Alarm panel versatility

This month's panelists discuss how fire alarm codes are addressing issues of mass notification and calls for easier modification of existing fire panels.

By Melissa Hillebrand, Associate Editor February 1, 2008

This month’s panelists discuss how fire alarm codes are addressing issues of mass notification and calls for easier modification of existing fire panels.

CSE: The 2007 edition of NFPA 72, Fire Alarm Panels, has a new annex for mass notification. How did this come about and what are continuing developments moving toward the 2010 code cycle?

RODGER REISWIG : In June of 2003 the Air Force Civil Engineering Support Group petitioned NFPA to add detailed information for mass notification systems. In particular, they were concerned with a conflict that the fire alarm had to take priority over all other signals. NFPA 72 created Annex E and placed it in the 2007 edition of NFPA 72, National Fire Alarm Code, to give guidance as to how mass notification systems could interoperate with fire alarm control systems.

As a result of the new Annex E the NFPA Standards Council subsequently requested the NFPA 72 Technical Correlating Committee (TCC), to review mass notification systems and determine if the material should be brought into the body of the code, and if so, how. The TCC’s response was a recommendation to create a new Technical Committee for emergency communications systems (ECS) and include in it all emergency communications. This also meant that portions of the existing code that pertained to emergency communications would have to be moved from their existing locations.

The new ECS technical committee met several times in 2007 and developed a draft of the new chapter. The draft was then submitted as a proposal to NFPA 72. During the proposal stage there were also other proposals submitted that have to be coordinated with the draft proposal.

WILLIAM KOFFEL : Among other changes to the 2002 edition of NFPA 72, the new annex provides guidelines to assist in coordinating design and installation of integrated mass notification and fire alarm systems to ensure effective communication during an emergency situation. Although it is not known at this time, continuing developments may include further developments to the annex, or more likely the eventual adoption of the annex into the body of the standard.

LYNN NIELSON : For the 2010 code cycle, the Standards Council directed the TCC to form a new committee. The technical correlating committee formed a technical committee and gave them responsibility for emergency communication systems including mass notification systems. With the formulation of this new committee and through public proposal and comment processes, I anticipate further refinements for the 2010 code cycle.

CSE: Some experts suggest that legislation of recent years and greater concerns for life safety have led to systems that can be easily modified in the future. Do you find this to be the case?

REISWIG : I believe today’s fire alarm systems are a natural progression of mass notification systems. The fire alarm system has been performing mass notification for years with the use of strobe lights, horn, bells, and voice over fire alarm speakers. Fire alarm systems have been used for years to provide additional emergency notification, such as weather alerts and other emergencies such as chemical spills and biological hazards, especially in the industrial world. The concept of continuing to use the fire alarm system to also alert occupants of potential danger other than fire is both cost effective and efficient. If a building already has a fire alarm system, it is typically relatively easy to add mass notification components. Also, the priority of mass notification messages and fire alarm messages are easier to address if the programming is within a single system.

KOFFEL : During the design of a fire alarm system, if system expansion capability is provided, it is usually done to accommodate future building growth or interior renovations. Proper system design can allow for modifications to systems without compromising the integrity of the system.

CSE: Does the specifying of alarm device types and location tend to be prescriptive in the codes, or do designers have considerable latitude in these designs?

NIELSON : Prescriptive code requirements and the competitive bidding processes normally drive device and appliance selection.

KOFFEL : In general terms, yes. It should be noted, however, that system designers do have a certain degree of latitude; an example would be a performance-based alternative approaches to visual notification device coverage and detector coverage, which NFPA 72 permits. We also are seeing more consideration for fire alarm performance as part of equivalencies and performance-based designs.

REISWIG : For fire alarm systems, the codes (both on a national and local level) are generally very prescriptive. For mass notification there is much more latitude. Within the new chapter 12 for NFPA 72, the building owner should perform a risk analysis and develop an emergency response plan based on the identified risks and to determine what the performance characteristics of the system need to be.

CSE: Since Sept. 11, there has been much talk about how what first responders want most is information. Describe some recent innovations in fire command centers—especially in high-rise buildings—for first responders?

NIELSON : Since Sept. 11 fire command centers innovations are more a result of changing and improving technology than a result of prescriptive code changes. Some manufacturers use the standard emergency service interface. Standardized interfaces facilitate information transfer to responders.

REISWIG : Fire alarm systems have been used very successfully to annunciate a specific location of a fire event and allowed for firefighters to staff a location to facilitate response plans, review subsequent alarms and if the system is equipped with a voice and speaker system use the microphone to give specific messages to specific areas of a facility.

With the addition of mass notification the responders might not be the fire alarm department and could be local police or federal law enforcement. The systems need to not only transmit what initiated an alarm but also possibly provide detailed information outside of the facility, web sites, or radio systems. Again, the emergency response plan that the owner’s team needs to create will dictate what equipment, functionality, and priorities the facility’s system will require.

KOFFEL : The industry has been working hard to address a common fire service interface that meets the needs of the fire service. There have also been numerous forums during which the needs and desires of the fire service have been discussed.

CSE: Regarding mass notification systems, how are false activations and inconveniences eliminated or reduced?

KOFFEL : In our opinion, the best way to reduce or eliminate false activations and related inconvenience of mass notification systems is through proper application, selection, design, and installation of such systems. Coordination of mass notification systems and other building communication system functions such as the fire alarm system is essential. When done successfully at the onset, proper design and installation of mass notification systems serve to reduce if not altogether eliminate nuisance type events.

REISWIG : Most activations will be manually initiated, so it is not anticipated there will be false activations. In cases where the activation is to be initiated automatically, regular inspection, testing, and maintenance should be in place.

CSE: In regard to mass notification systems, who should manage and operate the facility’s mass notification system? Police, fire, building operations, others? Who decides?

KOFFEL : Neither the UFC for Mass Notification Systems nor Annex E in NFPA 72 designates responsibility for system management and operation. The UFC requires that each DOD component assign those responsibilities. Annex E in NFPA 72 suggests that the systems operator of a mass notification system be properly trained in the purpose, functions, procedures, and anticipated actions of such systems.

REISWIG : The response plan developed by the owner’s team should determine who would have authority during what type of emergency. The proposed chapter 12 in NFPA 72, 2010 edition provides a guide in developing the emergency response plan.


William E. Koffel, PE, FSFPE

President, Koffel Assocs.

Elkridge, Md.

Lynn B. Nielson, PE

Sr. Fire Plans Examiner

City of HendersonHenderson, Nev.

Rodger Reiswig, SET

Director, Industry Relations

SimplexGrinnell Boca Raton, Fla.