Author(s): Wayne Moore. Published on September 3, 2014.

A PARTICIPANT ON NFPA'S Linked-In discussion group recently asked a question about the correct way to test a manual fire alarm box, or pull station. The resulting flood of comments proved very interesting.

In the 2012 edition of NFPA 72®, National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code, Chapter 14 specifies that manual fire alarm boxes should be tested annually. “Operate manual fire alarm boxes per the manufacturer’s published instructions,” the code says. “Test both key-operated pre-signal and general alarm manual fire alarm boxes.” Many of the discussion group comments focused
on what the manufacturer’s instructions would require.

One typical manufacturer of manual fire alarm boxes states the following in its installation and operating Instructions: “Operation—To activate a single-action pull station, simply pull down the handle. To activate dual-action stations, push in, then pull down the handle.” Notice that the instructions make repeated reference to pulling down the handle. This manufacturer offers two styles of manual fire alarm boxes, single-action and double-action, and provides the operating instructions for each. Owner representatives or service technicians in the field who believe that they may test the manual fire alarm box by using a key—whether an actual key or Allen wrench—without actually pulling down the handle as described above must understand that such action does not constitute a code-compliant test.

The argument that some types of fire alarm boxes are too difficult or costly to test in this manner—those with a break-glass front or a glass rod to discourage false alarms, for example—does not negate the requirements to test by manual actuation. You must actuate the manual fire alarm box by operating the box as a user would operate it in reporting a fire. Any other test method does not comply with the code.

Why is this so important? After all, some argue that how the internal switch within the manual fire alarm box is triggered doesn’t really matter, as long as the station initiates an alarm at the fire alarm control unit. Indeed, proving that a manual fire alarm box can initiate an alarm signal does represent one goal of the test. But the test must also assure that the pull station mechanism itself operates properly, as well. Failures have occurred in the field where the pull station operating mechanism had corroded to the point of freezing the handle in place, thus not allowing the operation of the manual fire alarm box. Another failure mode found in a school disclosed that someone had replaced the glass rod with a brass rod to lower false alarms from actuated manual fire alarm boxes. Opening the box to initiate a test would not necessarily discover this issue.

The technical committee requires testing of these devices as infrequently as annually to help contain costs. But the real driver for testing comes from ensuring a fully operational device. Proper testing helps to increase the reliability of a fire alarm system. To protect the interests of all of the stakeholders, those performing tests must follow the requirements of the code, which makes a clear statement in Chapter 14: “Inspection, testing, and maintenance programs shall verify correct operation of the system.” The technical committee that writes this portion of the code includes manufacturer representatives, which provides the committee with the necessary technical information that it uses to develop appropriate language.

In order to comply with that simple requirement, the owner or owner’s representative must test all devices and functions of the fire alarm system in accordance with the stated testing frequency and appropriate test method.