The Long View
Integrating reliability while reducing costs in health care occupancies
NFPA Journal®, January/February 2012
A fire alarm system is a major investment for the owner of any large property, especially health care properties. So it makes sense to ensure that new fire alarm system designs meet the organization’s fire protection goals, operational needs, and long-term maintenance requirements.
During the initial bid process, however, stakeholders can pay more attention to installation costs than to the operational needs and long-term maintenance or life-cycle costs of a system. While it may seem difficult, health care facility directors must stay abreast of the technical improvements to fire alarm system products, as well as changes to the life safety, building, and fire codes, and to NFPA 72®, National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code®. Managers should work closely with system designers to ensure the fire alarm system designs consider their operational needs before seeking installation bids. A proper design can meet these operational needs and reduce long-term maintenance costs.
Given the control equipment now available, as well as the flexibility with fire emergency voice/alarm communications systems (EVACS) provided by the 2010 edition of NFPA 72, a facility manager can reduce costs when installing or upgrading a fire alarm system. These features can also reduce maintenance costs by better monitoring system status.
Computerized fire alarm controls can now inform the owner or fire alarm service company when a component in the system approaches failure or has failed and needs replacement. These new systems can ensure that a service technician arrives at the facility with the right replacement part and the information needed to troubleshoot the problem in less time, both of which can reduce costs and improve the system’s effectiveness.
The code’s new Chapter 24 allows owners to use the in-building EVACS for day-to-day paging, as well as for mass notification during emergencies. This multiple-use permission will reduce installation costs by combining the paging and fire alarm systems.
Most fire alarm systems in a health care facility perform multiple functions, ranging from releasing magnetic hold-open appliances on smoke doors and recalling elevators to initiating smoke control systems. The lack of coordination between designers and the contractors involved in the process can prevent the smooth operation of the integrated systems with the fire alarm system.
To ensure that the systems function together, the owner must ensure that the acceptance testing plan includes testing the systems as one integrated system. NFPA 72 acceptance testing requirements are intended to ensure complete end-to-end tests of all integrated systems, which becomes more difficult due to field coordination issues and the varied responsibilities of each trade installing them.
Because each trade focuses on its own designs, the end-to-end testing may not be coordinated, and the health care facility’s goals of incorporating these systems to reduce long-term costs may be derailed. With the advent of NFPA 3, Recommended Practice on Commissioning and Integrated Testing of Fire Protection and Life Safety Systems, and the yet-to-be-published NFPA 4, Integrated Testing of Fire Protection Systems, however, health care facility managers have new means of ensuring that the testing of fire alarm systems and associated integrated systems will work together as designed.
Making the effort to stay aware of code and equipment changes, and the opportunities they present, will provide tools that affect the reliability of installed fire alarm systems and the integrated systems needed to operate a health care facility dependably and safely.
Wayne D. Moore, P.E., FSFPE, is a principal with Hughes Associates.