Know the updates to NFPA 72-2019

The 2019 update of NFPA 72 provides fire protection engineers improved mass notification and emergency communication guidelines. Here's a look at what's new in the most recent version of the code.

By William E. Koffel, PE, FSFPE, Koffel Associates, Columbia, Md. March 13, 2019

Learning objectives

  • Identify at least three changes to the 2019 edition of NFPA 72: National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code that impact the design of fire alarm systems.
  • Explain the distinction between visible and visual as it relates to alarm notification appliances.
  • Identify at least two changes impacting emergency communication systems.
  • List at least two occupancies for which recommended ambient sound-pressure levels have been revised.

The purpose of this article is to highlight some of the more significant changes between the 2019 and 2016 editions of NFPA 72 that may be of interest to design professionals. It should be noted that not all changes are addressed in the article. Furthermore, for the specific provisions of NFPA 72, the reader is directed to refer directly to NFPA 72-2019. 

In August 2018, the NFPA Standards Council issued the 2019 edition of NFPA 72: National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code. This is the edition that will be referenced in the 2021 editions of the International Building Code (IBC), International Fire Code (IFC), NFPA 101: Life Safety Code, and NFPA 1: Fire Code.

Design professionals may also consider the 2019 edition as the current standard of care, although compliance with an older edition of the document may still be required by local and state codes. As such, when the provisions of the 2019 edition are to be used in a jurisdiction that references an older edition of the document, the equivalency clause in Chapter 1 of NFPA 72 should be used.

Carbon monoxide alarmsdetectors, and systems

Especially with the increased requirements for carbon monoxide alarms and detectors, probably the biggest change in NFPA 72 is the withdrawal of NFPA 720 and the integration of the requirements for carbon monoxide alarms, detectors, and systems into NFPA 72.

The requirements for carbon monoxide equipment has been integrated throughout various sections of NFPA 72. For example, the requirements for carbon monoxide detectors are included in Chapter 17 along with all other initiating devices.


Another change that occurs throughout the document is that several terms have been changed throughout the document, and as such, it would be appropriate to make the same changes to project specifications when NFPA 72-2019 is the reference standard. These terminology changes include:

  • Changing the word “speaker” to “loudspeaker.”
  • Changing the word “visible” to “visual” when referring to alarm notification appliances since visible implies direct human observation.
  • Changing “communication” to “communications.”
  • Using “activate” for electrical activations and “actuate” for mechanical actuations.

Protection of fire alarm control units

The requirement that fire alarm control units located in areas that are not continuously occupied be protected by smoke detectors has been retained with some editorial changes (Section 10.4.5). However, a new paragraph (Section 10.4.6) has been added to state that such early detection is not required for dedicated-function fire alarm control units that are not required to provide notification signals either locally within the building or to a supervising station.

An example of such an application is a dedicated-function fire alarm control unit that provides the dedicated function of elevator recall in a building that does not otherwise have a fire alarm system. However, it should be noted that many U.S.-based codes would still require that the waterflow alarm be transmitted to a supervising station; therefore, early detection may still be required.

Listing standards

In several locations, NFPA 72 states that a component, such as a manual fire alarm box, shall be listed in accordance with the appropriate UL standard. While the intent in previous editions was to allow standards other than the specifically identified UL standard, language has been added so as not to preclude the use of some other applicable standard. The new text will typically read “listed in accordance with the applicable standards, such as … .”

From a design professional’s perspective, if one wants to mandate the use of the UL standard, the project specifications should now include a requirement to list in accordance with the UL standard(s). However, if the project is in an area where there is another equivalent standard, the project specifications could reference the other standard and the UL standard would not be required by NFPA 72.

Ambient sound-pressure levels

Annex A contains guidance regarding typical ambient sound-pressure levels for various occupancies and uses within a building. Based on recent reports published by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and to reflect current approximations, the typical ambient sound levels in business and industrial occupancies, mechanical equipment rooms, and places of assembly have been revised.

In circumstances where multiple measurements were possible, the change is based on an average but excludes the maximum and minimum values. In circumstances where two measurements were available, the committee selected the value closest to the existing measurement as recommended by the submitter. These changes are reflected in the table provided in Annex A (A.18.4.4).

Visual alarm notification appliances

Light-pulse durations greater than 20 milliseconds, but not greater than 100 milliseconds, are now permitted where the alerting capability of the visual notification appliance is demonstrated to be equal to or greater than visual notification appliances with a 20-millisecond pulse duration (see and Table A.

The change is based on testing performed by the UL with guidance from the UL Standards Technical Panel (STP) Task Group indicating that equivalent alerting can be achieved with a pulse duration greater than 20 milliseconds by increasing the candela output to compensate for the longer pulse duration. It should be noted that the increase in candela output is not something that design professionals or contractors can do; this is addressed during the listing of the product.

Research also has shown that ambient lighting plays an important part in visual notification appliance performance. Therefore, Annex A material was added to provide support for the selection of visual notification appliances for ambient lighting conditions (see A.


Significant revisions have been made to the requirements for fire-service access elevators and occupant-evacuation-operation (OEO) elevators. Many of the changes result in better coordination with recent changes to ASME A 17.1/CSA B44: Safety Code for Elevators and Escalators. The changes are significant and could be considered a rewrite of the section addressing OEO elevators. They also represent a package of changes that resulted in the desired coordination, and as such, it is challenging to highlight any specific changes.

Many of the changes are reflected in a new figure (Figure A.21.6) that has been added to illustrate the elevator system interface with the building fire alarm system for OEO elevators. Current building code requirements in many jurisdictions are resulting in more fire-service access elevators and OEO elevators being required and provided in buildings, especially very tall buildings.

It should also be noted that when fire alarm devices are installed in an elevator shaft, access for inspection and testing shall be provided from outside of the shaft (Section 21.3.7).

Emergency communications systems

A new provision requires that the proposed language for prerecorded automatic emergency voice messages be identified on the permit plans. At a minimum, the language shall be the official spoken language in that area, as determined by the authority having jurisdiction (see The language does not restrict the use of messages using multiple languages, but at least the official language shall be used.

With respect to control units for mass notification systems, the option to have the equipment listed to UL 2017 has been deleted. The equipment is now required to be listed to UL 864 or UL 2572. The scope of UL 2017 includes nonemergency equipment and was useful at a time when UL 2572 did not exist. It also should be noted that not all equipment listed to UL 864 will meet all the performance requirements for mass notification system control units. While equipment listed to UL 864 may be used for mass notification systems, equipment listed solely to UL 2572 is not permitted to be used as a fire alarm control unit.

Recent changes to the International Building Code and to NFPA 101 require that a risk analysis be performed for new fire alarm systems in certain buildings. The provisions that address the required risk analysis remain in NFPA 72. However, when the risk-analysis requirement was only in the mass notification system section of Chapter 24 of NFPA 72, a design professional could decide not to include a mass notification system in a project without doing the risk analysis because there would be no need to refer to the Chapter 24 requirements.

Language was added to indicate that previously approved risk analyses may be used as a baseline for new or renovated facilities (see For example, if a new dormitory building is constructed on a university campus and the building is similar to other such dorms on campus, a previously prepared risk analysis may be adequate or at least serve as a baseline for the new building. However, if a new 26,000-seat sports arena is being constructed on a university campus where no such facility previously existed, any existing risk analysis will most likely need to be revised to address the new sports arena.

Active shooter incidents

There are no changes in the 2019 edition of NFPA 72 related to active shooter incidents. However, as NFPA 72 was completing this last cycle, several such incidents occurred, which spurred some initiatives at the state and local level to reduce or relax the requirements for fire alarm systems in schools. Such an initiative is not within the scope of NFPA 72, but rather rests with the building code and fire code. The recently completed International Code Council code-change cycle addressed the IFC and the fire safety provisions in IBC, with no modifications to the requirements indicating when a fire alarm system is required in schools.

An argument can be made that NFPA 72, including editions such as the 2013 and 2016 releases, already address the issue. With respect to the priority of various signals, NFPA 72 states that mass notification system signals can take precedence over fire alarm systems. While it is recognized that many of the facilities involved in the recent incidents did not have mass notification systems, a properly designed mass notification system could be an alternative solution to eliminating any type of fire alarm system in schools.

With the risk-analysis requirement moved to the building and fire codes, the potential need for mass notification systems in such facilities will be addressed more completely. When the risk analysis is prepared, the stakeholders will be better able to make a risk-informed decision as to whether a mass notification system should be provided. If provided, the mass notification system can provide better emergency communications during active shooter incidents, and it should not be necessary to eliminate a proven fire protection strategy of providing fire alarm systems in schools.

Fire protection engineers also may want to refer to NFPA 3000: Standard for an Active Shooter/Hostile Event Response Program, currently the 2018 edition.

Feedback and updates

This article has highlighted some of the more significant changes contained in NFPA 72-2019 that impact the design professionals designing fire alarm systems. There are other changes addressing topics, such as supervising stations and inspection, testing, and maintenance  that are not included in the article because they are issues generally outside the scope of services of the design professional.

That is not to say that the design professional should not be concerned with inspection, testing, and maintenance. New technology is resulting in automated test equipment, such as addressable alarm notification appliances, and remote-monitoring capabilities should be considered when specifying fire alarm systems. Clearly, access for inspection, testing, and maintenance should also be a consideration when designing a fire alarm system, as noted with the above-referenced change regarding fire alarm devices in elevator hoistways.

Lastly, design professionals are encouraged to participate in the process by which NFPA codes and standards are developed. With respect to NFPA 72, visit to review and submit public input to revise and improve NFPA 72. The deadline for submitting input for the next edition of NFPA 72 (2022 edition) is June 26, 2019.

Author Bio: William E. Koffel is president of Koffel Associates. He is chair of the NFPA Correlating Committee on Life Safety and a member of several NFPA technical committees. He is a member of the Consulting-Specifying Engineer editorial advisory board.