A few months ago, we created a post to help customers with Recognizing Illegal Commercial Security Measures. In that post, we explained that failing to have your fire alarm system inspected, or not having it inspected frequently enough, could run you into legal issues. In this post, we go over specific fire alarm inspection requirements to help you avoid these issues. We will begin by looking at what the relevant fire code says about the types of fire alarms that require inspections. From there, we will look at the steps we take during the inspection itself. Finally, we will discuss what happens if your fire alarm fails the inspection. Now, let’s look at what the fire code says regarding which types of alarms require inspections, and how often.
Which Types of Fire Systems Require Inspections?
Recently, we created a post answering a popular question customers ask us, Am I Required to Monitor My Alarm System? There we discussed the role of the National Fire Alarm and Signal Code created by the National Fire Protection Association (or NFPA) in creating regulations regarding the installation and maintenance of fire alarm systems. The NFPA refers to this specific collection of codes and standards as “NFPA 72.” In the not-so-distant past, NFPA 72 standards required annual inspections of commercial fire alarm systems by a qualified technician, such as the technicians that we have on our staff. On the other hand, residential systems did not require a formal inspection for several decades. However, the 2013 version of NFPA 72 included the following section:
NFPA 72 2013, 220.127.116.11 Testing. Household fire alarm systems shall be tested by a qualified service technician at least annually according to the methods of Table 18.104.22.168. The installing contractor shall be required to provide this information in writing to the customer upon completion of the system installation. To the extent that the fire alarm system is monitored offsite, the supervising station contractor shall provide notice of this requirement to the customer on a yearly basis.
Therefore, both commercial and residential fire alarm systems must now undergo an inspection every year. These systems often differ quite a bit in regards to the equipment that they contain. However, the steps to both commercial and residential fire alarms remains largely the same. Next, let’s take a look at how we conduct these important — and legally required– inspections!
What Does a Fire Alarm Test Entail?
As you can expect, we follow certain steps to ensure that we conduct and record our fire alarm tests in a uniform manner. While different security companies may perform steps in a different order, every fire alarm test designed to fit NFPA 72 standards must ultimately cover the same ground. In this section, we detail how we conduct these tests and communicate the results to our customers. Let’s begin with a look at how we test the equipment on a fire alarm system!
In order for a fire alarm to pass a test, each component of the alarm’s system must work properly. To test smoke detectors, we spray smoke on every detector to see if the detector activates. We do this using a pressurized “can of smoke” made by the same companies that create fire alarm equipment. In homes, smoke detectors often make up the entire system, leading to a fairly simple equipment test. However, commercial fire alarm systems generally have other devices that alert people to a fire. For example, activation of a commercial smoke detector will usually activate a series of strobes and horns to alert occupants to a fire. After activating smoke detectors, we also make sure that all of these devices work as well.
Fire alarm devices designed to alert occupants to a fire go by the name of “notification devices.” The types of equipment described above all fit this category. Additionally, commercial fire alarms also contain equipment allowing users to manually activate the fire alarm. We call these devices “initiating devices.” Pull stations make up the bulk of this category of equipment. If you’ve ever experienced a false alarm in a building due to a prankster, it’s because they’ve activated the pull station! We must also test these devices by pulling on the stations’ levers. As long as each pull station activates the alarm, the property’s initiating devices receive a “pass.” Now that you know what our alarm equipment inspection entails, let’s look at the next important aspect of a complete fire alarm inspection!
The vast majority of fire alarm systems can alert the authorities for help upon alarm activation thanks to some form of alarm monitoring service. You may remember our recent post designed to help answer the question “Am I Required to Monitor My Alarm System?” That post explains the basics of alarm monitoring. This service involves creating a way for your alarm to send signals to our central station upon activation. In the case of a fire alarm, the central station immediately dispatches the local fire department to check on the situation. In Massachusetts, all new fire alarm systems must send these signals to a central station through the use of cellular communication. However, older systems occasionally use phone lines to create this central station connection.
When we perform a fire alarm inspection, we must test the connection between the alarm and the central station. We can complete this task in a couple ways. Sometimes, we place the system on “test” mode for a short period of time. This prevents the central station from acting on any signals that come through during this time frame. After activating the alarm, we can make sure the central station received the alarm signals. Occasionally, the local fire department wants to field a call from our central station during a communications test. In this case, we activate the fire alarm without placing the system on “test” mode. Upon receiving a call from our central station, the local fire department can confirm that the alarm works as it should. At this point, you’ve seen how we test both fire alarm equipment and communication. Now, let’s look at the records we keep upon completion of our inspection!
After finishing up with a fire alarm inspection, we create an itemized list of every piece of equipment we tested. Each piece of equipment receives a “pass” or “fail” grade. NFPA 72 standards require us to maintain these records for one year after completing an inspection. Upon completing an inspection, we send our customer the full report. In most cases, the report contains “passing” grades for all system components. However, we do sometimes run into issues with either a piece of equipment on a fire alarm or with its communication to our central station. In that case, we have some work to do. Next, let’s look at the steps we take when a fire alarm fails its inspection.
My System Failed its Fire Alarm Inspection…Now What?
A few things must take place failing a failed fire inspection. Ideally, an item that fails during inspection gets replaced immediately to fix the issue. At this point, we can finish the inspection and pass the final inspection. However, sometimes this does not happen. If we leave the inspection location and create a report with certain system components failed, we write a letter to the customer explaining what failed and what they must do to fix it. In many cases the failed items do not represent a substantial portion of the alarm.
For example, one or two detectors in a system with several other detectors may fail. In these instances, the responsibility lies with the system owner to fix the issue and have the alarm re-inspected. We do not have to report the failed test to the fire inspection at this point. However, the property owner could face legal issues down the road if they do not address the issues. A failed system component could affect the alarm’s effectiveness during a fire emergency. In turn, this could affect an insurance company’s willingness to cover damage caused by a fire. Furthermore, owners of properties that legally require fire alarms could run into legal issues if their neglect causes damage or loss of life.
Occasionally, we do have to fail a substantial portion of a fire alarm system. In these cases, customers have 8 hours to fix the issues at hand. After 8 hours, we must contact the customer’s local fire department and let them know about the issue. At that point, the fire department decides how to approach the situation. In extreme cases, they can even decide to have the building closed until the owner’s address the issue.
Putting it All Together
We hope that this post has helped you understand fire alarm inspection requirements and procedures. Fire safety represents one of the most important aspects of the security industry. Unfortunately, it also stands as perhaps the most difficult to understand. The sheer amount of codes and laws that surround fire safety can make anyone’s head spin. Therefore, we encourage you to contact us with any fire security-related questions you may have. Perhaps you have a fire alarm and now realize you need an inspection. Or maybe you want us to help you design a fire alarm system from the ground up. Either way, we will happily answer any questions you may have.
Furthermore, we offer free site surveys for both new and old customers alike. While on site, we can address any security-related concerns you may have. Additionally, we can make our own suggestions based on what we find during our visit. Together, we can create a plan to keep you up to date on fire alarm equipment and inspection requirements. More importantly, we will help keep your property and everyone on it as safe and secure as possible!