Proper Fire Alarm System Commissioning
Do we need another layer in the commissioning process?
NFPA Journal®, May/June 2008
While discussing a presentation I made on the role that proper fire alarm system commissioning plays on mission effectiveness, a friend said that the way we commission systems apparently isn’t working, and made a case for a third-party special inspections representative to oversee the process. This approach would not rely on the traditional methods of acceptance testing in which the installing contractor performs the test and the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) witnesses it. Is this a better solution?
For most fire alarm system installations, the process involves at least six people to design, install, and commission the system. These include the owner, the system designer, the general contractor, the electrical contractor, the equipment supplier, one or more AHJs, and a separate test and maintenance contractor.
After compiling this list of individuals, I added to it the other trades that must interface with the fire alarm system installation. These could include a mechanical contractor, an elevator contractor, a sprinkler contractor, a special hazards systems contractor, and possibly a security system contractor. This adds five more people who have a potential impact on the operability of the fire alarm system installation. Thirteen people responsible for installing and successfully commissioning a fire alarm system!
Perhaps that special inspections representative could be the one entity responsible for the fire alarm system installation, from system design to commissioning. I realize the engineer assigned to the project may well perform this function, but perhaps an independent third party who is knowledgeable in all aspects of fire alarm system operation and codecompliance issues is the better choice.
In my opinion, this approach would require someone who has the authority over all the entities involved in the fire alarm system installation, and that may be the real crux of the problem. As it stands today, each of the individuals I mentioned above has a share of the responsibility, and none of them normally has complete oversight of the entire installation process.
Most system acceptance tests fail because of a lack of coordination with the other trades that must interface their systems, or a portion of their systems, with the fire alarm system. Sometimes, tests fail because these interfaced systems are inoperative on that day or not connected at all. Having someone on site to ensure that each trade finishes in time for proper interfacing with the fire alarm system seems to be an imperative.
You might think that the general contractor can and should ensure that all trades complete their work in a timely manner. You might also assume that the general contractor would require that all the trades interfacing with the fire alarm system operation coordinate their efforts with the fire alarm system contractor. But that does not always happen.
Does the installation process need someone who will serve as an onsite, independent, third-party owner’s representative? Such a person could ensure that all 13 parties involved understand their individual responsibilities. The representative could then conduct a preliminary commissioning test before calling in the AHJs to witness the official test.
You might think that adding a layer to the process would only slow down the installation and acceptance of the fire alarm system. However, acceptance testing and commissioning failures already delay the issuance of the certificates of occupancy. Do we want to incur additional delays by adding an independent third-party owner’s representative to the process? Or is an additional representative the way to eliminate many of those delays?
The commissioning process is extremely important in ensuring the reliability of installed fire alarm systems. The requirements in Chapter 10 of NFPA 72®, National Fire Alarm Code®, should be strengthened, and the code should require a third-party commissioning agent.
Wayne D. Moore, P.E., FSFPE is a principal with Hughes Associates and immediate past chair of the NFPA 72 Technical Correlating Committee.