Integrating commissioning, testing for fire alarm systems

System coordination includes commissioning and integrated testing of fire alarm systems using NFPA 3 and NFPA 4 as guidance.

By Joshua Greene, PE, Jensen Hughes, Framingham, Mass. January 30, 2017

Learning objectives

  • Analyze NFPA 3 and NFPA 4, and how they relate to commissioning and testing fire protection systems.
  • Know the steps to commissioning and testing fire alarm systems.
  • Apply NFPA 3 and NFPA 4 in the design of a coordinated fire protection system.

Over the past decade, building design and construction has undergone a transformation of sorts. Gone are the days of individual standalone systems, designed in a vacuum by isolated design professionals from the various disciplines, with coordination limited to making sure equipment fit into the spaces allotted for it.

Today’s building designs emphasize system integration to achieve sustainability and efficiency goals. While this makes for a more stimulating design and construction effort, with professionals from all disciplines engaged to achieve much more lofty goals for the facility, it also requires foresight in the early stages of a project to develop a strategy and process to confirm that not only single systems are operating as intended, but also that system coordination is attained at the end of construction.

For fire protection systems, this process includes elements of both commissioning and integrated testing, as documented in NFPA 3: Recommended Practice for Commissioning of Fire Protection and Life Safety Systems and NFPA 4: Standard for Integrated Fire Protection and Life Safety System Testing.

Commissioning and integrated testing are two different concepts, though both are needed to properly evaluate the operation of a fire alarm system and confirm that it interacts properly with other systems. In practice, the two are not necessarily inclusive. A commissioning authority (CxA) is responsible for the commissioning of individual systems, such as the fire alarm system, and does not evaluate interaction with other systems. An integrated testing agent (ITa) plans and executes the integrated testing of interconnected systems. The CxA and the ITa are not required to be the same entity.

However, a company or person who has qualifications of both fire alarm commissioning and integrated testing can provide both services, which is a good practice that also increases efficiencies. For the sake of simplicity in this article, the CxA and the ITa are considered to be the same person or company-one that is qualified to serve both roles simultaneously.

Commissioning has many definitions. The focus is on the commissioning and integrated testing of fire alarm systems, so the definition from NFPA 3 seems most appropriate:

A systematic process that provides documented confirmation that building systems function according to the intended design criteria set forth in the project documents and satisfy the owner’s operational needs, including compliance with applicable laws, regulations, codes, and standards.

This definition summarizes the intent of commissioning efforts while highlighting the overall intent of the process: the assessment and documentation that systems operate as intended by design and meet owner’s needs as well as applicable code and standards. It is very important to note the distinction that commissioning determines that systems meet design criteria and code requirements as well as satisfy owner needs. CxAs are ultimately working on behalf of the owner’s best interest and need to keep that fact in mind throughout the project. 

The fire alarm system hub

Building commissioning efforts are far-ranging, with evaluations for all building systems as well as their interaction with other systems to meet facility objectives. As a result, fire alarm commissioning represents a small portion of the overall whole. Despite its relative scope in relation to other systems, however, the fire alarm system is critical to the building operation and typically requires coordination with many other facets of the building commissioning. In most buildings, the fire alarm system acts as a central hub of information gathering and distribution, especially with respect to other fire protection and life safety systems. Consider for a moment some of the building systems with which the fire alarm system may communicate, depending on the type and scale of the building (see Figure 1):

  • Alarm notification
  • Building management systems (BMS)
  • Elevator systems
  • Emergency communication/notification systems
  • Emergency power
  • Fire suppression systems
  • Gas detection
  • HVAC systems
  • Security and access control systems
  • Smoke control systems.

This is not an exhaustive list, as buildings with special hazards or occupancies will have additional systems that may interface with the fire alarm system. Process equipment in industrial facilities may coordinate shutdown procedures with the fire alarm systems under specific scenarios. Assembly spaces, such as theaters and performance halls, may interface with the fire alarm system to terminate audio in the room and bring up house lighting upon certain circumstances to provide orderly evacuation.

The point is that although the fire alarm system is a single system within a building, its interaction with other systems is now extensive. It is no longer a control panel at the entrance to the building, communicating with alarm-activation devices, supervising a few sprinkler system control valves, and activating occupant-notification appliances. Mapping and confirming the flow of information to and from the fire alarm system and identifying its interactions with other systems can be a complex and daunting undertaking. The CxA for the fire alarm system must, therefore, not only understand that system, but also be able to recognize and comprehend the extent and intent of the interplay with other systems under all scenarios and then capture it all in the commissioning effort. 

Fire alarm commissioning/testing

In an ideal world, the fire alarm commissioning and integrated testing effort would be established and coordinated at the start of the design of a project and follow the systematic approach documented in NFPA 3 and NFPA 4. That approach is summarized below:

  1. Review and assist in final development of the owner’s project requirements (OPR) document, which establishes the design objectives and goals of the systems.
  2. Review and provide input on the basis of design (BOD) report, which records the specific design strategy for each system.
  3. Perform design reviews throughout the project to evaluate the design and sequence of operations against the BOD.
  4. Develop a commissioning plan, which is a living document detailing the commissioning process and tests required as part of the commissioning. The commissioning plan should include a commissioning schedule, which is evaluated and updated periodically as the project progresses.
  5. Develop an integrated test plan, which identifies the specific tests that will be conducted for each system, including the interaction of systems as required to confirm that the building will operate as intended and meet the objectives.
  6. Review and verify that shop drawing/equipment system submittals are in conformance with the BOD.
  7. Perform regular inspections during installation to verify compliance with design and approved system submittal documents.
  8. Perform system testing in accordance with the commissioning plan and prepare documentation. Follow-up testing and inspections may be necessary to
  9. Prepare the commissioning report, which is a comprehensive database of all information developed during the full commissioning process.
  10. Perform system testing in accordance with the integrated testing plan and prepare documentation. Follow-up testing and inspections may be necessary to verify that required modifications are made and the system operates as required.
  11. Prepare the integrated test report, which outlines the test performed and the results of those tests. The integrated test report also provides the recommended periodic integrated test frequency based on their understanding and the complexity of the system.

Unfortunately, we often do not live and work in an ideal world. Currently, fire alarm commissioning rarely follows the NFPA systematic approach for a number of reasons.

The simplest reason relates to a common misunderstanding of the intended breadth of commissioning and integrated testing. Despite the consistently growing trend toward "commissioning" a building, too often system acceptance testing with the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) is still erroneously equated to it, especially for fire protection systems. The project stakeholders simply expect that system acceptance testing performed in accordance with the system design and installation standard will suffice.

For fire protection systems, the requirement for testing of the system before receiving approval from the AHJ is a disadvantage. For many other systems, commissioning represents the inauguration of a means of evaluating and testing system performance. Commissioning means starting with a clean slate for these systems. Having an evaluation method already in place for fire alarm systems can make it harder to alter existing preconceptions to reflect the true mission of commissioning and integrated testing.

Another reason for not following this systemic approach is cost. Comprehensive commissioning and testing in any form represent a greater cost to owners than in the past. While it can be argued that the upfront cost of commissioning is defrayed by verifying that the building is operating properly and efficiently, it can still represent sticker shock to an owner. With energy efficiency and sustainability representing the vanguard of the commissioning movement, it is easy to dismiss other systems that don’t directly or noticeably contribute to these goals. The other reality in today’s marketplace is that the fire protection systems are rarely properly reviewed, coordinated, designed, and installed with an eye toward both code compliance and the best interest of the owner. The commissioning process fills that void.

Many owners or end users don’t recognize the importance of the fire alarm system and its interaction with various other systems, thus it is treated as a single system that can be easily commissioned at the end of a project. This can lead to one of two scenarios:

  1. The fire alarm system is commissioned as a standalone system and its integration with other systems is never evaluated.
  2. Recognition of its role as a central hub for several systems occurs late in design or into construction, and an abbreviated commissioning process is administered.

Neither scenario is beneficial to creating a fully integrated and functional building, though scenario two at least offers the potential to achieve commissioning goals at the end of the project. In fact, the second scenario probably represents the current standard for commissioning a fire alarm system, at least based on the bulk of our experience. Initiating commissioning efforts near the end of design or during the construction phase of a project is normal, and it comes with challenges and the potential for significant discomfort for both the design and construction teams. While the systematic approach of the NFPA documents may appear to be excessive to some, it can alleviate a lot of issues and apprehension at the end of a project.

Advantages of the NFPA process for fire alarm systems

Providing fire alarm commissioning services throughout the design and construction phases of a project creates benefits when compared with a reduced scope, because of the increased level of engagement. Benefits can include:

Ownership buy-in: The NFPA process recommends the preparation of the OPR document at the beginning of the design. This document initiates a dialogue between the building ownership, the project team, and the CxA that may otherwise not have occurred. While architects certainly engage ownership to develop their design, many of the engineering disciplines don’t participate in those discussions or participate to a lesser degree. Having an experienced fire alarm CxA adds another perspective to those discussions, as the CxA can help recommend options or design approach efforts to attain ownership goals and objectives. Having that dialogue increases the potential for satisfaction with the building upon completion of construction.

Improved design coordination: The inclusion of a fire alarm CxA early in a project can provide early identification of necessary coordination between disciplines. Where systems interact, exclusions of key design elements or equipment are common. This is because design-team members either expected another member to include it in the design or each member designed different equipment for the same purpose.

A recurring example is the firefighter’s smoke control panel, which is required by many building codes when a smoke control system is included in the building. Mechanical designers typically design the smoke control system, but many consider the smoke control panel to be fire alarm equipment designed and specified by the engineer of record (EOR) for the fire alarm system. The EOR expects the same equipment to be specified by the mechanical engineer because it represents controls for the smoke control system. A fire alarm CxA can catch this disparity during reviews in the design stage. If commissioning efforts aren’t provided during the design phase, this will lead to cost and schedule impacts, as smoke control panels can be long lead-time items.

Efficient testing: NFPA recommends the development of an integrated test plan to document the different tests that need to be administered to properly verify that systems operate in harmony under the different design scenarios. A good integrated test plan will not just identify fire alarm testing prescribed by NFPA 72: National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code, but also will document all scenarios involving the fire alarm system and its role with other systems. The test plan is provided to project team members including designers and contractors. This ensures they understand the tests as well as the scenario(s) being verified by a particular test process, so that they can verify their part of the design and offer input before the testing. Subcontractors are often given directions regarding their specific role and don’t understand the bigger picture regarding the operations of a building. Test scenarios can give them the overall objective.

An example of the benefit of this additional information involves the fire alarm programmer. This role is responsible for programming the fire alarm system to recognize input information and have the system react a specific way based on that information (this often takes the form of an input/output matrix in a fire alarm design). Knowledge of the overall goal for each scenario can make that job easier and may even cause the programmer to modify the program to be more efficient in achieving each objective.

Easier system maintenance and testing: Fire alarm CxAs work as owner representatives and their input can substantially impact the time, energy, and money needed to maintain and test fire alarm systems for the life of the building. Examples include recommending beam smoke detectors for the protection of a high-ceiling area or atrium that would otherwise require a lift every time the smoke detectors need maintenance and testing, or verifying that there is proper and easy access to duct smoke detectors in an above-ceiling or shaft condition. These items can help reduce annual fire alarm service contracts because maintenance and testing tasks are easier and take fewer man-hours, which ultimately cost the owner less over the life of the building.

Abbreviated fire alarm commissioning and integrated testing

Whenever a process that is designed to coordinate and integrate multiple systems under a wide range of different situations is condensed, there are consequences. This is no different for fire alarm commissioning and testing. The following are typical issues that arise when the fire alarm commissioning scope is reduced:

Poor system coordination: While the NFPA 3 commissioning process can identify and resolve coordination issues early in the design process, the opposite is true when commissioning is short-circuited or does not begin until after the design is complete. Unfortunately, abbreviated fire alarm commissioning is the norm in most projects, which can leave the design team, the construction team, and the CxA scrambling to coordinate systems at the end of a project. There are numerous examples of the fallout from this, but most-if not all-result in either a negative impact on the project schedule or cost. In the worst cases, both schedule and cost impacts occur. Issues can range from significant field modifications of existing equipment and systems with resulting retests to the more serious need to add or replace installed devices and equipment to meet project objectives.

Reduced testing efficiency: The benefits of early development of the integrated test plan for commissioning efforts was discussed previously. The other side of the coin is the inefficiencies inherent in trying to develop a test plan or, worse yet, commissioning without a fully developed integrated test plan. There have been numerous instances where the personnel who were necessary to fully test a system and its integrated parts did not participate because it wasn’t in their scope or they didn’t believe that they needed to be present. Test plans developed late in the project still have value, but it is diminished when compared with those developed while designs are still flexible.

Redesign: Commissioning can uncover design and/or installation issues, such as the lack of code-required or owner-desired fire-rated survivability of fire alarm circuits or fire alarm speakers that do not provide the needed intelligibility. These types of items are much more costly in both time and money to fix during the final stages of construction, as compared with the relative ease of updating documents during the design phase of the project. These types of big issues late in the process can be unnerving for the owner, general contractor, fire alarm system EOR, and installing fire alarm contractor.

Missing building opening date: Because fire alarm system installation, testing, and approval are absolute necessities in obtaining a certificate of occupancy or temporary certificate of occupancy, the fire alarm system may not be completed, tested, and approved on time due to the some of the potential delays discussed above. Many owners have liquidated damage clauses in the contract if the building is not delivered on time. The fire alarm system is typically one of the last systems completed, tested, and approved by the local authorities prior to the building being able to be occupied. 

Fire alarm commissioning guides and references

NFPA 3 is a fairly new recommended practice that was developed to fill the need for guidance on commissioning of fire protection systems. It is expected to graduate from a recommended practice to a NFPA standard in 2018.

NFPA 4 was divided from NFPA 3 and is now a standard that can be directly referenced by building codes. In addition to NFPA 3 and NFPA 4, many articles and documents have already been written describing the overall process of fire protection commissioning and integrating systems. One of the better documents resides in Chapter 49 of the 5th edition of the SFPE Handbook of Fire Protection Engineering. This chapter, entitled Considerations for Coordinating and Interfacing Fire Protection and Life Safety Systems, is a recommended resource for those tasked with providing commissioning for fire protection and life safety systems.

Joshua Greene is a vice president at Jensen Hughes. Greene specializes in the practical application of fire protection principles in support of unique designs. He is a member of the Consulting-Specifying Engineer editorial advisory board.