The Importance of Testing, Inspecting, and Maintaining a Fire Alarm System

 

The Importance of Testing, Inspecting, and Maintaining a Fire Alarm System



The fire alarm system is possibly the most important aspect of any building structure. Given the task of providing 24-hour protection for occupants, buildings, and their respective assets, fire alarm systems are often overlooked until a problem occurs.


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The required tests and inspections that must be performed to ensure the continued operation of these systems are often considered costly, time-consuming, and unnecessary. However, you cannot determine if a fire alarm system is operational simply by looking at it or performing a cursory check. Over time, the electronic components and other devices that make up a given system degrade due to environmental factors (i.e. dust and dirt), as well as for intentional abuse and improper testing or maintenance actions; For these reasons, it is necessary to implement and adhere to a full program of maintenance, testing and inspection of all fire alarm systems in order to ensure the continued protection and peace of mind of the building owner, knowing that he has fulfilled the responsibility towards its tenants. 


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INITIAL STEPS

Most fire alarm systems have a useful and productive life in the range of 10 to 15 years; however, these systems can last much longer and continue to provide reliable service when proper maintenance and care is provided. Any comprehensive test and inspection program must be based on a universally accepted standard to measure the proper functionality of a fire alarm system. Obviously, the instructions for the installation, use and preventive maintenance of a system, as stated by the manufacturer, must be strictly followed. In addition, the NFPA (The National Fire Alarm & Signaling Code) is the benchmark for the proper installation and operation of the fire alarm system and has been adopted in a large number of jurisdictions in the United States. In particular, Chapter 14 of NFPA 72 specifically covers testing, maintenance, and inspection of fire alarm systems. In addition to having an understanding of the codes, the service personnel performing the actual testing and maintenance of fire alarm systems should also be familiar with the systems they are testing and ideally should be trained and certified by factory. 

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Better yet, if you comply with a certification program for fire alarm technicians from the National Institute for Certification in Engineering Technologies (NICET), which is nationally recognized and increasingly required by various jurisdictions, as well as testing companies and maintenance of fire alarm systems that tend to offer more professionalism within the industry. Additionally, the technician doing the inspections and tests must use professional equipment with the most advanced technology in order to thoroughly check the fire alarm system for any deficiencies. This is an area where you cannot take shortcuts, as the consequences of a poorly maintained system can be devastating to the building, the owner, and the occupants alike.


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SYSTEM INSPECTION

Before conducting any tests on the fire alarm system, a thorough inspection must be performed. This can be done by visually looking for problems that should be quite obvious, such as missing or damaged devices, improper device locations and the use of unqualified components and any deficiencies found should be documented. All original system diagrams should be reviewed to determine where all equipment is located. Other documentation such as specifications and all operating manuals should also be located so that a full analysis of the system can be done before any actual testing is done. A recent trend in documentation, What is becoming increasingly popular with both Authorities Having Jurisdiction (AHJ) and Fire Marshals / Inspectors and customers alike, is the use of test and inspection software. This typically allows for less paperwork to be archived later, and also allows the testing company to maintain a database of its own records that can be easily accessed and provide verification of a service performed for a client.


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Several software programs also have signature capture capabilities, so there is still more testing and inspection of the fire alarm system, which many authorities prefer, rather than Paper formats. this allows for less paperwork to be archived later, and also allows the testing company to maintain a database of its own records that can be easily accessed and provide verification of a service performed for a client. Several software programs also have signature capture capabilities, so there is still more testing and inspection of the fire alarm system, which many authorities prefer, rather than Paper formats. this allows for less paperwork to be archived later, and also allows the testing company to maintain a database of its own records that can be easily accessed and provide verification of a service performed for a client. Several software programs also have signature capture capabilities, so there is still more testing and inspection of the fire alarm system, which many authorities prefer, rather than Paper formats.


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SYSTEM TESTS

Before any test of a building's fire alarm system, all occupants must be notified, in accordance with NFPA 72, section 14.2.4. This ensures that everyone is aware of what is going on and testing can be performed much more efficiently. Typically a two-person team conducts a system test, with a technician staying on the panel to report which device or zone was activated. This allows for greater precision, although with smaller systems one technician may be sufficient. While most system manufacturers recommend an annual test and inspection (after the initial acceptance test), other agencies and local authorities recommend and even impose test intervals. NFPA 72, Chapter 14, which deals specifically with inspection, 


Section 14.3 provides a detailed table of frequency requirements for periodic testing of all components of the fire alarm system. The frequency of testing varies by system component; however, records must be kept to ensure that the tests were performed within the required frequency. Initiating devices and alarm sensors, such as smoke detectors and heat detectors, are generally among the first components to be tested, these must be tested according to the manufacturer's requirements.


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When testing smoke detectors, a bump test will be essential to ensure that there is actual smoke entering the detection chamber. Certainly, it is not enough to perform a “magnet test” or electronic stimulation of the detector. The synthetic smoke aerosol used must be approved by the manufacturer, as well as listed by an approval agency (Underwriters Laboratories-UL, Factory Mutual-FM, etc.). Care must be taken not to blow this smoke directly into the detection chamber, which can be a cause of detector malfunction later on. Heat detectors must be tested in accordance with NFPA 72, Section 14.4.3.2 (if a resettable detector) with at least two per circuit being tested annually, with all heat detectors tested at least once every five years. Non-resettable heat detectors are never field-tested; however, a representative sample must be tested and replaced after 15 years. Whenever heat detectors are tested, an instrument that produces heat safely (without using a live flame) must be used. 


When a smoke detector sensitivity test is required to comply with NFPA 72, there are several portable test devices that are available and approved by all major detector manufacturers. Detector sensitivity can vary. Excessive sensitivity causes false alarms, while lack of sensitivity causes a delay or no alarm. A frequently overlooked area of   system tests and inspections is duct detectors. These require testing to ensure smoke entry into the device's detection chamber. 


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Many times these types of detectors are equipped with switches that test the device's circuits, but this should not be accepted as a true functional test for smoke entry. Once all system inputs and annunciators are monitored, testing activities should be coordinated with the system monitoring company or fire department to verify communication between the building's fire alarm system and the monitoring company. . Upon completion of the test, the fire alarm system must be restored immediately, the building maintenance and supervisory personnel must be notified. 


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MAINTENANCE AND PROPER DOCUMENTATION

After the system tests are completed, deficiencies are identified. These should be corrected immediately if possible, but sometimes not. However, it is the responsibility of the building owner to ensure that the system is fully operational within a reasonable period of time. Most preventive maintenance is easy to do. Depending on the environment in which the equipment operates, it may simply consist of removing and cleaning the smoke detectors with compressed air or more frequent and intensive cleaning depending on the location. In the end, however, the technician should always follow the manufacturer's recommendations to be completely sure that proper maintenance is being performed. After the testing and maintenance of the system is complete, detailed records of all inspections must be completed by the service organization as shown in Chapter 7 of NFPA 72.


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These records must always be accessible on-site and left with the building owner or his duly authorized representative. The AHJ / Fire Marshal can request a copy of all test, inspection, and maintenance forms at any time. Therefore, it is imperative that the required documentation is available at all times. In addition, the owner must keep inspection, test, and maintenance records for the life of the system. The AHJ / Fire Marshal can request a copy of all test, inspection, and maintenance forms at any time. Therefore, it is imperative that the required documentation is available at all times. In addition, the owner must keep inspection, test, and maintenance records for the life of the system. The AHJ / Fire Marshal can request a copy of all test, inspection, and maintenance forms at any time. Therefore, it is imperative that the required documentation is available at all times. In addition, the owner must keep inspection, test, and maintenance records for the life of the system. 


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FINAL THOUGHTS

As stated in the opening paragraph of this article, the fire alarm system is very likely the most important system in any commercial building. Your job is to protect everything that we hold dear. Most of the time, you don't think about this system if you don't activate it. However, all too often we read catastrophes caused by an ineffective or inoperative fire alarm system. 



In fact, with proper care and maintenance, many of these catastrophes could have been prevented. Often when the budget is cut, the first areas to suffer are systems like this. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that such actions are wrong and costly. The building owner is responsible for the protection of its occupants and as such has an obligation to inspect and maintain the fire alarm system. Most importantly, the simple fact that fire alarm systems save lives and their proper operation should be a top priority. 

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