Why training is key for improving fire alarm system operational reliability.
NFPA Journal®, November/December 2009
The 2010 version of NFPA 72®, National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code®, states in its "Fundamentals" chapter that "Fire alarm systems and emergency communications systems installation personnel shall be qualified or shall be supervised by persons who are qualified in the installation, inspection, and testing of the systems." The code further states that qualified personnel includes those "who are factory trained and certified for fire alarm system installation and emergency communications system installation of the specific type and brand of system and who are acceptable to the authority having jurisdiction."
The writers of the code expect that employers, whether they work as manufacturers or installing companies, will make an effort to train their technicians, technical representatives, installers, or maintainers to meet the intent of what the code deems "qualified."
But what is "technician training"? What does it mean, what does the code require, and how does this training affect the operational reliability of a fire alarm system?
Since the code requires the use of qualified technicians, it stands to reason that qualified technicians will be properly trained to do their jobs. That training can take many forms. Various technical schools offer instruction with some "hands-on" installation training, and most of these schools teach the concepts of electrical wiring and equipment installation. However, many do not offer extensive specific training in fire alarm system installation.
Yes, a good fire alarm technician should first know the proper electrical installation methods as they pertain to wiring and electrical equipment. Such knowledge will give a technician the foundation to learn the specifics of fire alarm systems installation. But most fire alarm technicians do not take such a path. Typically, they receive on-the-job training, which can be excellent. However, employers must ensure that the training follows a predetermined and measurable plan. In addition, the "journeyman" who instructs the new technician must have an excellent understanding of the code and possess full knowledge of proper fire alarm system installation techniques. The journeyman must also have the skills to train another individual properly. Some states and unions have formal apprenticeship training programs that include both classroom and on-the-job training.
The training does not stop there. A technician must also receive training on the proper installation techniques of the specific fire alarm system equipment he will install and maintain. This includes programming for the newer, microprocessor-based fire alarm systems. Equipment-specific training helps ensure that a technician will understand and follow the manufacturer’s installation instructions.
Fire alarm system manufacturers offer system-specific training with various levels of detail. For instance, a sales representative can simply offer a "lunch-and-learn" hour of product awareness training. Dealers and distributors will likely receive more detailed training on a manufacturer’s products, usually conducted at the manufacturer’s training facility. This type of training requires a commitment by the dealer or distributor to pay the technician’s expenses and, of course, lose the technician’s time while he or she attends the training program.
I have often mentioned in this column the four elements of fire alarm system operational reliability: design, equipment, installation, and maintenance. Of these four elements, installation and maintenance have the biggest impact on a system’s reliability. Because training plays an important part in proper alarm system installation and maintenance, it greatly affects a system’s operational reliability. Ensuring that fire alarm system technicians receive proper training will significantly improve that operational reliability.
Wayne D. Moore, P.E., FSFPE, is a principal with Hughes Associates and immediate past chair of the NFPA 72 Technical Correlating Committee.