Fire Alarms: Not Just Another Low-Voltage Installation

For some, installing fire alarms is a lucrative sideline. For many, it is a full-time pursuit. But whatever your level of involvement, everyone agrees on a few things: • Fire alarm systems are a life-and-death issue and their installation and maintenance must be undertaken with the highest level of responsibility from everyone involved. • The fire alarm market is growing, and presents even more opportunities for the electrical contractor to get involved in other low-voltage areas. • Performing turnkey fire system installations requires commitment, understanding practices and codes, and keeping up with new technologies and developments. Electrical contractors’ expanding role in fire alarm systems is increasing Fire alarm systems work is increasingly diverse and the electrical contractor is increasingly involved in it. This role can range from dragging wire, to design/build, to performing scheduled system maintenance and repairs of existing systems. Whatever your degree of involvement in the installation and maintenance process, whether you are simply pulling line, providing the turnkey design/build service, or performing a scheduled system check, everyone should be totally clear on his or her role. Unless everyone is totally focused, someone might cost the lives of innocent people. The role of fire codes The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), which publishes the National Electrical Code (NEC), is currently developing the first consensus-based building code. Gary Keith, NFPA’s vice president for regional operations, explained that the NFPA is unique among the code-writing bodies, because all its standards and codes are the product of a genuine “consensus-based” process. This means that feedback and suggestions from all sources, including those who are out in the real world performing the installations and encountering the challenges, play an essential role in developing all NFPA codes including the NEC, The NFPA 101 Life Safety Code, and the forthcoming NFPA Building Code. Keith emphasized that the NFPA is the only code-writing authority that the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) certifies as “consensus based.” The existing body of codes provided by NFPA and the new NFPA Building Code are all “hands-on” dynamic documents, which are reviewed and revised continually. Keith advised that the code will be presented to the NFPA membership for approval in May of 2002. The approved code is scheduled to be issued in August of 2002. Lee Richardson, senior electrical engineer of NFPA, said that fire alarm system installation requirements originate with the Life Safety Code, NFPA 101, and local building codes. “These codes establish occupancy-based requirements, including the requirement to have a fire alarm system and many of the basic performance attributes that the system must have. These overall rules for the system form the basis for applying the rules in the National Fire Alarm Code (NFPA 72).” NEC Article 760, Fire Alarm Systems, provides special rules that allow the use of specific types of cables permitted for fire alarm circuit applications. Such cables are generally more cost-effective to install than normal wiring methods used for lighting and power circuits. All wiring for fire alarm systems must be installed in strict accordance with NEC Article 760. National Fire Alarm Code rules address three major activities associated with fire alarm system installations, including their design, installation, and testing and maintenance. The rules for all three activities are interrelated and the code includes personnel qualifications in each of these areas. NFPA 72 requires that the system designer be identified on the system design documents and requires that the designer developing the plans and specifications for fire alarm systems be experienced in the proper design, application, installation, and testing of fire alarm systems. Evidence of qualifications must be provided when requested by the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ). The National Fire Alarm Code requires that qualified and experienced persons in the installation, inspection, and testing of fire alarm systems supervise installation personnel. The code provides three examples of qualified personnel, one of which includes “personnel licensed or certified by state or local authority” for fire alarm system installation. This rule requires both qualification and experience. One of the final steps involved in fire alarm system installation is the initial acceptance testing. The code requires that testing personnel be both qualified and experienced in the inspection, testing, and maintenance of fire alarm systems. The code provides five examples of qualified personnel, including individuals “certified by a state or local authority” for testing, inspection, and maintenance of fire alarm systems. The installing contractor must know the design, installation, and testing aspects of the job. NFPA 72 rules are highly oriented to the system design and performance, and the system installation must reflect this and comply with the design specifications and standards approved by the AHJ. A specific code requirement is that, if required by the AHJ, the installing contractor must furnish a written statement that the system has been installed in accordance with the approved plans and tested in accordance with the manufacturer’s specifications and the appropriate NFPA requirements. Codes and standards also require that proper firestops be in place. What follows are specifics on which codes and standards you need to learn before commencing any firestopping work. Firestopping “101” Don Falconer, technical manager for A/D Fire Protection Systems, explained firestopping’s importance to the total fire protection plan. “North American building codes require proper firestops to ensure the integrity of rated assemblies is maintained where they are penetrated by openings for building services such as cables, cable trays, conduits, pipes, ducts, etc. Electrical contractors may be responsible to properly firestop the services they install if they penetrate fire rated floors, walls, roofs, and ceilings. Sometimes the general contractor or a specialist firestopping contractor does the firestop work.” Buildings are divided into fire compartments to protect life and property. Those fire compartments are formed of fire separations comprising fire-resistive floors, walls, and roofs. Those fire-rated assemblies are assigned fire-resistance ratings, expressed in hours or fractions thereof, on the basis of standard fire tests in accordance with the standard ASTM E-119, Standard Method of Fire Resistance Tests of Building Construction and Materials. Firestop systems are tested in accordance with the standards ASTM E-814 and ANSI/UL 1479, Fire Tests of Through Penetration Firestops. That test method evaluates the firestop system in terms of the passage or occurrence of flame (F Rating) and temperature rise limitations (T Rating) on the nonfire side. Building codes relate the fire protection rating (F and/or T Rating) required for firestop systems to the fire resistance rating of the assemblies they penetrate. Appropriate firestop systems must be selected and properly installed to maintain the integrity of the fire separation. Tested firestop systems are published by the independent testing and certification agencies including Underwriters’ Laboratories (UL), Intertek Testing Services (ITS), Underwriters’ Laboratories of Canada (ULC), and Factory Mutual (FM) Testing Services. The selected system must represent the construction of the fire separation (floor, wall, or roof); size of opening through that assembly; type(s), quantity, and spacing of the penetrating item (i.e., cable or pipe); firestop system component(s) used; and required rating. Regarding installation training, Falconer said, “There may be jurisdictions where firestopping is required to be done by a separate trade per union regulations or per specification. Most manufacturers offer a contractor training and certification program. Organizations are forming to certify contractors doing firestop installations, such as the International Firestop Council (IFC). Falconer also said, “Any time a fire separation is penetrated by openings for building services, it should be assumed that a firestop system is required by the applicable building code. It could apply to nearly all buildings except single-family residential or to both retrofit and new construction.” Falconer distinguishes between “fireproofing” and “firestopping” by saying, “The former involves the application of sprayed fire-resistive materials to structural steel and concrete to protect them from fire. This has nothing to do with firestopping or electrical contractors.” When asked if electrical contractors may be required to apply firestop as part of the process of providing a “completed project,” Falconer said, “There have been many well-documented fires where the movement of smoke, hot gases, and fire through openings has contributed to loss of life at points remote from the location of fire origin. In the mid to late ’70s, North American code-writing bodies began to address the need for firestops to prevent the movement of smoke in the event of a fire.” Ernest Power III, general manager of Power Communication Systems, San Diego said, “Some of us whose primary work is in the fire alarm section feel strongly that the typical electrical contractor who opens a low-voltage division doesn’t recognize the cost of the fire alarm learning curve, nor the time and expense required to stay current.” According to Power, “Fire alarm professionals are not wholesalers, they’re system specialists, familiar with their product and its proper application to provide safe environments and code-compliant systems. This is not to say that electrical contractors should not or could not install systems in accordance with a set of complete plans and point to points. It’s the selection and application of the devices and codes that should be done by specialists...I’m afraid too many electricians try the fire alarm work and learn the codes and safety requirements after the AHJs start ripping them.” Demand for fire alarms and services is growing so rapidly that you can’t afford to wait and learn the corresponding codes and standards on the job, as the following statistics demonstrate. U.S. security industry markets register 300 to 5,000 percent 20-year gains The demand for security-related products and central station monitoring services has grown at phenomenal rates since 1980. Markets such as fire alarm/detection, burglar alarms, and central station monitoring have logged respectable 20-year growth in the 300 percent range. The fire alarm/detection market is heavily dependent on commercial building starts; however, growth is predictable because code mandates these technologies. In the burglar alarm and central station monitoring arenas enhanced sensors, customer interfaces, and service levels drive the demand. Fire prevention, detection, and suppression systems Even where fire prevention is treated separately from security, security managers may be responsible for obtaining devices that protect firefighting equipment from theft and vandalism and for purchasing fire-resistant safes and filing cabinets. Also, fire detection and suppression systems are sometimes tied into building-wide electronic security systems, or both security and fire systems may be tied together into a building automation system that also controls heating, ventilating, and air conditioning. Commercial fire alarm system installations, including existing systems, installations in new buildings, and new installations in existing buildings, are estimated at $3 billion and will continue to grow at a 3 to 5 percent rate. The market covers all categories of commercial building occupancies, so it will tend to be balanced by the upward and downward construction trends within the individual 11 categories listed in the chart. Other shifts and factors resulting in a net increase in the annual fire market include further development in the addressable and analog technologies, increased requirements for alarm notification appliances, and power supplies to support them. New building construction represents $600 million, modernization $1,800 million, and upgrades $600 million. This is an estimated requirement for 320,000 systems annually: 65,000 for new construction, 190,000 for modernization, and 65,000 for upgrades. The modernization and upgrade of 255,000 buildings in a year may seem high, but they only represent 5 percent of the country’s inventory of commercial buildings, meaning that buildings are upgraded an average of once every 20 years. Fire alarm/detection market logs 274 percent 20-year growth The fire alarm/detection market has exhibited steady growth since 1980, almost doubling each decade. The market is heavily dependent on commercial building starts, and it dips when the construction market falls back. But overall it’s stable because unlike other security-related technologies, it is mandated by code. The Americans With Disabilities Act of the 1990s and related codes requiring smoke detectors and sprinkler systems in lodging and educational facilities and multi-family dwellings have been good news for this segment. The proliferation of analog addressable systems and graphical displays in the early 1990s gave many customers their first user-friendly experiences with fire systems. The bulk of this year’s fire alarm system installations will be performed in response to the modernization of buildings less than 10,000 square feet in size, according to Sandra Jones & Company and FIREPRO Incorporated. Said FIREPRO Incorporated’s President Lee DeVito, “Fire alarm system upgrades typically occur when building ownership changes or the occupants are improving the appearance of their buildings. Fire systems tend to get updated along with the plumbing.” Conventional smoke detector manufacturers are raising the bar by adding software-driven features, such as drift compensation to increase overall reliability and decrease false alarms. During the last several years, maintenance communication and installation features have been added to detectors; some units can also detect temperature. Office buildings and retailers were the biggest commercial fire alarm system customers in 2000, representing 44 percent of the market. From a marketing standpoint, the fire segment’s challenge is to increase its technology’s importance to the security industry, according to Tom Precht, director, security marketing for System Sensor, St. Charles, Ill. “On the market end, incorporating monitored smoke detection with a home security system helps justify monitoring fees so recurring revenue is retained. Fire can become a higher percentage of revenues within the security industry if we combine dealer/installer education with the technical advances.” Ken Berson, director of business development at The Gamewell Company, Ashland, Mass., said, “The electrical contractor has always been involved in the installation of fire alarm equipment (specifically in new work). There are increased opportunities in the areas of installations in existing facilities.” Berson said these contractors should, “select a solid ESD [The Engineering Society] that has access to the equipment and has been trained in all aspects of the system.” The electrical contractor needs to ensure that the ESD The Engineering Society has the service capability to take care of any issues that come up. Service is not just a post-installation issue. It also should include the up-front planning, drawings etc., that ensure a clean submittal process and a straightforward installation. He also suggested that they “align with the professional ESDs in the area. Bid fire alarm-only installations that come up, not just when they are a part of a larger job.” Berson also advised taking advantage of the training opportunities available from the local ESD The Engineering Society and fire alarm manufacturers. The total low-voltage system arena poses increased training requirements, including licensing, certifications, such as NICET Level 3 in fire alarms, along with access to CAD services and other increased staffing requirements. False alarms in the United States In 1999, U.S. fire departments responded to 2,039,000 false alarms. Of all false alarms, 901,500 are estimated to have resulted from a system malfunction, 304,000 were malicious, and 605,000 were unintentional. Some 228,500 others included bomb scares. In conclusion, never allow other issues to take precedence over doing a high-quality and careful job; make training resources available and mandatory for everyone working on fire projects; and keep up with the newest technologies, code changes, and recognized practices for the systems you provide, in the market you serve. O’LEARY is a security consultant and technical writer based in Central Virginia. He can be reached at

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