Cost-cutting is no reason to ignore testing and maintenance of fire alarms.
NFPA Journal®, September/October 2009
Recently, a national fire alarm system service company reported that many of its long-term clients have made the dangerous decision not to test and maintain their fire alarm systems as a way to cut costs in this "down" economy. And many clients who will continue with testing have chosen not to repair fire alarm equipment that the testing finds defective.
This report is very dismaying. Codes and standards establish a minimum level of protection and a minimum level of inherent reliability for an installed system. Most professionals clearly understand that testing and maintenance are critically important to a fire alarm system’s continued operation. The recently adopted 2010 edition of NFPA 72®, National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code®, reinforces the importance of testing and maintenance in Chapter 14, stating, "To ensure operational integrity, the system shall have an inspection, testing, and maintenance program."
The depressed economy understandably affects people in many different ways, but those responsible for protecting the occupants of their buildings must understand that cutting costs by not maintaining fire alarm systems allows those systems to become less reliable. This reduces the life safety capabilities of the systems, and has the potential for putting the occupants in those buildings at greater risk.
The latest version of NFPA 72 reinforces the requirements of previous editions, which hold owners responsible for maintaining the fire alarm systems installed in their buildings. Section 18.104.22.168 clearly states that the "property or building or system owner or the owner’s designated representative shall be responsible for inspection, testing, and maintenance of the system and for alterations or additions to this system."
Owners should also understand that NFPA 72 requires the prompt correction of all system defects and malfunctions found. And if the owner uses a third-party testing and maintenance firm and that firm does not correct a defect or malfunction at the conclusion of its inspection, testing, or maintenance, the firm must inform the system owner or the owner’s designated representative of the impairment in writing within 24 hours.
Fire alarm systems typically monitor the operational status of other important fire protection systems, such as automatic sprinkler systems. If the owner chooses not to maintain the fire alarm system, then two important fire protection systems that provide life safety might become adversely affected.
Experts define "mission effectiveness" as the measure of the degree of certainty that the system will achieve its intended objective. Four factors affect mission effectiveness: design, equipment, installation, and maintenance. Based on quantitative assessments and a basic understanding of reliability principles, installation and maintenance represent the two factors that have the most impact on mission effectiveness. If, for example, the design, equipment, and installation all achieve a reliability factor of 0.98, but the owner fails to maintain the system, resulting in a maintenance reliability factor of 0.40, the entire system reliability has been reduced to a factor of 0.38. If building owners understood this relationship, they would be far less likely to make a decision to not maintain their fire alarm systems.
It is important that local enforcement officials remind owners of their code-required obligation to maintain their fire alarm systems and ensure that these systems remain operationally reliable. No matter how "bad" the economy may become, cutting costs by failing to maintain critical protective systems will have serious consequences. No amount of savings can ever make up for a potential loss of life or destruction of property because an owner has chosen to not maintain a protective system.
Wayne D. Moore, P.E., FSFPE, is a principal with Hughes Associates and immediate past chair of the NFPA 72 Technical Correlating Committee.