Author(s): Fred Durso. Published on May 2, 2014.

HOW ECSTATIC IS PAUL DUNPHY on the release of NFPA’s newest standard? Here’s a hint: the Massachusetts license plates on his Toyota Prius read “NFPA 4.”

In April, NFPA’s Standards Council was scheduled to issue NFPA 4, Integrated Fire Protection and Life Safety System Testing, as a consent document, but Dunphy, an electrical inspector and compliance coordinator at Harvard University, has been advocating for proper “system integration” of fire and life safety building systems for years. Every construction project at Harvard now undergoes some form of integrated system testing, which, like the provisions in the new standard, makes sure interconnected systems operate as intended during fires and other critical incidents.

Dunphy’s expertise on the issue led him to the Technical Committee on Commissioning and Integrated Testing, which developed the first edition of NFPA 3, Recommended Practice on Commissioning and Integrated Testing of Fire Protection and Life Safety Systems, issued in 2012. Seeing a need to standardize the integrated system testing portion of the recommended practice, the committee has removed this material from NFPA 3 and used it as the basis for NFPA 4, an enforceable document that can be used with both new and existing buildings.

“I’m looking forward to NFPA 4 hitting the street,” says Dunphy, adding that his custom plates are getting quite the response from motorists. (One driver even pulled alongside him to yell, “Hey, I’m an NFPA member, too!”) “That’s the document I want to put in the hands of people overseeing Harvard’s construction projects,” he says. “They know I’m leading the charge [for integrated system testing] at the university, and the document will be very helpful.”

Paul Dunphy

Bullish on 4: Paul Dunphy, a compliance coordinator at Harvard University, with his vanity plate.

Dunphy is aware of the safety concerns addressed by integrated system testing and how these concerns extend well beyond Harvard’s 300-plus facilities in Cambridge and Boston. By requiring the testing, NFPA 4 makes sure buildings with integrated and interconnected systems—fire alarms, sprinkler systems, emergency communications systems, elevator systems, standby power systems, stairway pressurization systems, and others—operate as intended via testing protocols, proper oversight, and verification documentation. While neither NFPA 3 nor NFPA 4 specify which occupancy types require this testing, it is intended for more complex buildings that would typically include some or all of those systems, such as hospitals, office buildings, or high-rises—occupancies that would benefit from these types of testing procedures.

As one NFPA 4 committee member puts it, the standard ensures the systems “are creating an acceptable handshake among themselves.”

One for all
As simple as a handshake might appear, standardized protocols for the NFPA 4 version of the procedure haven’t existed until now.

Those protocols got their start with NFPA 3, with its focus on commissioning, defined as “a systematic process that provides documented confirmation that building systems function according to the intended criteria set forth in a project’s documents and satisfy the owner’s operational needs.” The commissioning process spans all stages of a construction project, from design to finished product, including the development of concept drawings of a new building and the installation of its fire and life safety systems. System integration was originally made a component of NFPA 3 after Dunphy prompted the committee to consider its inclusion. If conducted properly, integrated system testing happens at the end of the commissioning process, once all systems have been installed.

NFPA Conference Session
NFPA Conference & Expo, Las Vegas, June 9-12, 2014

NFPA 3 and NFPA 4 In Action: Harvard University
Tuesday, June 10, 11 a.m.–12:30 p.m.

A panel including Paul Dunphy, electrical inspector and compliance coordinator, Harvard University; Matt Klaus, principal fire protection engineer, NFPA; Maurice Pilette, president, Mechanical Designs, Ltd.; Khela Thorne, senior developmental editor, NFPA

NFPA 3 has become the gold standard at Harvard, according to Dunphy. He says commissioning and integrated system testing protocols are the “accepted norm” for construction jobs at the university. Pre-planning an integrated system test, for example, makes sure all aspects of the process run smoothly. Prior to recently testing the systems at a residential high-rise built a decade ago at Harvard, planning meetings brought together university officials with experts skilled in the individual building systems. “For building owners, having these experts in the same room discussing the various life safety systems and how to coordinate testing can be an invaluable experience,” says Dunphy. “All parties come together before the testing, assignments are made, and a testing plan is developed.”

By the end of this year, Harvard will have completed integrated system testing in more than 20 new and existing buildings, including a recent test at an academic, high-rise building at Harvard’s Law School campus. The building includes four levels of parking beneath the structure and is also attached to a dining hall.

Dunphy has been a vocal advocate for understanding the necessity of the process and standardizing its various procedures. “It’s critical to have [integrated system testing] as its own standard,” says Dunphy. “There are critical life safety components to it.”

Outside of removing the integrated system testing chapter from NFPA 3, the 2015 edition of the document, also issued this year, will remain largely similar to its predecessor, says committee chair Maurice Pilette, president of Mechanical Designs, Ltd., a fire protection consulting firm. “The committee decided to keep commissioning, which is more like project conception, as a recommended practice and create [another document] for enforceable, integrated system testing,” he says. “The code enforcers and building owners wanted something with teeth. There’s a lot of money being spent on high-rise buildings, and the owners wanted something in place” that ensures systems will work in conjunction with one another.

Responsible parties
The new NFPA 4 also addresses an important issue that’s outside the scope of individual building system standards. “None of the system standards require you to test two systems at the same time to make sure interconnection is sound,” says Matt Klaus, principal fire protection engineer at NFPA and staff liaison for NFPA 3 and 4. “For instance, NFPA 72®, National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code, doesn’t have the scope to test the hydraulic components of a sprinkler system’s water flow switch. So a fire alarm contractor can’t come in and start touching this equipment to trip the system when it’s not within his contract. The only thing they can control is their wires and equipment. Similarly, the sprinkler contractor isn’t responsible for making sure the fire alarm system’s notification appliances go off. With integrated system testing, at the end of a job, the integrated systems will be tested together to make sure everything works together.”

Problems can arise if this kind of testing doesn’t happen. A fire alarm and sprinkler system might operate separately, but without a proper connection at the relay, a component of the alarm system might not sound if the sprinkler is activated during an emergency. “There’s this assumption that these systems are all tested as a unit, and they generally aren’t,” says Pilette. “There has been no documentation in the industry [for this testing], unless someone has put it in place voluntarily. Now you have a national standard everyone can follow.”

NFPA 4 states that the building owner or an “integrated systems testing agent” with knowledge of the facility’s fire and life safety systems should perform the testing. While the testing agent isn’t required to have a specific license or certification, the person should have adequate knowledge of all installed systems, says Klaus.

While the standard doesn’t provide a specific timeframe for periodic integrated system testing, NFPA 4 tasks the agent with preparing a test plan that should include “post-occupancy testing requirements.” A risk assessment will determine the potential failure modes of a system, and the agent will assign an appropriate testing frequency based on this analysis. The standard also lists a series of triggers prompting this testing, particularly after any modifications or additions to the system. “During my seminar sessions on integrated system testing, a building manager will inevitably ask about testing an existing building,” Dunphy says. “This is my hook for retro-integrated system testing. I let them know this testing is available and that it’s not a painful process.”

Over the past year, Dunphy has given a half-dozen talks on the topic to engineering and construction communities hungry for more information. Worcester Polytechnic Institute has asked Dunphy and Pilette to conduct a class on commissioning and integrated system testing for graduate students in its fire protection engineering program. Dunphy has also presented the topic to building inspectors in Cambridge and Boston. An NFPA handbook scheduled for release later this year will offer additional guidance on NFPA 3 and 4, and will include a supplement highlighting Dunphy’s testing successes at Harvard.

“Every group I talk to about this topic, they want me to present it to another group,” he says. “Here on campus, this is important since we’re building some big, complex buildings. I’m just fortunate that Harvard has embraced it.”

Fred Durso, Jr. is a communications manager for NFPA. Follow him on Twitter @FredDursoJr.