Using NFPA 3 and 4 to commission fire protection systems

NFPA 3 and 4 provide the process for commissioning and integrated testing of fire protection and life safety systems.


This article is peer-reviewed.Learning Objectives

  • Define how NFPA 3 and NFPA 4 address commissioning and integrated testing for fire and life safety systems.
  • Understand the benefits of commissioning and integrated testing of new and existing systems.
  • Explore the key documents and process involved with commissioning and integrated testing.

Commissioning (Cx) certain building systems has been occurring for years, from U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED requirements to owners requiring that their building’s lighting and HVAC run more efficiently to lower monthly utility bills. Commissioning of such buildings and systems in the United States has been increasing over the past decade. There also has been a rise in commissioning of fire protection and life safety systems—not for utility savings, but for owners that want to confirm the fire protection and life safety systems are designed and installed to meet the overall project goals, comply with applicable codes, and provide protection to the building occupants, the building, and its contents.

Developing fire protection, life safety system standards

A number of years ago, the National Institute of Building Sciences (NIBS) was pushing for a set of commissioning documents to set national guidelines. During this process, NIBS reached out to the NFPA regarding the development of a commissioning document that focused on fire protection and life safety systems. NFPA developed a document, titled NFPA 3: Recommended Practice for Commissioning and Integrated Testing of Fire Protection and Life Safety Systems (2012 edition).

Figure 1: Special suppression systems, such as aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF), are sometimes used to deal with unique hazards. This AFFF room contains AFFF tank and AFFF sprinkler-zone risers. All graphics courtesy: JENSEN HUGHES NFPA 3 was the first nationally recognized consensus document addressing commissioning for fire protection and life safety systems. It was also the first nationally recognized document addressing integrated testing of fire protection systems. In addition to outlining a standardized approach for commissioning and integrated testing, NFPA 3 also developed standard definitions for the industry, which were desperately needed.

Even the term “commissioning” in the fire protection field had very different meanings to different people. Common terminology and meanings are crucial for having people understand and coordinate with each other during the commissioning process. For example, commissioning was often confused with acceptance testing with the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ), which is very far from the truth. NFPA 3 defines fire and life safety commissioning as “a systematic process that provides documented confirmation that fire and life safety 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 requiring fire and life safety systems.”

Although commissioning and integrated testing of new buildings and new systems will largely be discussed, NFPA 3 also addresses commissioning of existing systems that have not been commissioned previously (retro-commissioning; ReCx) and commissioning of existing systems that have previously been commissioned (recommissioning; RCx).

NFPA has since published a 2015 edition, but has broken commissioning and integrated testing into two separate documents: NFPA 3-2015: Recommended Practice for Commissioning of Fire Protection and Life Safety Systems and NFPA 4-2015: Standard for Integrated Fire Protection and Life Safety System Testing. NFPA 4-2015 was upgraded to the level of standard in NFPA, because the committee felt there was a need for a rigorous standard on integrated testing of fire protection and life safety systems. Standards have more adoptable and more enforceable language for reference in building and fire codes, because they use terminology such as “shall” rather than the term “should” that is found in NFPA-recommended practice documents. The 2018 edition of NFPA 3 will also be upgraded to the level of standard. This article addresses critical facets of both commissioning and integrated testing.

NFPA 3 defines a process for commissioning, but does not specifically detail how to test a particular fire protection or life safety system. Other NFPA standards provide information on how to functionally test specific fire protection and life safety systems, such as NFPA 72: National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code for fire alarm systems.

The fire commissioning agent (FCxA) implements and leads the commissioning of the fire protection and life safety systems. In the capacity of owner’s representative, the FCxA provides another set of eyes and ears working in the owner’s best interest. A qualified FCxA has an advanced knowledge of and experience with the installation and operation of the fire protection and life safety system(s) being commissioned. 

The integrated testing agent (ITa) implements and leads the integrated testing of the fire protection and life safety systems to verify the proper interface and coordination between various fire protection and life safety systems. A qualified ITa also has an advanced knowledge of and experience with the installation, operation, and interfaces between the various fire protection and life safety systems being interconnected to each other. For example, fire alarm systems typically have different types of integration with other fire protection and life safety systems, such as sprinkler systems, smoke control systems, elevator controls, fans, card-access systems, and emergency generators. The same person can serve as both the FCxA and the ITa for a project, as long as they meet the qualifications for both positions. 

The International Building Code contains code requirements for commissioning of smoke control systems and establishes the need for a qualified commissioning agent for smoke control systems as the smoke control special inspector. Thus, in regards to smoke control systems, the qualified FCxA commissioning smoke control agent is sometimes also referred to as the smoke control special inspector.

Commissioning of fire protection and life safety systems occurs in the design phase of the project, as well as during the construction phase, via a comprehensive review and documentation of the commissioning process. Commissioning is not just for performing testing at the end of the project to determine if the fire protection systems are performing properly. For example, the FCxA reviews the design teams’ design documents, attends coordination meetings, reviews shop drawing submittals, reviews installation progress, reviews contractors’ pretest documents, and witnesses the systems’ performance in accordance with the commissioning test plan.

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