Who You Gonna Call? Fire alarm testing

There is no question today’s fire alarm systems are more complex than they were 20 years ago. More panels are addressable, which means programmers, installers and inspection and testing personnel need to be better qualified.

Chapter 10 of NFPA 72 contains qualification requirements for inspection, testing and service personnel and others involved with fire alarms. However, the requirements are rather weak. The minimum qualification for testing personnel simply states that they “shall have knowledge and experience of the testing requirements contained in this Code, of the equipment being tested, and of the test methods. That knowledge and experience shall be acceptable to the AHJ [authority having jurisdiction] or meet the requirements of” 

Section lists four qualifications, but personnel have to meet only one or more of them. They are intended to provide guidance to the AHJ and the contractor. These qualifications apply to the fire alarm personnel only. 

In larger, more complex systems, fire alarms interface with many other building features, such as elevators; dampers; heating, ventilating and air conditioning (HVAC) systems; releasing systems; mass notification systems; sprinkler systems; and more. Even though the testing personnel may be qualified on the fire alarm equipment, personnel who test or verify the operation of the other systems must be qualified on those systems. It makes perfect sense that, if a smoke detector is supposed to shut down an air handler, you would verify that the air handler actually shuts down. Unfortunately, in today’s litigious society, testing beyond one’s field of expertise can cause liability problems if something fails to work when it is supposed to. 

NFPA 72 now clearly states that fire alarm personnel only are required to test up to the emergency-control-function interface device. In an ideal world, having the contractor for the integrated equipment and the fire alarm testing personnel there at the same time to test their portion of the integrated systems would take care of the problem.

Unfortunately, it is not always possible. NFPA 72 states that the owner is responsible for the system. When fire alarm service sales personnel discuss system testing with prospective clients, they should be very clear about what they can and cannot test. NFPA 72 has clarified that testing other equipment is outside of the code’s scope. 

A new document, NFPA 4, Standard for Integrated Fire Protection and Life Safety Equipment Testing, provides guidance for testing the integration between the fire alarm and other building systems. I discussed that document in my February 2016 column, “End-to-End Performance.”

NFPA 72 also has clarified that acceptance and re-acceptance testing have different goals than periodic testing. The acceptance and re-acceptance inspection and test is intended to “ensure compliance with approved design documents and to ensure installation in accordance with this Code and other required installation standards.”

A periodic test is intended to “statistically assure operational reliability.” During a periodic test, it is not required to verify the system meets code or the design documents. Personnel must ensure the existing system works. The code assumes the system was installed correctly per the codes and design documentation. 

For example, NFPA 72 no longer requires testing personnel to verify the sound pressure level for the audible notification appliances on a yearly basis. However, if an area seems to have too low of a sound level, the fire alarm contractor must notify the owner. 

Is notifying the owner enough to protect your company and ensure the system is reliable? Legal cases have raised the “standard of care” responsibility, which means the fire alarm contractor is considered the expert, and if fire alarm personnel see something wrong, it is their responsibility to notify the owner of the deficiency. So, only following the code’s minimum requirements may not always be enough.

The better you know the code requirements, the more the owner will appreciate you. Pointing out deficiencies and suggested changes to make the system more reliable provides better fire protection for the owner and should reduce fire alarm contractor liability. 

Good documentation is a valuable tool, as well. Detailed testing results and comments are mandatory. If you do not write it down, for all intents and purposes, it didn’t happen.

Unfortunately, not all owners want this level of detail. Some contractors have encountered owners who felt they were inventing stuff to make more money. Fortunately, I believe that is more the exception than the rule. Never compromise your ethics and professionalism to satisfy a customer. You are the only one who can lose that battle.

About the Author
Tom Hammerberg

Thomas P. Hammerberg

Life Safety Columnist

Thomas P. Hammerberg, SET, CFPS is an indepe       ndent fire alarm presenter and consultant residing in Jasper, GA. Tom served on multiple NFPA technical committees as well as actively participating in the ICC code making process for many years. He...

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