Author(s): Fred Durso. Published on May 1, 2012.


Signal Concern
The large and complex issue of unwanted alarms is the primary focus of changes to the new edition of NFPA 72, along with requirements for testing and maintaining alarm systems and other hot topics.

NFPA Journal®, May/June 2012 

By Fred Durso, Jr.

Despite a welcome decline in the number of fires in certain settings over the past 20 years, the number of false alarms over the same period has been on the rise. The trend, documented through NFPA research, is of particular concern to the fire service, which is deciding how best to address the unwanted alarms problem, especially in commercial settings, while maximizing its resources in a tough economic climate.



  • The 2013 National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code: Panel Discussions of Proposed Changes
    Monday, June 11, 8 – 9 a.m., 9:30 – 10:30 a.m., 11 a.m. – noon
  • Fire Alarm Basics: A Class for Non-Technical Professionals
    Monday, June 11, 8 – 9 a.m.
  • How NFPA Can Help Address Problem Unwanted Alarms
    Tuesday, June 12, 9:30 – 10:30 a.m.

  Learn more about the 2012 NFPA Confernce and Expo and its education sessions

Through its code-development process, NFPA has prompted the fire service to assist with the development of a standardized solution addressing the problem of commercial building alarms where there is no working fire. A change to the 2013 edition of NFPA 72®, National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code, would allow for a verification of an actual emergency following a fire alarm signal before the fire department responded to the scene.

Other changes to the new edition of NFPA 72 take aim at aspects of alarm use and system testing. Requirements for the testing and maintenance of residential smoke alarms, for example, led to a tentative interim amendment (TIA) to resolve conflicting requirements. In addition, the Standards Council has directed that NFPA 72 stay within its scope regarding testing requirements, while other proposed changes have consolidated alarm system documentation requirements into a single chapter.

The following is a closer look at some of the changes proposed for NFPA 72. Topics receiving a Notice of Intent to Make a Motion (NITMAM) that become Certified Amending Motions (CAMs) will be posted on NFPA’s website in early May, and will be discussed during the Association Technical Meeting, which will be held June 13–14 at NFPA’s Conference & Expo in Las Vegas.

For whom the alarm tolls  
The NFPA report “Unwanted Fire Alarms” indicates a dramatic shift in the type of false alarms that are occurring: during 2009, 32 percent were caused by system malfunctions and 45 percent by unintentional activations, with the latter type of false alarm tripling since 1990.

Last year, NFPA, the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), and the U.S. Fire Administration brought together members of the fire service, as well as representatives from companies that design, manufacture, install, and maintain alarm systems, for the Alarm Response and Management Summit. As participants illustrated, the time, resources, and money spent on unwanted alarm response have fueled diverse responses from fire departments. Some departments require alarm monitoring companies to verify within 90 seconds if an actual incident is occurring before calling a 9-1-1 center. Conversely, other departments, grappling with exorbitant unwanted alarm calls, have stopped responding to these alarms altogether without verifying an emergency. Alarm designers and manufacturers also made it clear at the summit that their systems are responding appropriately to environmental stimuli — cooking smoke, for example — even if the alarm itself doesn’t indicate a life-threatening situation. Infrequent testing and inspection of alarm systems, however, could be contributing to the trend.

IAFC submitted more than 40 proposals to NFPA 72 on a range of subjects with the intent of easing the burden of responding to unwanted alarms, including several related to a 90-second-verification concept. While the NFPA 72 Supervising Station Technical Committee rejected the verification proposals, a special task group comprised of IAFC members and NFPA 72 committee members was formed to generate public comment for consideration at the Report on Comments meeting. “The net result was that the IAFC walked away with a better understanding of NFPA’s standards-development process and how they can be involved in the process,” says Ken Willette, NFPA’s division manager of Public Fire Protection.

A specific comment was developed for the Supervising Stations Alarm Systems chapter that permits these monitoring facilities to verify an actual emergency before the fire department is dispatched to the scene. The provision is only applicable if the local fire department chooses to adopt it, and its use must adhere to certain conditions, such as that the verification process can’t delay the retransmission of a verified alarm to the fire department by more than 90 seconds. “Another condition is that when a supervising station receives an alarm, they need to call the fire department to let them know they got an alarm and that they’re looking into it,” says Lee Richardson, staff liaison for NFPA 72. “It’s intended to give the fire department a heads up.”

The new provision would apply generally to any occupancy where a commercial fire alarm system sends fire alarm signals to a supervision station. The concept is similar to an existing provision in the Single- and Multi-Station Alarms and Household Fire Alarm Systems chapter that has permitted alarm signal verification for household fire alarm systems since the code’s 1996 edition.

The Fire Protection Research Foundation is currently developing a risk-management tool that would enhance the ability of fire departments to quantify unwanted alarms in commercial buildings and identify strategies to deal with the issue. The anticipated completion date of the project is the end of this year.

More than 20 NITMAMs were received on the proposals and comments relating to the issue of unwanted alarms. The number of CAMs to be discussed at the technical meeting will likely be fewer, since some of the NITMAMs address the same concern and can be consolidated into one CAM.

Conflict resolution
Contradictory proposed changes produced by two NFPA 72 committees led to the development of a TIA that is focused on testing and maintenance requirements for residential smoke alarms.

The 2010 edition currently requires periodic functional testing and sensitivity testing of smoke alarms in all occupancies other than one- or two-family dwellings. Functional testing (smoke entry testing) ensures an alarm response will result when smoke enters the sensing chamber. Sensitivity testing of smoke alarms typically involves the introduction of a measured amount of smoke to check the level at which the alarm signal is triggered, although some units include a built-in test feature. Another existing code provision requires the replacement of smoke alarms in one- and two-family dwellings every 10 years.

Changes proposed to these requirements for testing and maintenance of smoke alarms were processed by two different NFPA 72 technical committees and involve the proposed elimination of requirements for sensitivity testing of smoke alarms and the expansion of the requirement to replace smoke alarms every 10 years in all applications, not just those in one- and two-family dwellings. The two committees took conflicting actions on these proposed changes, which required the NFPA 72 technical correlating committee (TCC) to take actions to resolve most of the conflicts.

The TCC decided that the responsibility for testing and maintenance requirements of smoke alarms should rest solely with one committee — the Single- and Multiple-Station Alarms and Household Fire Alarm Systems Committee. The TCC also assigned a task group to produce a TIA to iron out the language in the code’s upcoming edition. The TIA, which maintains the alarm replacement requirements currently in the 2010 edition — namely to replace smoke alarms every 10 years in one- and two-family dwellings — and does not affect the proposed change to eliminate requirements for sensitivity testing of smoke alarms, will be processed concurrently with the 2013 edition of NFPA 72.

Staying connected?
NFPA’s Standards Council has addressed a concern over requirements for testing of systems interconnected with fire alarm systems and how NFPA 72 should approach these requirements. Certain systems are covered by other codes and standards and include components involved with implementing emergency control functions such as elevator recall and shutdown, fire and smoke damper closure, and fan control or shutdown.

A task group comprised of NFPA committee members debated the issue at the Inspection, Testing, and Maintenance Summit in 2010 and developed a report of recommendations for the Standards Council, which in turn issued a directive restricting NFPA 72 testing requirements to only fire alarm and signaling systems. The Council also directed the code’s technical committees to reject any proposals for the 2013 edition previously accepted that address the testing of interconnected systems, since these requirements were clearly within the jurisdiction of NFPA 4, Integrated Testing of Fire Protection Systems, currently in development. NFPA 4 will cover testing of interconnected systems, including interface testing, integrated testing, and end-to-end testing.

Acceptable transmission
Transmitting an alarm signal from a protected structure to a supervising station involves using what’s referred to in NFPA 72 as certain “communications methods.” The 2010 edition addresses three categories of communications methods: performance-based technologies, applicable to internet protocol (IP) communicators and digital cellular communicators; radio systems; and digital alarm communicator systems, which have been the mainstream method for signal transmission and involve the use of a telephone line as the primary channel and another telephone line or other transmission means for the secondary channel.

Proposed changes for the 2013 edition have omitted the use of a second telephone line as one of the backup means of transmission for these systems. The use of other communications methods is becoming more prevalent, in part due to telephone companies moving away from the installation of traditional telephone lines. The installation of a different technology for the secondary channel provides diversity and added reliability. 

Fred Durso, Jr. is staff writer for NFPA Journal.