FIRE/LIFESAFETY BY WAYNE D. MOORE
MOORE, a licensed fire protection engineer, frequent speaker and an expert in the life
safety field, is a principal member and past chair of NFPA 72, Chapter 24. Moore is a vice
president with Jensen Hughes at the Warwick, R.I., office. He can be reached at wmoore@
jensenhughes.com. S H
This incident raises many questions,
including whether elderly people—some
with mobility issues—should live in an
unsprinklered, 11-story building? I will
leave that question for others to argue.
However, you, as a professional contractor, must understand the importance
of installing a fire alarm system in any
multifamily residential complex, especially when retrofitting or upgrading a
system that serves occupants who may
need more time to evacuate.
Your profession is all about life safety.
When replacing an existing fire alarm
system, look at the requirements for the
replacement based on current codes.
Never make the common mistake of selling a one-for-one replacement, putting
new devices and appliances in the same
locations as the old equipment. It may be
inexpensive because you can reuse the
existing wiring and raceway infrastructure. But, even assuming the existing
system worked properly before, you’re
demonstrating a lot of confidence that the
infrastructure has retained its reliability.
Why should a one-for-one replacement concern you, since the system
must have met the code when originally
installed? That might be mistaken for
two reasons: a change in the code since
installation or a change in the occupancy.
Never assume the system met the
code when it was installed. The codes—
and maybe the use or occupancy of the
building—have changed since the origi-
nal installation. Maybe the owner had the
system installed voluntarily before the
building codes required a fire alarm sys-
tem for the particular occupancy or use.
Perhaps the age of the occupants in the
apartments has changed over the years.
A typical one-for-one replacement of
the audible appliances assumes the current system met the code requirements.
If you make that assumption, I suspect
your acceptance test for audibility would
fail. Then, it becomes pretty hard to make
a claim for a change order for additional
audible appliances when you promised
the customer an installation that would
meet the code.
If you installed the replacement system in an existing apartment building,
how would you ensure that it met the
code-required minimum sound level
of 75 decibels measured at the pillow
level in each bedroom if you did not
carefully review the previous locations
of the audible notification appliances?
You will not achieve that sound level
from the audible appliances installed in
If the building has an elderly popu-
lation, it becomes even more important
to install the low-frequency sounders
in each bedroom, although the code
now requires these regardless of the
occupants’ age. Also, what about visible
appliances? The requirements for strobe
placement have changed and, depend-
ing on the existing appliance placement,
you may need to install additional visible
notification appliances to meet the new
Before you start any installation
where you intend to replace an existing
fire alarm system, determine the false
alarm experience and operational reliability of the existing system. Review the
smoke detector locations and determine
compliance with the code-required spacing and location. Determine whether the
environment surrounding the existing
locations cause the smoke detectors to
become prone to false alarms.
If a customer asks you to evaluate an
existing fire alarm system for potential
replacement, you cannot perform that
evaluation strictly based on equipment.
The owner may insist that all past false
alarms occurred because of equipment
issues and that replacing the system
with new equipment from a different
manufacturer will solve the false alarm
problems. Don’t base your judgment on
such an assumption.
If you install any major brand of
UL-listed fire alarm equipment, the
equipment will not generate false alarms.
In virtually all cases, poor design, installation and maintenance cause false alarms.
As a professional fire alarm contractor, you need to take the responsibility
and invest the time to completely review
the existing fire alarm system and everything that could affect the system design
before agreeing to take the easy out of a
As shown in the example at the beginning of this article, always keep in mind
that false alarms can lead to a loss of life.
What you do is important.
Alarms Can Cry Wolf
False alarms and other replacement considerations
RECENTLY, A FIRE OCCURRED in an 11-story apartment that primarily housed
elderly people, although it was not labeled as a senior living building. Six people
died and multiple people were injured as a result of the fire. Constructed sometime
in the 1960s, the building owners had its fire alarm system replaced about 7 years ago.
A report stated that many of the occupants delayed exiting the building because the
system, which reportedly operated correctly during the fire, had initiated numerous
false alarms in the past. The media quoted many residents as saying they initially took
their time evacuating because they were accustomed to false alarms.