forms required for recording the results of ITM activities. Also, the code requires the retention of all fire alarm system test records until the next test and for one year thereafter. NFPA 72 2016 does permit you to maintain records either on paper or electronically if the media used will survive the retention period required. Additionally, provide the AHJ with a hard copy of the record.

Both Chapter 14 and Chapter 7 of the code contain numerous other requirements to become familiar with. NFPA 72 also requires service personnel to meet specific qualifications. As described in Annex A14.2.3.6, this means service personnel should: “(1) Understand the requirements contained in NFPA 72 and the fire alarm requirements contained in NFPA 70, (2) Understand basic job-site safety laws and requirements, (3) Apply troubleshooting techniques, and determine the cause of fire alarm system trouble conditions, (4) Understand equipment specific requirements, such as programming, application, and compatibility, (5) Read and interpret fire alarm system design documentation and manufacturer’s inspection, testing, and maintenance guidelines.”

Finally, do not make the common mistake of assuming ITM can be performed on every manufacturer’s fire alarm system. Develop a plan for educating service personnel and ensuring there are open avenues to obtain replacement parts for those found to be defective during testing.

The only way to turn fire alarm system maintenance contracts into recurring revenue is to have a well-thought-out plan, develop your team’s capabilities, and ensure they know the current code and technical requirements for the proper ITM of all the systems under contract.

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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