Fire & Life Safety

Every electrical contractor involved in the installation and maintenance of life safety systems knows that what really drives the fire market is local, state and federal building codes and the Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ).

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Much of the research and development for technologies often comes as a result of new requirements or code changes. For the electrical contractor doing fire system installations or just getting started in this area, the AHJ should always be a starting point before bidding a job.

For the electrical contractor, fire system installation is big business. According to the 2001 ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR Guide to the Electrical Contracting Market, some 79 percent were performing fire/smoke/life safety installations, and that trend will most likely continue on the upswing.

“We’re definitely seeing increased interest in fire system installations, and that doesn’t necessarily correspond to the economy,” said August Conte, sales manager for Contech MSI Co., a division of Kelso-Burnett Electric Co. based in Rolling Meadows, Ill.

“The codes apply, economy or not,” he continued. “New codes and regulations have to be applied, so that’s why we see so much activity in fire system installations. Every AHJ has a wide degree of latitude in what they require, and that doesn’t necessarily relate to a code. Bottom line is that you can’t just pick up the code book and run with it. You have to work with the AHJ or their office.”

AHJ’s specification can not only affect the design of a job; it can also have an impact on the overall pricing, said Bill Bryan, president of Newtech E.C.I. in Joliet, Ill. “For example, in one jurisdiction, the fire marshal or AHJ may require smoke detectors every certain number of feet, while in another community for the same-size building, the AHJ may only require one or two detectors for the specified area. You can see how your costs would go up if you need a dozen smoke or heat detectors versus just a couple. This has to be figured initially into your bid, because you can really lose if you don’t consider the equipment and labor costs accurately.”

Building codes and standards may in fact orchestrate the emergence of new technology. Fire and life safety systems have become smaller and more intelligent, providing the ability to identify specifically where a point of detection and alarm may have occurred, or where a smoke detector with a weak signal or low battery is located. When you have hundreds of points and detectors within a facility, intelligence benefits both the user and the contractor with the service and maintenance agreement.

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), Quincy, Mass., and its Standard 72, known as the National Fire Alarm Code, is becoming the norm governing fire alarm installations. NFPA 101, the Life Safety Code, is also the “bible” of the industry. Innovation in fire often comes on the heels of new mandates in NFPA 72 and other standards, so these codes and regulations must be monitored closely.

One of the biggest inroads in fire detection technology over the last several years has been a strong following for what the industry refers to as addressable technology. Addressable technology, often in the eyes of the AHJ as well, may aid in pinpointing the location of an actual fire with less threat to loss of life. (Ask your local fire authority if there are any specific requirements for a particular kind of control panel.)

Addressable versus conventional systems

Addressable versus conventional systems has also been one of the biggest debates in the industry; but it seems that for now, conventional systems still have their niche, especially in those applications that do not require multiple smoke detectors or notification appliances, such as horns and strobes. For a smaller operation and application, conventional systems are hardware-based, with each detector hardwired and home run to the control panel. Installers have to wire each device, which may become a daunting task for a larger system. In many of those instances, the contractor may opt to move to addressable. Bryan said that, for any job over 10 zones, he usually will specify a smart addressable panel.

Addressable systems pinpoint individual sensors and notification appliances in even complicated systems, and they have drastically come down in price, corresponding to drops in microprocessors and other computer-based and intelligent processing technology. Software, too, is smarter than ever, allowing all kinds of data processing of alarms.

Proponents of addressable technology say that these types of systems are easy to program either remotely or at the site with a laptop, and assist in the speed of service and lower maintenance costs. Those on the conventional side may claim that you need a higher level of technical expertise to program addressable or intelligent systems.

According to Ken Beeson, vice president of marketing for Gamewell Worldwide, Ashland, Mass., conventional panels are still perfect for applications that don’t require multiple levels of input/output. “Conventional systems are quite simple for electrical contractors to install, but as always, any system installation has to be application driven.”

Another emerging trend is the integration of different types of sensing technologies into one detector unit. For example, some municipalities may now require both smoke and carbon monoxide alarms either separately or in combination, said Eric Wikstrom, marketing manager for BRK Electronics in Aurora, Ill.

“Smoke and CO detector combination alarms are designed specifically for residential and institutional applications including sleeping rooms or hospitals, hotels, motels, dormitories and other multi-family dwellings as defined in NFPA 101 Life Safety Code.”

The plus for electrical contractors, he said, is that a combination smoke and CO alarm eliminates the need for two electrical boxes. “A smart three-wire interconnect sends a unique signal for smoke and CO on one wire,” Wikstrom said.

As technology advances, fire safety systems stay ahead of the curve. Audible/visible notification devices that offer global addressability and interactive communication between each appliance and the controller are becoming a reality, and other developments are sure to come fast and furious within the manufacturing community.

Earlier this year, SimplexGrinnell, Houston, Texas, introduced a breakthrough technology—an Internet-based communications link that enables facility managers and building owners to use a Web browser to monitor their fire alarm system’s status from off-site locations.

Also new to the SimplexGrinnell product line, and made to meet new code requirements, is a technology that complies with fire alarm system voice intelligibility requirements. The product provides a simple and accurate instrument for measuring the intelligibility of voice emergency evacuation systems, as part of the Common Intelligibility Scale called for in NFPA 72 and other standards. The new intelligibility requirement is intended to help ensure messages from voice evacuation systems can be heard and understood by the building occupants.

According to John Haynes, director of marketing at SimplexGrinnell, the company has made a considerable investment over the past two years to develop a portable, rugged and accurate tool that meets the evolving requirements of NFPA 72.

NFPA 72 requires that all systems for emergency voice evacuation must be intelligible,” says Haynes. “Until now there was no practical way for a technician or AHJ in the field to objectively provide that a system is intelligible.”

False alarm reduction

The need to reduce false or nuisance alarms also affects the manufacture of products and the fire industry as a whole. Addressing false alarms and the growing impatience of responding authorities, many manufacturers are making their sensors as intuitive as possible. According to Frost & Sullivan, San Jose, Calif., and the report, The North American Fire and Smoke Detection Device Markets, manufacturers that develop products free of false alarms will “conquer the field.” Some manufacturers are already working on devices that mimic human senses and can distinguish between different types of smoke.

The industry, according to the report, is moving slowly to integration and away from stand-alone fire systems. “Although it could be several years before integrated sales completely overshadow stand-alone systems, market participants must anticipate this. The industry is seeing a trend toward total integration, which requires the use of intelligent devices,” according to the report.

The life safety industry is experiencing a quickened technological pace as the computerization of building operations begins an even greater push for system integration, including fire detection and intrusion alarms. Often, cameras are part of the solution, adding eyes to observe an area and help prevent false alarms by providing a means to verify alarms. Card access, as well, is included in the integrated fire solution.

The need for fire safety is constant. Everywhere there are lives and property to protect. Most occupied buildings require these systems, and now, many new residential communities may even require fire suppression in the way of sprinklers as well.

Local, state and federal building and fire codes are a necessity, designed to protect the people who occupy these structures, and essentially these regulations drive the industry. For the electrical contractor that has the expertise to follow the regulations and install an integrated systems package, there’s sure to be plenty of business. EC

O’MARA is the president of DLO Communications in Park Ridge, Ill., specializing in low-voltage. She can be reached at either 847.384.1916 or

About the Author

Deborah L. O'Mara

Freelance Writer
Deborah L. O’Mara is a journalist with more than two decades experience writing about security, life safety and systems integration, and she is the managing director of DLO Communications in Chicago. She can be reached at

Stay Informed Join our Newsletter

Having trouble finding time to sit down with the latest issue of
ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR? Don't worry, we'll come to you.