Fire alarm systems are a critical component of a comprehensive fire protection system. Unique to the buildings for which they are designed, fire alarm systems can be incredibly complex involving an intricate system of wiring, equipment, and other components. In addition, they must be designed in accordance with a stringent set of rules, laws, and codes to ensure that in the event of a fire, the alarms will function properly to help get everyone out of the building safely.
First and foremost, fire alarm systems must meet state fire safety codes, which can vary significantly from state to state. Many of these requirements can be found in the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA 72) National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code, which covers the application, installation, location, performance, inspection, testing, and maintenance of fire alarm systems. The NFPA also covers supervising station alarm systems, which facilitate round-the-clock supervision from a facility that is equipped to receive the signals from a fire alarm system.
In addition to state codes, there will likely be a number of other requirements that must be met, including building codes, local regulations, and insurance company requirements. If you are retrofitting an older system, you may also have to consider accessibility under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
When replacing or upgrading an existing fire alarm system or designing one for new construction, one of the most important questions to ask is whether meeting all relevant code requirements will be sufficient to meet the owner’s objectives. While saving lives is always the primary goal, business owners often have additional business-related objectives that may not be met with a design that meets only the minimum requirements. These objectives might include:
It is also important to remember that while regulations generally attempt to be as comprehensive as possible, they cannot possibly anticipate and address every unique situation that could influence the design of a fire alarm system. As a general rule, it is better to go above and beyond what the codes require, as doing so will make it easier to maintain the system or improve life safety.
Modern fire protection systems are comprised of three main components — fire detection, alarms and notifications, and suppression, all of which must function together to provide the necessary fire protection for a given building. Designing a fire alarm and notification system requires an integrated approach that includes a comprehensive analysis of the entire fire protection system. This analysis is necessary to gain a thorough understanding of how all the main components of the overall fire protection system will work together. This analysis needs to be conducted before the system is installed.
Having an experienced designer involved from the beginning will go a long way to help ensure the fire alarm system will be properly integrated with existing or new fire detection and suppression systems. However, the best approach is to have all the right people — the building owners and managers, architects, engineers, contractors, and consultants — involved in the planning and design process.
Remember, fire alarm system design can be impacted by any number of requirements. Having all the key players at the table reduces the chance of missing some requirements that could result in costly changes down the road. The last thing anyone wants is to get the system installed and ready for testing only to find it doesn’t meet an important but unknown regulatory requirement.
Building owners today have more options than ever before to achieve many of the goals noted earlier, due in large part to advancements in technology and their applications to the fire safety industry. Let’s take a closer look at how:
Fire safety engineers can also take advantage of Internet technology to meet an owner’s goal for greater fire protection and reduced property loss. For example, the availability of wireless fire detection systems allows for monitoring in areas, such as the exterior envelope of a building, that used to be too expensive or physically impossible to monitor before. They can also significantly reduce building management costs, allowing a single person to monitor several buildings.
The Internet also allows for remote monitoring and control techniques that can provide the earliest possible detection of a fire and identify where in the building it is burning so firefighters can get there faster and, knowing exactly where to go, fight the fire more effectively at its source.
False alarms are bad for people and bad for business. At worst, they create complacency that can result in people ignoring a real alarm. They can also be very costly, potentially resulting in Occupational Safety Hazard Administration (OSHA) fines when employees do not leave the building as required when an alarm sounds and fire department fees when firefighters respond to a call unnecessarily.
Fortunately, many early detection devices that can trigger a fire alarm now have sensors that can distinguish smoke and fire from other interfering signals, such as steam and dust, which can trigger a false alarm. There are also advanced fire control panels on the market today that allow real-time control via the Internet, automatic fault detection and diagnosis that can quickly distinguish between threats and non-threat to further minimize false alarms.
With today’s computerized fire alarm controls, building owners can now proactively maintain their systems, often saving the cost of additional trips for onsite repairs and reducing — or possibly eliminating — the cost of conducting a fire watch when the system is down.
These systems can provide advanced notification when a component in the system is beginning to fail allowing it to be replaced before it fails and triggers the need for a fire watch. Many of the newer detection systems on the market can likewise reduce operational costs by providing maintenance alerts that identify specific smoke detectors in need of cleaning. This eliminates the need to remove and clean all of them just to find the ones that are causing the problem.
With regard to longevity, a good fire safety engineer will work with well-established manufacturers and distributors that have a good track record for maintaining the availability of parts that might be needed to repair the system over time.
Changes in the use or occupancy of a building can result in compliance issues and a fire alarm system that no longer provides sufficient protection. If future changes are anticipated, fire safety engineers can design a fire alarm system with this in mind, providing a flexible infrastructure that includes the proper wire size and additional circuits distributed in a way that accommodates future growth and change.
Many facilities have the need for a more comprehensive emergency communication system that not only sounds an alarm in the event of a fire but also provides voice notification to occupants in other types of emergency situations. While traditional fire alarm systems use horns, there are newer systems on the market today that use speakers instead, allowing for a much broader range of communication.
Perhaps one of the most compelling reasons to design a fire alarm system that goes above and beyond the minimum requirements from the start is the fact that fire codes and other applicable regulations can and do change. And, changes that are made retroactively can trigger potentially very expensive alterations in a fire alarm system. This is also why it is so important to work with highly qualified fire safety engineers who can anticipate coming changes and proactively design your system to meet new requirements.