Understanding Impairments

The contractor’s responsibilities:

Electrical contractors repair many different kinds of electrical systems; for most of these systems, if the repair takes longer than expected or is delayed to acquire the necessary parts, the customer understands and is willing to wait for the completion of the repair; however, if a fire alarm system is impaired, there are specific rules that a contractor must follow to ensure the safety of the occupants.

Impairment-related code requirements are in two different chapters in the National Fire Alarm Code, NFPA 72-2007. The term “impairments” covers a broad range of circumstances where a fire alarm system may be taken totally or partially out of service.

As stated in the code in Annex section 4.6, “Fire alarm systems are routinely impaired in order to perform hot work (e.g., open-flame operations such as welding) in areas with automatic detection, construction, painting, etc., as well as to conduct normal fire alarm system maintenance and testing. Impairments can be limited to specific initiating devices and/or functions (e.g., disconnecting the supervising station connection during system testing), or they can involve taking entire systems or portions of systems out of service.”

The code’s goal is to help building owners and contractors control fire alarm impairments and to ensure that the systems are restored to full operational service as soon as possible to ensure continued life safety protection for occupants.

Code Section 4.6.1 requires the contractor to notify the system owner or representative when a fire alarm is impaired. And impairments include out-of-service events. Another important code requirement that contractors must address with owners is that an impairment record must be maintained by the system owner or their designated representative for a period of one year from the correction date.

Often the impairment simply cannot be controlled, and the impairment time exceeds four hours. Although not adopted by every jurisdiction, The Life Safety Code section states, “Where a required fire alarm system is out of service for more than four hours in a 24-hour period, the authority having jurisdiction [AHJ] shall be notified, and the building shall be evacuated or an approved fire watch shall be provided for all parties left unprotected by the shutdown until the fire alarm system has been returned to service.”

When a fire alarm system is out of service, NFPA 72-2007, section 4.6.3 requires mitigating measures acceptable to the AHJ be implemented for the period that the system is impaired. The AHJ typically determines the need for mitigating measures on a case-by-case basis. Appropriate mitigating measures can range from simple occupant notification to a full-time fire watch. The determining factors will vary from testing-related impairments and maintenance activities during normal business hours through extensive impairments in buildings with high-value or high-hazard situations. And, of course, the system owner and the AHJ must be notified when an impairment period is completed or discontinued.

A fire alarm system is automatically impaired when a contractor is performing periodic tests and maintenance. Many professional contractors will ensure that their electricians performing the tests and maintenance activities understand the importance of “planning the impairment.” This entails not only proper notification of a test in progress, but also the understanding that if an alarm is actuated in another area of the building that is not being tested by the electricians, a plan is in place to notify the occupants and the fire department immediately. An alarm from another part of the building not under test must be treated as a real alarm.

Only chapter 10 of the National Fire Alarm Code is retroactive and specifies the requirements for all testing, inspection and maintenance. It also has a section with requirements to be followed when subjecting a fire alarm system to impairments and begins by referencing all of the requirements outlined above from section 4.6.

Section of the code also requires system defects and malfunctions be corrected. Although that may seem like a nonsensical requirement, some owners will put off repairs until a later time, often until the defect or malfunction has been reported a number of times. It is extremely important that contractors document any defects or malfunctions found and put their findings in writing to the owner. In fact, Section requires: “If a defect or malfunction is not corrected at the conclusion of system inspection, testing or maintenance, the system owner or the owner’s designated representative shall be informed of the impairment in writing within 24 hours.” This requirement is as much for the protection of the contractor as it is for the owner.

The whole purpose for contractors to understand the importance of impairments is to ensure the operational integrity of a fire alarm system. This understanding will also help to limit the length of time a fire alarm system is out of service. Make sure your electricians know this important requirement.            EC

MOORE, a licensed fire protection engineer, frequent speaker and an expert in the life safety field, is a co-editor of the current National Fire Alarm Code Handbook. Moore is a principal with Hughes Associates Inc. and is located at the Warwick, R.I., office.


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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