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.



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.

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