Fire Alarm Testing Frequencies

Q: What is the testing requirement for a fire alarm system in a nursing home? Is it annual or semiannual?

A: The testing frequencies for a fire alarm system differ based on the components of the fire alarm system, not where it is installed. A fire alarm system has to be tested at the same frequency regardless of where it is installed: A hospital, a nursing home, a surgical center, a medical office building, a school, etc. Take a look at Table 14.4.5 of NFPA 72-2010 for testing frequencies of different components of the fire alarm system. A quick summary of testing frequencies is:

Quarterly: Supervisory signal devices (i.e. low air pressure switches on dry-pipe systems)

Semi-annually: Waterflow switches, tamper switches, load voltage test on batteries

Annually: Smoke detectors, heat detectors, duct detectors, manual pull stations, occupant notification devices (i.e. strobes, horns, chines), interface relays and modules, charger test on batteries, discharge test on batteries, off-premises monitoring transmission equipment

Every 2 Years: Smoke detector sensitivity test

The time-frame to complete these tests is different for fire alarm systems than it is for other features of life safety. According to section 3.3.106 of NFPA 72-2010, the minimum and maximum times between testing/inspection events are as follows:

  • Weekly: Fifty-two times per year, once per calendar week.
  • Monthly: Twelve times per year, once per calendar month.
  • Quarterly: Four times per year with a minimum of 2 months and a maximum of 4 months.
  • Semi-annually: Twice per year, with a minimum of 4 months, and a maximum of 8 months.
  • Annually: Once per year with a minimum of 9 months and a maximum of 15 months.

I have confirmation from CMS that they will comply with these definitions of frequency for fire alarm testing/inspection, but it does not apply to features of life safety that are not fire alarm systems. The accreditation organizations should also accept these frequency definitions, but to be sure, check with them before implementation.

Smoke Detector Sensitivity Testing

Q: In regards to the sensitivity testing of smoke detectors, I believe my fire alarm system is capable of complying with NFPA 72 for the sensitivity testing of smoke/heat initiating devices. For example: If we have a smoke detector that exceeds the expected sensitivity range it will send a trouble signal and the panel will show “dirty photo detector” and it will tell the device location. Additionally, we can run a complete report on all devices to show the current sensitivity value of each detector, this could be done on the alternating year frequency dictated by the code. I believe this meets NFPA 72-2010 requirements for sensitivity testing. Your thoughts, please.

A: I would agree with you. But when the surveyor asks for evidence that your smoke detector sensitivity was checked, what report do you show him? If you don’t print out a sensitivity report at least once every two years, you would have little to nothing to show them.

Fire Alarm Testing Qualifications

Q: I have a question regarding testing and repair of fire alarm system in a hospital setting. Is a maintenance person who is employed by the hospital as an electrician but who has 10-years of on-the-job training qualified to swap out a bad smoke detector or smashed fire pull station? Is he allowed to test the notification and transmission equipment also? Just trying to make sure I am interpreting the NFPA standards correctly.

A: Only if that individual has met the requirements of NFPA 72-2010, section 10.4.3.1, which describes the certification(s) needed in order to provide service, testing or maintenance on the fire alarm system:

“Service personnel shall be qualified and experienced in the inspection, testing, and maintenance of systems addressed within the scope of this Code. Qualified personnel shall include, but not be limited to, one or more of the following:

  • Personnel who are factory trained and certified for the specific type and brand of system being serviced;
  • Personnel who are certified by a nationally recognized certification organization acceptable to the authority having jurisdiction;
  • Personnel who are registered, licensed, or certified by a state or local authority to perform service on systems addressed within the scope of this Code;
  • Personnel who are employed and qualified by an organization listed by a nationally recognized testing laboratory for the servicing of systems within the scope of this Code.”

Now, the Annex section A.10.4.3.1 of NFPA 72-2010 says it is not the intent to require personnel performing simple inspections or operational tests of initiating devices to require factory training or special certification, provided such personnel can demonstrate knowledge in these areas. While the Annex section is not part of the enforceable code, it is explanatory information from the Technical Committee on what they were thinking when the standards were written. Most AHJs follow the Annex section and enforce it as part of their own standards.

However, changing out smoke detectors and/or pull stations is not within the purview of what the Annex section is saying.  To directly answer your question: If your electrician does not have any of the certifications identified in section 10.4.3.1, then no, he is not permitted to replace detector and/or pull stations.

Annual Alarm Transmission Test

Q: Is the alarm transmission verification test generally performed by a fire alarm testing company on every device during an annual test/inspection? I also thought that this was a quarterly requirement. I would verify receipt and timing of transmission with the central station once a quarter during fire drills. Do I have this confused with another standard?

A: No… NFPA changed the standard on you. Under the 1999 edition of NFPA 72, which the 2000 LSC referenced, the requirement was quarterly to test your off-premises monitoring transmission equipment. But with the 2012 LSC, it now references the 2010 edition of NFPA 72 which changed it to be an annual requirement.

But do not make the mistake of just testing the alarm transmission to the central station monitoring agency. This needs to be tested to the fire responder’s location, be it the 9-1-1 center or the local fire department. Many hospitals make the mistake of testing the alarm transmission to just the central station monitoring your fire alarm panel, but the interpretation by CMS and many of the accreditation organizations is you need to confirm that the local fire department received the alarm signal. This can be accomplished during a routine fire drill whereby you do not notify the central station monitoring company but you do notify the local fire department that a drill will be conducted, and tell them to not respond. After you complete the fire drill, contact the fire department to confirm they received the call from the central station monitoring company, and to return to normal response mode.

This test is conducted annually on a general alarm… not on every device that you test.

Magnetic Locks

Q: Is there a code requirement for testing magnetic-locking devices, for a facility maintenance director?

A: There is a requirement in NFPA 72-2010, section 14.4.5 that all interface devices (i.e. relays, control modules) be tested once per year. Since the magnetic locks in access-control and delayed egress locks are connected to the fire alarm system via an interface relay, then the magnetic lock needs to be tested once per year to ensure it disconnects during a fire alarm signal. This test is required to be conducted by someone who is certified in accordance with NFPA 72.

If you are CMS certified or accredited by any of the major accreditation organizations then you would be expected to comply with the manufacturer’s recommendations on preventive maintenance. Most manufacturers of magnetic locks requires periodic maintenance to ensure they are functioning correctly.

Batteries in the Fire Alarm System

Q: We have a difference of opinion in our organization that I hope you can settle for us. I believe the sealed lead-acid batteries in our fire alarm system are supposed to be tested per the requirements of NFPA 72 (Charger Test and Discharge Test annually and Load Voltage Test Semiannually). However, another point of view is that, since they’re a stored emergency power supply, they’re supposed to be tested the same as our Emergency Lights (30-seconds a month and 90 minutes annually). We want to be sure we’re in compliance, but we’ve reached the point where we’re turning in circles trying to figure out what we’re supposed to comply with. What are your thoughts on this question?

A: Based on NFPA 110-2010, section 3.3.5.1, the definition of a stored emergency power supply system is a system consisting of a UPS or a motor generator, powered by a stored electrical energy source, together with a transfer switch designed to monitor preferred and alternate load power source and provide desired switching of the load, and all necessary control equipment to make the system functional. That does not sound like batteries for a fire alarm system.

The Life Safety Code is the document that governs whenever there is a conflict or a disagreement. Section 19.3.4.1 of the 2012 LSC requires compliance with section 9.6 in regards with the fire alarm system. Section 9.6.1.3 says the fire alarm system must be installed, tested and maintained in accordance with NFPA 72. Table 14.4.5 of NFPA 72-2010 says sealed lead acid batteries used on fire alarm systems must have a charger test and a discharge test conducted annually, and a load voltage test conducted semi-annually. This eliminates any thought that the batteries must be tested monthly.

The requirement to test battery powered emergency lights on a monthly basis is found in section 7.9.3.1.1 of the 2012 LSC, and this applies to emergency lighting systems… Not fire alarm systems. In this situation, you are clearly correct. Tell the others they owe you an ice cream cone for being right.

Duct Detector Test

Q: During our inspection our surveyor was looking for 3/8″ holes, 3 feet upstream, before the smoke detectors in the ductwork. He requested testing procedures for the duct detectors from the tester who stated the test was performed by putting smoke onto the duct detector, which shut down the air-handler unit. The surveyor says the smoke must be inserted 3 feet prior to duct detector to test the actual tube for blockages. Can you tell me the actual regulation that states this requirement?

A: According to NFPA 72-2010, section 14.4.2.2, the method to conduct testing of fire alarm systems must comply with Table 14.4.2.2:

14(g) Smoke detectors

1) Smoke detectors/smoke alarms shall be tested in place to ensure smoke entry into the sensing chamber and an alarm response. Testing with smoke or listed aerosol, acceptable to the manufacturer of the aerosol or the manufacturer of the smoke detector/smoke alarm and identified in their published instructions, shall be permitted as acceptable test methods. Other methods listed in the manufacturer’s published instructions that ensure smoke entry from the protected area, through the vents, into the sensing chamber shall be permitted.

6) Duct detectors

In addition to the testing required in Table 14(g)(1), duct smoke detectors utilizing sampling tubes shall be tested by verifying the correct pressure differential (within the manufacturer’s published ranges) between the inlet and exhaust tubes using a method acceptable to the manufacturer to ensure that the device will properly sample the airstream. These tests shall be made in accordance with the manufacturer’s published instructions for the device installed.

Here is a summary on how to test duct detectors:

  1. The test must ensure smoke/aerosol enters the sensing chamber and an alarm responds.
  2. You must verify the correct air pressure differential between the inlet and exhaust tubes, in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions.

So, while the vendor appears to be testing the detector, it does not appear he is testing the air pressure differential of the inlet and outlet tubes. I don’t see anything in NFPA 72-2010 that requires putting smoke/aerosol in the actual air tube for duct detectors. I do see where that is required for air sampling smoke detectors, but duct detectors are not the same as air sampling smoke detectors.

Qualifications of Personnel

Q: We recently acquired a hospital that has been performing segments of their own fire system testing. What are the specific requirements or qualifications for an individual conducting testing or inspections on fire alarm systems and sprinkler systems?

A: NFPA 72-2010, section 10.4.3.1 requires a certified individual to perform service, testing, inspection and maintenance on fire alarm systems and components. The certification must be one (not all) of the following:

  • Factory trained and certified for the specific type and brand of systems being serviced
  • Persons who are certified by a nationally recognized certification organization (NICET, IMSA, etc.)
  • Persons who are registered, licensed or certified by the state
  • Persons who are employed and qualified by an organization listed by a national recognized testing laboratory for servicing fire alarm systems.

I have seen some larger hospitals that do employ people who meet one of the above requirements, but most hospitals contract this work to a qualified vendor who has these credentials. When it comes to sprinkler system testing/inspecting, NFPA does not require certification of the individuals performing the test/inspection. However, please check with your state and local AHJ to determine if they have additional requirements.

Testing of Smoke and Fire Doors

Q: With regards to the 2012 edition of the Life Safety Code and the requirement to perform annual inspections of smoke/fire doors, would it be safe to assume that annual for “year one” would be between August 2016 and August 2017 and even beyond if we apply the +/- days to the annual requirement? We are having trouble trying to get everything done am hoping we can push out the new annual door inspection tasks.

A: First of all, I do not believe that smoke doors in healthcare occupancies are required to be inspected. Yes… section 7.2.1.15.2 of the 2012 LSC says (in part) smoke door assemblies need to be tested. But that conflicts with the occupancy chapter for healthcare and section 4.4.2.3 says when specific requirements in the occupancy chapters differ from the general requirements contained in the core chapters, the occupancy chapter shall govern. Section 19.3.7.8 says doors in smoke barriers shall comply with section 8.5.4. Section 8.5.4.2 says where required by chapters 11 – 43 doors in smoke barriers that are required to be smoke leakaged-rated, must comply with section 8.2.2.4 (which requires testing). Chapters 18 & 19 (healthcare occupancies) do not require smoke doors to be smoke leakaged-rated: Therefore, smoke barrier doors do not have to be tested in healthcare occupancies.

Now… you may have a state agency that believes differently. Ultimately, they are an authority and if they say you have to test smoke doors, then you have to test smoke doors. But it is not required in healthcare occupancies according to the 2012 LSC. Also, some authorities say that healthcare occupancy doors in 7.2.1.15.1 must be tested, even if they are not fire-rated doors. This also is incorrect. The doors identified in 7.2.1.15.1 do not apply to healthcare occupancies so they are exempt from having to be tested. Only doors in assembly occupancies, educational occupancies, and residential board & care occupancies need to comply with 7.2.1.15.1.

But be aware: If you have areas of your healthcare facility that qualify as assembly occupancy, even if you do not declare that area as assembly occupancy, then you must comply with 7.2.1.15.1 and test those doors. This would include doors in assembly occupancies that:

  • Have panic hardware or fire-rated hardware;
  • Are located in an exit enclosure;
  • Are electrically controlled egress doors;
  • Delayed egress, access-control, and elevator lobby locked (per 7.2.1.6).

Secondly, CMS has stated that they require the first test/inspection of the fire doors to be completed by July 5, 2017. This date is based on the effective date of the 2012 Life Safety Code (which was July 5, 2016), and the fact that the fire door testing is an annual event. So, the first annual inspection is not due until July 5, 2017. I know the Accreditation Organizations will follow suit.

By the way… CMS has stated they do not approve of the ‘+’ portion of due dates. In other words, if the accreditation organization says annual means 12 months from the previous test, plus or minus 30 days, CMS is saying they do not approve of the ‘plus 30 days’. They don’t mind the ‘minus 30 days’ but they do not approve of any test/inspection going beyond what is required for a due date.

ASC Fire Alarm Testing

Q: What section of NFPA 72 (the National Fire Alarm Code) requires ambulatory surgery centers to perform testing of their fire alarm system on a quarterly basis? Do devices that require annual testing have to be divided and have the service contractor do 25% of them each quarter? My organization would like to know the specific identifier so that the requirement may be referred to.

A: The quick answer is there is no requirement in NFPA 72 (or any other NFPA standard) that requires quarterly testing of the fire alarm system for ASC classified as ambulatory care occupancies. Section 20.3.4.1 of the 2000 edition of the LSC requires compliance with section 9.6. Section 9.6.1.4 requires compliance with NFPA 72 (1999 edition) for testing and maintenance. NFPA 72, Table 7-3.2 discusses the frequency of testing and inspection for each component and device of the fire alarm system. While there are a few items that require quarterly testing (such as water-flow switches on sprinklers system, which actually comes from NFPA 25, and off-premises emergency notification transmission equipment), for the most part, annual testing is required on all initiating devices, notification devices, and interface devices. You do not have to divide the components that require annual testing into four groups and have your service contractor perform testing on 25% of the devices on a quarterly basis. Actually, this can be troublesome for larger organizations if the service contractor fails to test the devices during the same quarter each year. Most accreditation organizations require the annual test to be performed 12 months from the previous test, plus or minus 30 days.