Fire Alarm System Upgrades

New technologies add layers of safety and security

Fire alarm systems, like everything else, don’t last forever; periodically, they must be upgraded due to old age, nuisance alarms, lightning damage or because of a building expansion. Whatever the reason, there are numerous issues to consider before the system can be upgraded successfully.

Design considerations

Regardless of the reason for the upgrade, or the level of expansion to an existing system, it is important to have the assistance of a qualified designer. This is an important first step; installation problems become more prevalent without a proper design. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 72 National Fire Alarm Code (2002), Section 4.3.2, contains requirements for the fire alarm system designer. “Fire alarm system plans and specifications shall be developed in accordance with this Code by persons who are experienced in the proper design, installation and testing of fire alarm systems,” according to the code.

As with all fire alarm systems, cheaper is not always better. A good designer should be able to provide cost-versus-value information. Consider using a well-qualified fire protection engineer for the design. Regardless of whether the technician is a fire protection engineer (FPE) or an electrical engineer, the owner should ensure the engineer has fire alarm design experience. There are too many engineers designing fire alarm systems who are not qualified and should not be doing so.

The engineer is responsible for the design and overall operation of the system. The fire alarm contractor is responsible for the installation and specific operation of the system. Unfortunately, unqualified engineers typically provide only very basic information to the installers and leave it up to them to actually design it. For example, it should be the responsibility of the designer to evaluate the fire risks and potential sources of problems. The type of smoke detectors used should be specified by the engineer based on this evaluation as well. Designers should have a sound understanding of the applicable building and fire codes. They need to understand the interface and interaction of fire alarm systems with other building features, like smoke control systems, suppression systems, elevators, heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems.

Since Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and Joint Commission on Accreditation of Health Care Organizations (JHACO) reference NFPA 101, The Life Safety Code, it is especially important fire alarm contractors are proficient in that code as well. Designers should consult with the authorities having jurisdiction (AHJs) to ensure they meet any local amendments or interpretations of the codes. If involved on a Veterans Affairs (VA) project, they also should be familiar with Department of Veteran Affairs Fire Protection Design Manual. The designers should have personnel available to respond to requests for information (RFIs), visit the job site frequently to ensure the system is being installed per their design and meet with the construction teams to answer questions and provide input.

A significant change from the 2003 to the 2006 edition of NFPA 101 allows new systems installed in an existing facility to meet the requirements of the existing building chapter instead of meeting the requirements of the new building chapter. This is now found in Chapter 43, Building Rehabilitation, in Section It reads, “All new work shall comply with the requirements of this Code applicable to existing buildings.” The exception to this applies to residential board and care occupancies, which require smoke alarms to be installed meeting the new construction requirements.

In some cases, upgrading the fire alarm system triggers the need to upgrade other building features as well. How old is the elevator system? Will it meet today’s elevator codes?

In our cost-driven world, it is the lowest bidder who often gets the job. This does not always equate to the best value. Many of these low bidders are counting on change orders to make up for their low bid price. Poor designers put clauses in the specifications not allowing change orders, but this is just a way to cover up for their poor design. It is difficult to get the job if you try to design it yourself to meet code because many others will bid only what they think they can get away with. Too many times, these low bidders get the job because the AHJ is not fully qualified in understanding the code requirements. This usually is because their training budgets are not adequate or they don’t have enough personnel to handle the workload. If the AHJ approves fire alarm systems that don’t meet code and lets them get installed that way, the owner is not only not getting a good product for the price, but they may be getting an unsafe system that cannot save lives as it should. Since NFPA states owners are the ones responsible for the system, they assume greater liability.

Installation considerations

A fire alarm system may be upgraded for one of two reasons. A new system may need to be installed for a new wing and get connected to an existing system. In many cases, especially relatively old properties, the existing fire alarm system is a nonaddressable zoned system that is just about maxed out with little or no expansion capabilities. Interconnecting or interfacing two systems with the idea of having them operate as one can cause numerous headaches, especially when trying to reset an alarm.

In many cases, replacing the existing system due to its age or damage to the existing system may be necessary. First and foremost, the building is occupied now, and access to all areas will not be as easy as in a new, vacant building. This can be especially disruptive in a hospital.

These questions need to be answered prior to system upgrade:
  • Can any of the existing fire alarm devices still be used?Are they compatible with the new system?
  • Are they installed in all locations required by today’s codes?
  • What changes will have to be made to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)?

If the original system was installed prior to 1990, it may not comply with ADA requirements. Manual pull stations may have to be lowered to the proper height, and strobe lights may have to be added. Upgrading a fire alarm system is one of the triggers that would require upgrading the building to meet ADA requirements.

The existing fire alarm wiring may not be compatible with the new system and may have to be replaced. Remember that the National Electrical Code (NEC) stipulates that abandoned cables above drop ceilings must be removed. The same would apply to abandoned fire alarm devices. They must be removed so they do not give the impression they are providing fire protection.

Equally important, only qualified fire alarm contractors should install systems. According to NFPA 72 (2002), “Installation personnel shall be supervised by persons who are qualified and experienced in the installation, inspection and testing of fire alarm systems.” These individuals should be factory trained on the control equipment to be installed and should be knowledgeable of the applicable codes. Each installer should be a minimum of National Institute for Certification in Engineering Technologies (NICET) Level 2 certified.

Maintenance and service

Not only should the installation price be considered, but the type of system overall can affect long-term costs. Maintenance costs are an important issue to consider in determining the value of the system. For instance, an addressable fire alarm system capable of checking sensitivity of the detectors automatically and handling other supervisory functions may be more cost-effective with regards to maintenance than a conventional analog system that must have the detector’s sensitivity checked manually.

In addition, the wrong type of smoke detectors can lead to an increase in nuisance or false alarms. This includes duct smoke detectors as well as area detectors. No one will dispute smoke detectors from 20 years ago had real false alarm problems, but new smoke detectors are less susceptible to false alarms. If detectors are causing problems, it is either because the wrong device has been installed for the application or environment or it has not been installed properly.  

Today’s technology has improved dramatically to reduce potential causes of nuisance alarms. Newer generation smoke detectors are better adapted for harsh environments, such as elevator shafts. Some can distinguish between fire and cigarette smoke. New multisensor detectors incorporate more than one technology to analyze fire signatures to reduce false alarms. The newest technology to hit the market is video smoke detection. These detectors use cameras to alert someone of a potential fire source, so the responding person can make a quick determination of whether there is a fire.

Mass notification

Information on mass notification systems (MNS) is the latest addition to the codes. NFPA 72 added a new annex on mass notification systems in its 2007 edition. This type of system is used when there may be a need to notify many people quickly for emergencies other than a fire condition. NFPA 72 added language that would allow a fire alarm system to be used for mass notification purposes so an additional system would not be required. In fact, there is new language that will allow a mass notification system to take priority over a fire alarm signal.

Integrated systems combine the functions of the fire alarm, security and building management into one design, and, of course, this presents additional challenges. However, a qualified fire protection installer and designer with an eye to the codes should be ready to deploy the best methods necessary to protect lives and property.           

HAMMERBERG, SET, CFPS is president/executive director of the Automatic Fire Alarm Association Inc. headquartered in Lake Mary, Fla.. Hammerberg is on the NFPA 72 Technical Correlating, Protected Premises and Testing & Maintenance committees and is editor of the Testing & Maintenance chapter of the NFPA 72 Handbook, NFPA 90A, NFPA 101/5000 Building Services & Fire Protection Equipment Committee and the ICC Industry Advisory Committee. He can be reached at


About the Author

Thomas P. Hammerberg

Life Safety Columnist
Thomas P. Hammerberg, SET, CFPS is president of Hammerberg & Associates Inc. He serves as Director of Industry Relations for the Automatic Fire Alarm Association (AFAA) Inc. and represents the association on a number of NFPA committees, including the...

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