Fire Alarm System Maintenance and Upgrades – Compatibility, Reliability, and Code Compliance

Maintaining and upgrading your fire alarm systems can become a frustrating battle, especially if you have fire alarm systems equipment from different manufacturers installed in various buildings on your campus. However, you need not feel that it is a “battle.” You can implement a strategic plan to maintain your fire alarm system installations and plan your system upgrades to ensure the systems remain compatible, reliable, and code-compliant.

Before you can implement this plan, it makes sense to audit the systems you have. This audit should include the preparation of a detailed list that includes the following:
  • the name of the manufacturer
  • the model number of the fire alarm control unit
  • the age of the equipment
  • the date of installation
  • the condition of the system installation
  • the last time the system was tested
  • the name of the company that currently has the contract to maintain and test the system

You may find that the date of the installation varies greatly from the actual age of the equipment. You may also find that the condition of the system installation will vary widely based on the competency of the original installing contractor.

Once you complete the audit and evaluation of your fire alarm systems, you then should ask yourself a number of questions:
  1. Does the current maintenance plan work?
  2. Do any systems currently include obsolete equipment?
  3. Do any systems appear in a poorly installed condition, and thus, appear unreliable?
  4. Do any systems appear more prone to unnecessary or false alarms?
  5. Does the current contractor perform the maintenance and testing satisfactorily?
  6. Do you have established technical requirements for your contactors, such as licensing, NICET certification, training certificates from equipment manufacturers, or other similar qualifications?
  7. Do you receive satisfactory support from the manufacturer(s) that supplied the equipment?
  8. Do all of the system installations comply with the requirements of the appropriate code?
  9. Do any buildings have installed fire alarm systems from more than one fire alarm equipment manufacturer?
  10. Does any of the installed fire alarm equipment have any compatibility issues?
  11. When will any fire alarm system need upgrading?
  12. Can you include the systems that need upgrading on a priority needs basis in a strategic plan?
  13. Do the upgrades need to include a modification to permit voice reproduction in order to accommodate mass notification systems?
  14. What other systems need to interface with the fire alarm systems? (These may include automatic sprinkler systems, elevator recall and shutdown, fan control, door release, and door unlocking, to name a few.)
  15. Do the building fire alarm systems transmit signals to a central monitoring location?
  16. How rapidly do on-campus emergency personnel provide response to a fire alarm signal?
  17. How rapidly does the public fire department respond to an on-campus fire alarm signal?

The answers to these questions will help ensure a clear direction toward establishing a strategic plan to manage your fire alarm systems’ maintenance and upgrades. If this task seems daunting, you might wish to consider contracting with a competent third party to perform the evaluations and provide a report that includes a suggested strategic plan. But, regardless of the direction you take, a well-thought-through strategic plan offers the only way to relieve any frustration you might experience with the fire alarm systems on your campus.

Have a Plan and Know the Code
Don’t fall into the pitfall of employing the “Yellow Pages approach” to solving these issues. In fact, some of the problems you currently experience may have occurred because someone previously used just that approach. Sadly, that approach inevitably involves skipping the planning process and going to the Yellow Pages for three bids, without deciding the nature of your real needs.

Don’t assume that a contractor will know NFPA 72-2010, National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code, well enough to ensure the code compliance of your system design and installation. One of the common “tricks of the trade” contractors employ involves simply providing a one-for-one replacement of the devices and notification appliances in the building with new equipment. This strategy usually fails. The Code undergoes frequent revision. Your current system will likely not comply with the current detector placement and audibility and visual requirements of the current edition of the Code.

In addition, if one of your goals involves upgrading your system to a voice evacuation fire alarm system that you will also use for mass notification, the current placement of notification appliances will not meet the intelligibility requirements of the Code.

Consult an Expert
You can choose to use a better approach. Seek out a fire protection engineer with a strong background in fire alarm and mass notification systems design. Have that person develop a design that truly meets your long-term objectives. The engineer should not — and normally would not — have any connection to a manufacturer or an installing contractor. This person will report directly to you and have your best interests at heart. The engineer should also capably work with local fire officials to ensure the design satisfies them and that they agree the design meets the requirements of the Code.

The applicable requirements of NFPA 72-2010, National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code, will depend on what model building code your local jurisdiction has adopted. The building code will indicate the required type of fire alarm system and the required level of protection. Of course, you must remember that when you decide to simply comply with the prescriptive requirements of the building code, you choose to do the least you can do to build and occupy your buildings. You may want to put some thought into what more appropriate fire protection goals would apply to your college or university.

Fire protection goals will help to establish a baseline for the operational features of a fire alarm system. They will also give guidance regarding the type of detection and interfaced systems that a designer will use to meet those goals.

You can also use this as one way to evaluate the engineering firms you choose to provide your designs. If they do not ask you to describe your fire protection goals, then you should not choose them to provide design services to your institution.

Of course, one of the primary benefits of the strategic plan ensures the development of efficient testing and maintenance programs, in order to significantly reduce the institution’s costs.

Establishing the strategic plan using the methods presented here will help you reach your ultimate goal of providing a safe environment for the students, staff, and faculty on your campus.

Wayne D. Moore, P.E., CFPS, SET, FSFPE, F.NSPE, a licensed professional fire protection engineer, is a principal with the fire protection engineering and code-consulting firm, Hughes Associates, Inc., and is located in the firm’s Warwick, RI office. He currently serves as a member, and immediate past chair, of the National Fire and Signaling Alarm Code Technical Correlating Committee. He also serves as Chairman of the NFPA 72-2010 Emergency Communications Systems (ECS) Technical Committee. Mr. Moore can be reached at wmoore@haifire.com.

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