The benefits of integrated fire protection and life safety system testing

NFPA 3 and NFPA 4 explore integrated fire protection and life safety system testing and are vital to a building’s overall fire/life safety implementation.
By Allyn Vaughn, PE FSFPE, NV5, Las Vegas July 26, 2018

Learning objectives

  • Explore the need for integrated system testing.
  • Define who should be part of the testing team.
  • Explain what is required when integrated testing is provided.

An integrated fire protection and life safety system combines the various individual systems that make up a building’s overall life safety approach. In other words, the integrated systems include many of the systems located in buildings today, such as fire alarm and detection systems, fire-suppression systems, smoke-control systems, emergency and standby power systems, security systems, and elevator controls. Integrated system testing tests the overall life safety/fire protection system for the facility as if it were operating as a single system. 

For the most part, integrated system testing is necessary because it ensures that the various controls are operating as intended based on the inputs and outputs of the various individual systems. Each of the individual systems are designed and installed by separate entities and are commissioned and tested individually, but they require integrated testing to make sure the building’s life safety features are operating as intended.

Almost all buildings constructed today have automatic sprinkler systems, which need to be monitored. If the building has a fire alarm system, that system will monitor the sprinkler systems. Often, if the building is large enough, the fire alarm system combines voice evacuation with the alarm and detection systems. If an alarm occurs in one area of the building, which areas need to be evacuated and which do not? The larger the building, the more complex the system-interfacing requirements. If the building has elevators, emergency operations are required, and these are typically combined with a fire alarm system. If the building has smoke-control systems, a combination of HVAC controls and fire alarm controls are employed to provide the required operation. High-rise buildings provide more complexity to the life safety system requirements. The bigger and more diverse the building, the more complex the integration is with individual systems. Typically, it requires multiple systems and multiple trades to provide the life safety features for large and complex facilities. That is a main reason for integrated system testing. (See Figure 1.)

Figure 1: The Wynn Palace Cotai luxury resort in Macau is an example of a complex facility. Courtesy: NV5  Integrated system approaches

A variety of methods can be used to integrate systems so that inputs and outputs from the individual systems combine to make up the overall system. The two most common approaches are through relay contacts and data transmission. Relay contacts are sent from the initiating system (referred to as outputs) and monitored by the receiving system (referred to as inputs) so that actions can take place. Data transmission occurs when the systems incorporate a common software platform so that the programming language is shared among the systems along a common network. This is similar to an office or home network interface. Computers and workstations can share information directly through the network. Understanding how the various systems "talk" to each other gives foundation to the integrated system test plan.

NFPA saw the need for integrated system testing, as well as commissioning, several years ago. NFPA 3: Recommend Practice for Commissioning and Integrated Testing of Fire Protection and Life Safety Systems was first issued in 2012 to outline a systematic approach to provide documented confirmation that fire protection and life safety systems functioned as intended. NFPA 3 became the genesis for NFPA 4: Standard for Integrated Fire Protection and Life Safety System Testing. NFPA 4 became a standard in 2015, while NFPA 3 became a standard in 2018. A standard is used by governing codes to provide direction to design, installation, and in this case, testing procedures and is part of the governing code requirements through adoption of the standard in the codes.

Since NFPA 4 is a standard for integrated system testing, once it is adopted by the governing codes, such as the International Building Code and NFPA fire codes, it can be used to provide consistency for integrated system testing. The key function of NFPA 4 is to outline the requirements for the testing including the testing team and test plan. The primary team includes the owner, an integrated testing agent (ITa), and the testing team, which is made up of the various trades associated with each individual system. NFPA 4 also outlines the qualification requirements for the ITa and the coordination requirements between the ITa and the testing team. NFPA 4 addresses the development of a test plan, test scenarios, and the documentation requirements for the testing results.

Figure 2: A sample input/output matrix for an integrated smoke-control system. Courtesy: NV5  One of the key elements of integrated system testing is the ITa. This person is key to the test plan’s development, test scenarios, required documentation, and most importantly, understanding the interaction of the various systems to provide the building’s overall life safety approach. Section 3.3.13 of NFPA 4 defines the role and requirements for the ITa as "a person or entity identified by the owner, who plans, schedules, documents, coordinates, and implements the integrated testing of the fire protection and life safety systems and their associated subsystems."

As previously mentioned, the ITa needs to be familiar with various subsystems and have a good understanding of how the subsystems interact with each other in order to develop the test plan and coordinate the integrated system testing. NFPA 4 requires the ITa to have skills that demonstrate experience or knowledge of integrated operations of the design, installation, operation, and maintenance of the type of fire protection and life safety systems that are installed. The ITa can be the owner or a separate individual designated by the owner. Ideally, the person would be someone experienced in life safety and fire protection system design and installation and have practical experience in testing and commissioning these systems.

Another key element to integrated system testing is the test plan. The test plan provides documentation of which subsystems make up the integrated system, how each system functions individually and as a whole, who is needed to test the integrated systems, and a comprehensive functional matrix outlining all system inputs and associated outputs. The functional matrix is also used to develop the test scenarios that details which specific device provides the input and which specific equipment and devices are part of the output. For instance, when certain smoke detectors or sprinkler waterflow alarms are initiated and received at the fire alarm panel, what fan, damper, door, or elevator is controlled? The functional matrix and test scenarios detail the specific devices by identification number or classification so that the installation team can appropriately install and program the subsystems and the test team can verify the proper output functions.

Once the test plan is developed, it becomes part of the overall documentation for the building’s life safety approach. It is a vital record for initial commissioning, but more so as a document for future testing and renovations to the building. It becomes a source of record for how the building is intended to function, when renovations occur, how they will maintain the overall life safety approach to the building. Often, the original construction documents become obsolete as renovations occur, but the test plan can be used to determine the approach to life safety for the building. This is another reason why it is important to have an integrated testing requirement, to ensure the life safety approach for the building can be maintained throughout its lifecycle. Codes and construction practices may change over time, but it’s critical that the approach to the building’s life safety remains consistent.

Figure 3: A sample checklist for an integrated system test scenario. Courtesy: NV5   Many of the codes and standards outline the testing requirements and frequencies for testing individual subsystems. NFPA 25: Standard for the Inspection, Testing, and Maintenance of Water-Based Fire Protection Systems outlines the testing and frequencies for fire-suppression systems. NFPA 72: National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code outlines the requirements for fire alarm testing and inspections. Testing requirements for other systems, such as elevators and emergency generators, are addressed in other standards. Prior to NFPA 3 and NFPA 4, only the individual subsystems needed to be tested on an ongoing basis-nothing required integrated system testing. During the initial commissioning of the building, local agencies would require integrated testing in some form, but it was more ad hoc. The advent of NFPA 3 and NFPA 4 now provides better clarity as to what is expected for the initial commissioning and ongoing testing of the integrated systems. While NFPA 4 requires an integrated test, the methodologies for testing components are still found in the installation standards of those specific systems.

Third-party testing and inspection has been part of the model building codes since the 1994 Uniform Building Code,and the special inspection agency performed integrated testing as it related to the smoke-control system. This included integrated testing of fire alarm, automatic sprinkler, and smoke-control systems as well as emergency and standby power systems. Testing these systems employed many of the requirements found in NFPA 3 and NFPA 4. When the integrated system performance is demonstrated, this is referred to as the "all-systems test."

In reality, this is the integrated system testing that is outlined in NFPA 4. A test plan was developed to determine what systems needed to operate and how they would operate. Control diagrams were prepared as well as test scenarios. These became the basis for programming and testing the various subsystems, and for confirming the proper output functions for all of the subsystems and how they worked together to provide the life safety approach for the building. Once the testing was completed, copies of inspection records, a narrative of system testing, and the manufacturer’s data sheets were compiled to document system operation and performance in accordance with the approved design documents. It became part of the as-built records for the building. Now NFPA 3 and NFPA 4 provide a practice and standard to document what is required for consistency among the local agencies in the U.S. and other countries that adopt NFPA.

The importance of having these standards and practices is to make sure that integrated system testing and commissioning is performed-and performed correctly-to confirm the life safety features function including:

  • Confirms that the fire alarm and automatic sprinkler systems provide the proper signals to other systems and equipment to maintain a safe environment during an emergency event.
  • Controls the spread of fire and smoke within a building.
  • Provides life safety operations for elevators.
  • Notifies building occupants and responding personnel of an emergency event and what type of event.
  • Provides a method to indicate what devices and equipment are required to be configured and operate as part of the integrated system.

As mentioned above, many of the subsystems are designed and installed by different contractors and trades. Fire alarm systems can be installed by the electrician doing the building’s power and signal wiring, by a separate contractor, or by a combination of both. Automatic sprinklers are installed by a different contractor. The mechanical contractor installs the HVAC systems, which are typically wired and powered by the electrical contractor, who also provides and installs the emergency generators and emergency power systems. The HVAC controls can be done by yet another contractor, and the elevators, kitchen-suppression systems, and security systems by others. Doors and shutters installed at fire barriers are often installed under the general contractor’s scope of work. Individual testing for each of these systems is performed to make sure their systems work as designed, but the need for integrated system testing is very important to make sure they work in unison.

Figure 4: An illustration of all the components in a typical integrated system. Courtesy: NV5The primary responsibility of the ITa is to determine how the integrated system works and functions, but also to determine who needs to be part of the test team. The more complex the building, the more there is a need to make sure all required test-team members are present to properly test the integrated systems.

If a damper does not indicate it is open of closed under a test scenario, the mechanical contactor may need to confirm the damper is operating, the electrical contractor may need to determine that it is wired correctly, or the controls or fire alarm contractor may need to confirm it is getting the right signal or receiving the right input. One device in an integrated system can span several trades, making the integrated test team necessary to assure proper operation of the integrated system. The ITa is often looked upon to determine where the fix is needed and by whom.

Prior to the development of NFPA 3 and NFPA 4, most of the integrated system testing and commissioning was done for the initial installation to get a certificate of occupancy for the building. Once the occupancy permit was obtained, codes and standards typically addressed the individual subsystem testing for ongoing purposes. NFPA 4 now addresses the need for periodic testing of the integrated systems. In the 2018 edition of NFPA 4, periodic testing is to be outlined in the test plan as developed by the ITa. Specific time frames are not included in the standard. However, many local agencies and other NFPA standards have time frames for the various subsystems, and these time frames can be used to help establish an acceptable time frame for the periodic integrated systems testing.

It was developed to become part of a conglomeration of commissioning documents used to create a total-building commissioning program. By developing the 2015 edition of NFPA 3, NFPA recognized a need to set a standard for testing integrated systems and broke out portions of NFPA 3 to become what NFPA 4 is today. By developing the standard, it can now be used to regulate how integrated systems are to be tested. This also allows NFPA to continue to develop the commissioning aspects of these systems as a recommended practice.

Allyn Vaughn is a vice-president within NV5‘s BTS division. He has been actively involved in the testing and commissioning of fire protection and life safety systems for more than 35 years and has served as a special inspector for smoke control system inspection and testing for more than 20 years.