Stay True: False Alarms

In the January 2012 issue of Campus Safety Magazine, Robin Hattersley-Gray reported from a 2011 survey stating that “more than half of university, hospital and K–12 school district fire protection professionals rate system maintenance (57 percent) and false alarms (53 percent) as two of their top four campus fire protection concerns.” She also reported that these numbers represent an increase over the 2010 numbers by 9 percent for system maintenance and 6 percent for false alarms.

Additionally, 60 percent of hospital fire professionals indicated system maintenance as their most troubling issue. Both system maintenance and false alarms represent challenges to those of us who believe that fire alarm systems provide needed protection for the occupants of buildings. Of course, these statistics also represent significant opportunities for the professional contractor.

A goal of any professional fire alarm systems contractor is to ensure that all fire alarm systems for which they are responsible will operate as intended. Your goals should also include becoming a problem-solver for the owner. In the case of the statistics reported above, the challenge becomes the maintenance of the fire alarm system and the false alarms that may have occurred. The building owner does not want to hear about the number of employees you have or the details of your last project. The owner wants to hear how you will solve the problems that affect the operational reliability of his or her fire alarm system.

You need to impress on the owner that not only do you know the inspection, testing and maintenance requirements of NFPA 72 2010, the National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code, but you also know how to fix false alarm and maintenance problems using that knowledge.

In the past, the owner probably encountered a contractor who had little or no knowledge of the code requirements and may have received misinformation from him or her.

First, explain that the maintenance and testing requirements in the current code apply to both new and existing systems. In addition, the code indicates that the owner of the property or building, or the owner’s designated representative, has the responsibility for inspection, testing and maintenance of the fire alarm system as well as for alterations or additions to the system.

As part of your marketing efforts to increase the amount of inspection, testing and maintenance contracts you write, you may want to offer to audit the owner’s fire alarm system. The Campus Fire Safety fire survey included the fact that 40 percent of the higher education fire professions had difficulty convincing the administration that the fire alarm systems needed improvement. Thus, university fire professionals can use the results of your audit to convince the administration of the need to upgrade the fire alarm systems. In almost all cases, you will discover that a simple visual inspection results in a list of items the owner will need to address to bring the system into code compliance.

Then you can develop an inspection, testing and maintenance program that will meet the code requirement to ensure operational integrity. The code requires that the owner correct all system defects and malfunctions. The owner must also manage any impairments to the fire alarm system. As stated in the code, “the term ‘impairments’ encompasses a broad range of circumstances wherein a fire alarm system or portion thereof is taken out of service for a variety of reasons.” These reasons for impairments can include system testing or shutting down portions of the system to allow the performance of other work that has the potential to cause false alarms.

You will, of course, need to understand the common causes of false alarms so that you can advise the owner where he or she needs to take corrective actions.

For example, the code requires the selection and placement of smoke detectors to account for both the performance characteristics of the detector and the areas into which the owner intends to have detectors installed. So doing will help prevent nuisance alarms or improper operation after installation. Your visual audit of the installed system should review the placement of smoke detectors to ensure their location does not make the detector prone to false alarm.

The code requires that, unless specifically designed and listed for the expected environmental conditions, “smoke detectors shall not be installed if any of the following ambient conditions exist:

“(1) Temperature below 32°F (0°C)
“(2) Temperature above 100°F (38°C)
“(3) Relative humidity above 93 percent
“(4) Air velocity greater than 300 ft/min (1.5 m/sec)”

Never assume the system was designed properly or approved by the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) when it was originally designed. Moreover, the owner may have made changes to the building that adversely affect the fire alarm system’s performance. Begin by evaluating the location of smoke detectors based on any potential ambient sources of smoke, moisture, dust, fumes, or electrical or mechanical influences, all of which could cause false alarms.

The code advises: “the location of detectors should be such that the influences of aerosols and particulate matter are minimized. Similarly, the influences of electrical and mechanical factors should be minimized. While it might not be possible to isolate environmental factors totally, an awareness of these factors during system layout and design favorably affects detector performance.”

Annex A of NFPA 72 2010 states, “Construction debris, dust (especially gypsum dust and the fines resulting from the sanding of drywall joint compounds), and aerosols can affect the sensitivity of smoke detectors and, in some instances, cause deleterious effects to the detector, thereby significantly reducing the expected life of the detector.” Therefore, you should ask the owner if construction has taken place in any area to determine if the resultant debris could affect the fire alarm system operation.

Annex A of the code provides additional information regarding common sources of aerosols and particulate matter that would affect the operation of both detectors and systems that include examples for moisture, combustion products and fumes, atmospheric contaminants, engine exhaust and abnormal heat.

False alarms remain a constant problem for owners and may represent a significant cost if the fire department issues fines for nonfire responses. In some cases, owners will simply turn off parts of the system that cause the false alarms. You can advise the owner that turning off parts of the system causes obvious impairments. As discussed previously, the code requires that these be repaired immediately. And, if you find any impairment, the owner must be notified of the situation within 24 hours.

If the system becomes impaired for any reason, the code requires the owner to implement mitigating measures acceptable to the AHJ for the period that the system remains impaired. Annex A of the code advises, “Appropriate mitigating measures range from simple occupant notification to full-time fire watch. Determining factors vary from testing-related impairments and maintenance activities during normal business through extensive impairments to high-value, high-hazard situations.”

Using your understanding of the code and your professional experience, you will be able to assure the owner that you have the ability to maintain the system in a false-alarm-free and operational state.

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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