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NFPA Today - September 25, 2020

What is the Secret about Private Operating Mode?

Everyone is familiar with the sound of a fire alarm and flash of the visual notification thanks to drills that are required at schools and the workplace. They are typically designed in a way so that everyone can see and hear, no matter where you are located in the building. What happens when you are in a building such as a hospital or correctional facility where notification of everyone in the facility could cause panic, interrupt delicate surgeries or damage a newborns hearing or vision? Are buildings permitted to have an alarm that privately notifies only those who need to take action? If so, what alternate requirements must be followed? This blog takes a look at private operating mode alarm systems, and their requirements.

What is it?


Private Operating Mode is an audible or visual signaling only to those persons directly concerned with the implementation and direction of emergency action initiation and procedure in the area protected by the fire alarm system. Provided that those persons receive alarm notification, audible and visible signaling is not required to other building occupants who are not responsible for the implementation and direction of emergency action. For instance, if this was implemented in a correctional facility, the officers would need to be notified since they would be the ones who implement emergency actions, which would be to evacuate the inmates.


Private operating mode differs from public operating mode in several ways. In general, private audible notification is permitted to have a lower volume than public mode. Both public and private audible notification allow the AHJ to reduce or eliminate the audible if visual signals are provided. Visual notification is required in all public spaces per the ADA when using public mode and NFPA 72 National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code gives you specific requirements for how bright they must be, for private visual notification it is just required to be of sufficient quantity and intensity to meet the intent of the system.

When can I use it?


The main rule when looking at where you can use private operating mode comes from NFPA 101 Life Safety Code. It says that private operating mode is allowed in places where occupants are incapable of evacuating themselves because of age, physical or mental disabilities, or physical restraint. Certain places come to mind such as detention/correctional facilities, prisons, jails, hospitals, same day surgery centers and day care occupancies. Ultimately, this should be a discussion you have with your AHJ to determine if the facility in question meets the requirements to allow it to be protected with a private operating mode fire alarm system.


Healthcare Specific Requirements


NFPA 99 Health Care Facilities Code contains some specific requirements regarding the use of the private operating mode for healthcare facilities. It clearly allows the use of private operating mode but adds additional requirements. For example, the notification needs to identify the smoke zone or floor area, floor and building where the responsible staff need to respond. It also needs to be heard throughout the facility except where notification would adversely affect patient care (surgical rooms, patient sleeping rooms, psychiatric care areas, etc.) Notification can also be omitted in areas that would interfere with patient treatment or areas where occupants will be alerted by staff. This is often done by coded messages like “Dr. Blaze, Code Red fourth floor west wing,” so that everyone can hear the message but only those trained to recognize the message will respond.

This is still a subject that needs to be better understood by fire alarm designers and AHJs alike. It requires an analysis of the situation and an understanding of human behavior. Private operating mode isn't a one-size-fit-all solution. It must be integrated into the facilities emergency response plan and the responsible personnel must be properly trained in order for the system to work correctly, but if done right it has the potential to save lives.

Let me know if you have any experience with private operating mode installations or approvals in the comments below. Also look out for changes in the 2021 edition of NFPA 101 which further aligns with the requirements found in NFPA 72 and NFPA 99.

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Brian O'Connor
Technical Services Engineer

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