The Soft Tools

At a recent gathering of fire alarm industry friends, we found ourselves lamenting that, even though we felt confident that NFPA 72 2013, National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code, provided very good guidance for designers, installers and authorities having jurisdiction (AHJs), we still find new installations that do not meet code requirements.

We have licensed fire protection engineers; constant training available from the Automatic Fire Alarm Association, the National Fire Protection Association, and others; National Institute for Certification in Engineering Technologies (NICET) certified technicians; trained electrical contractors; and state-of-the-art fire alarm systems components available from reputable manufacturers. So why do we still see non-code-­compliant fire alarm system installations?

Has everything become too technical? Has new technology exceeded the abilities of code enforcers? Has the code become too complicated?

I may be biased, but I do not think the code is too complex. Indeed, the NFPA Technical Committee members responsible for writing the code work hard to make it more user-friendly with each revision cycle. Admittedly, the code cannot cover every requirement for every project. The proper application of the code makes the assumption that only properly qualified individuals install these systems while carefully following code requirements.

However, my friends and I agreed that new technology has begun to outpace some installers’ abilities. Electrical contractors may have enough technicians to meet their installation deadlines, but equipment suppliers may not have enough system programmers. We hear from AHJs who report that they must attend a system acceptance test multiple times due to programming mistakes, which can harm an electrical contractor’s reputation.

So, we may have found a cause to rally around. The tools to fix this problem relate to software and are not the tools you carry at your side or in the truck, but the laptop computer in the hands of a qualified programmer.

I have found out from manufacturers who distribute their products through engineered systems distributors (ESDs), that getting their ESDs to send more than one person to manufacturer-sponsored training classes is like trying to convince them to go to a dentist.

In light of all the changes in technology, installing a conventional fire alarm system seems relatively straightforward. Such systems include devices and appliances located in accordance with the code. The designs for these systems incorporate proper visibility and audibility (and intelligibility for voice-alarm communications systems). With such a system, the installation and approval should proceed rather smoothly.

But with the new addressable-analog fire alarm systems, technology may have outpaced the industry’s abilities to properly install, program an installation, and present it to the AHJs for approval.

Obviously, training remains critical, but maybe the manufacturers need to step back and redesign their control units’ programming. Maybe they need to make it simpler. Or, maybe, the manufacturer-­provided training does not result in adequate competency.

One thing seems to ring true: when a qualified company—with competent technicians and properly trained programmers—installs a fire alarm system, few problems surface. That means some technicians and programmers understand the manufacturer’s training.

Based on the results we see in the industry, the supply of competent technicians is limited. Many companies, with their one programmer, find that he or she gets burned out quickly because he or she must run from one crisis project to another. No amount of money will satisfy a technician who constantly feels pressure to program a system rapidly enough to meet acceptance test deadlines. And, of course, one of those crisis projects will likely include the one you have at hand. What does all this teach us?

It is imperative for the professional contractor to find a supplier with enough qualified programmers on staff to serve their needs. As a contractor, you need to establish a trusted relationship with a supplier who most likely will not be the low-bid fire alarm system supplier. The supplier should promptly arrive when needed with the right number of qualified programmers and support technicians to ensure the AHJ will pass your system installation the first time and that the building will open on time.

I understand that fierce competition can sometimes cause well-intentioned people to forget their original objective. It may seem hard for you to remember that you intend to install a fire alarm system the right way the first time, but, in the end, our industry will continue to suffer from non-code-compliant system installations unless we all make good use of the tools we have available.

We have just about everything in place to help us meet our systems’ operational reliability goals. We just have to consistently and persistently use the tools available and discipline ourselves to always do the right thing.

About the Author

Wayne D. Moore

Fire/Life Safety Columnist

Wayne D. Moore, a licensed fire protection engineer, frequent speaker, writer and expert in the life safety field, has been a principal member and chair of NFPA 72, Chapter 24, as well as a former principal member of NFPA 909 and NFPA 914. He is the...

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