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.

Coded Words for Fire

Q: Our EP manager was discussing removing the code words like Code pink for a missing infant to missing child and the conversation about code red for fire came up. Someone in the conversation said there is a NFPA code requirement that “Code Red” must be in code form instead of saying “Fire”. I have not heard of this and haven not search yet. I wondered what your take is on this. Our FA system is programmed for voice that states “Code Red” and then the location.

A: Well… that ‘someone’ is actually correct… sort of.

Section 19.7.1.7 of the 2012 Life Safety Code actually does say “When drills are conducted between 9:00 pm and 6:00 am a coded announcement shall be permitted to be used instead of audible alarms.” So this section of the LSC does reference a code-word should be used to identify fire, such as ‘Code Red’.

But that requirement for a coded word for fire is only found in section 19.7.1.7 and is limited to a fire drill conducted without audible alarms between 9:00 pm and 6:00 am. Therefore, since the Life Safety Code does not prohibit it, the conclusion is you would be permitted to say ‘Fire’ instead of ‘Code Red’ when the fire alarm system is activated.

But is that in your best interest to do so? I am aware that there is a trend across the country to eliminate coded words for certain emergency announcements. Many coded words (i.e. ‘Code Pink’) are not used universally in all hospitals, and since healthcare staff is rather transient, the movement is to have announcements identify the actual emergency rather than using coded words. But the original intent in using ‘Code Red’ is to alert staff of a fire condition, yet not alarm visitors and patients un-necessarily, thereby causing a panic.

If it were my hospital, I would be an advocate to allow ‘Code Red’ to remain, but eliminating other coded words should be considered.

Smoke Detector Disabled

Q: If a smoke detecting device is disabled for a breathing treatment (often for several days), what sort of fire watch, notification or signage is necessary?

A: None. Fire watches are not for a single device taken out of service, or for a single device found to be impaired. According to section A.9.6.1.6 of the 2012 LSC, it is not the intent of the Life Safety Code to require notification of the AHJ or evacuation (or fire watch) for the portion of the building affected for a single nonoperative device or appliance.

Also, section 9.6.1.6 of the 2012 LSC says where a required fire alarm system (not a single device) is out of service for 4 or more hours in a 24-hour period then an approved fire watch should be conducted. If this smoke detector is located in a healthcare occupancy, there may be a good chance that it is not a required device. Many designers add smoke detectors throughout hospitals where the LSC does not actually require them. In my opinion, you would need to have a branch or circuit disabled on a fire alarm system before a fire watch is required.

Strange Observations – MHO Rod

Continuing in a series of strange things that I have seen while consulting at hospitals…

We already talked about this issue on ‘Strange Observations – Part 20’ posted April 5, 2018, but it’s worth revisiting.

You cannot have home-made components installed on the fire alarm system. The threaded rod is not UL listed for this purpose.

 

NOTE: I’ve received some skepticism on the validity of saying the door release equipment is part of the fire alarm system. I base my position on section 21.8 of NFPA 72-2010, which says the door release equipment is a function of the fire alarm system, and according to section 10.3, all equipment used in conformity with NFPA 72-2010 must be listed for the purpose for which it is used. If the manufacturer of the door release device obtained a UL listing for the threaded rod, then I stand corrected. But as far as I know, that has not happened.

 

 

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.

Fire Alarm System Strobes

Q: I work in a healthcare facility and we are in need to find an answer to a question regarding strobe lights. When we test our fire alarm system, and we silence the alarm, the strobe lights do not continue to flash. We were told that this is not “code” and the lights need to continue to flash even if system is silenced. I cannot seem to find this located in any part of the Life Safety Codes. Also, this is an older facility, so at some point/date do some healthcare facilities get grandfathered in if this is a newer code?

A: No… older facilities do not get to be grandfathered, or in any other way, exempt from complying with the code.

Section 19.7.1.4 of the 2012 Life Safety Code requires the transmission of the fire alarm signal during a fire drill. That means you cannot silence the audible alarms and you cannot disable the visual (i.e. strobe) notification devices. If you are doing either during a fire drill, then you are non-compliant and need to discontinue this practice and make sure the audible notification devices and the visual notification devices operate properly during each fire drill.

Now, having said that, there is one exception that you may qualify for and that is found in section 19.7.1.7 of the 2012 Life Safety Code, which says when drill are conducted between 9:00 pm and 6:00 am a coded announcement is permitted to be used instead of the audible alarms. But, the visual notification devices (i.e. strobes) must operate.

Fire Door Inspector

Q: My accreditation organization has a standard that says “testing and inspection of fire door assemblies needs to be conducted by a qualified person.” By what specifically do they mean when they say “qualified” and where are we able to find where they define their interpretation of what qualified is?

A: You will find the interpretation of what ‘qualified’ means under section 5.2.3.1 of NFPA 80-2010, which says functional testing of fire doors and window assemblies must be performed by individuals with knowledge and understanding of the operating components of the type of door being subject to testing. You may hire this responsibility out to a contractor with this knowledge and understanding, or you may assign the responsibility to test the fire doors to one of your own staff individuals, provided you ‘qualify’ them by determining they have the knowledge and understanding to perform this test.

If you decide on the latter, you need to document this decision by describing why you believe this individual has this knowledge and understanding of fire door operating components, and retain that document in case the surveyor asks to see how you qualified that individual. Your own staff individual could be qualified based on a certification course they may have taken (please understand there is no requirement that the person conducting the fire door inspections be certified, but it can be a good source of education), or the individual may be qualified simply because they have worked on doors for years and have accumulated this knowledge and understanding. The key is you may need to defend this decision, so it is best to document the decision and retain that to show to a surveyor.

Addressable Fire Alarm Systems?

Q: Are you aware of any accrediting organization requiring the hospital to have an addressable fire alarm system installed? If so, what organizations? Please explain the rationale and any supporting code behind this decision. Background: A hospital currently has a fully functional zone fire alarm system installed but heard that accrediting organizations are requiring addressable systems. In my review of NFPA 101 2012, I cannot find anything in chapters 18 or 19 that would differ from the 9.6 reference to NFPA 72 2010.

A: There is no NFPA Life Safety Code requirement for you to have an addressable fire alarm system. There is a requirement that the hospital have a fire alarm system that meets the requirements of 19.3.4 of the 2012 LSC, but that does not include being an addressable system. As far as I know, Joint Commission, HFAP, and DNV do not require an addressable fire alarm system, and CMS does not require an addressable fire alarm system.

Now, a state or local law may exceed the NFPA minimum and require an addressable fire alarm system, but you would have to check with your state and local authorities to find that out.

Off-Site Monitoring Station for Fire Alarm Systems

Q: I can’t seem to find anything in NFPA 72-2010 that says a facility is required to transmit a fire alarm signal to an off-site supervisory station. Our health care facility currently does not contract with an off-site station, and our procedure is to contact the fire department directly by phone when an alarm is received. Can you comment and provide some insight on this please?

A: Wait… what? This does not sound very good… What kind of healthcare facility are you? A hospital? An Ambulatory Surgical Center? According to the 2012 LSC, section 19.3.4.3.2.1 for hospitals, and section 21.3.4.3.2.1 for ASC, you need to comply with section 9.6.4 in regards to fire department notification. Section 9.6.4.2 requires that you communicate the fire alarm signal to the local fire department in one of the following methods:

  • Auxiliary fire alarm system
  • Central station fire alarm system
  • Proprietary supervising station fire alarm system
  • Remote supervising station fire alarm system

What you described is a manual transmitting system, which is not permitted for hospitals or ASCs. What I’ve observed most hospitals use is the Central Station Fire Alarm System which uses a modem to communicate to a central monitoring station that automatically relays any fire alarm signals to the local fire department. What you have described is a serious violation and one that CMS would consider to be a trigger for an Immediate Jeopardy decision. I suggest you get this resolved ASAP.

Fire Alarm System Communication

The answer to this question was provided by my good friend Gene Rowe, Director of Business Development for Affiliated Fire Systems, Inc., Downers Grove, IL

Q: With the impending discontinuation of the hard copper (POTS) phone lines, and in fact many municipalities already no longer have hard copper pairs from end user to the Central Office, are we, or will we be, in violation of the NFPA code for the primary DACT connection to the CO? Our fire alarm system company is telling us we must upgrade to another form of communication; however we have an IP based phone system in all buildings and the fire alarm company documentation indicates that IP based technology is acceptable, can I simply designate two analog phone lines from our system to the DACT, eliminating the POTS connection?

A: Per NFPA 72 (2010) Chap. 26.6.3.2, Patrick would be code compliant if he continues to use phone lines for a central station connection.  However, if the vendor is saying he must upgrade, it sounds like they’re discontinuing DACT monitoring.  He should verify that with the vendor.  Most central stations have DACT, radio and cellular receivers, but some are discontinuing DACT receiving for the reasons Patrick stated.  If he’s connected to a central station that’s dropping it, he may be able to find a new central station that still has it.  If he’s directly connected to a fire department that’s dropping it, he can see if he’s allowed to use a central station for monitoring.  If they’re not dropping DACT monitoring, he can ride that horse until discontinued by the monitoring agency or the lines die, but I’d advise setting up a new method so he can control the costs before it becomes an emergency.

Switching to IP based phone lines would still use the existing DACT transmitter, but without getting too technical, it comes with a couple of conditions:

  1. There has to be a dial tone on the IP phone lines when the receiver is picked up (loop started).  If you have to dial a number to get a dial tone (ground started), you can’t use it.
  2. The DACT communication out of the fire panel must now be converted into IP packets at the source, then reassembled into digital signals at the receiver.  That means the central station must have an IP converter & the end user must install an IP converter that matches it.
  3. The power for the phone system must be backed up by the emergency generator.

Obviously, bullet #2 is where the costs comes in & it won’t be cheap.  It may seem like it shouldn’t be a big deal, but changing communication methods always involves new equipment.  The costs & legwork involved in staying with phone lines may be more than installing the upgrade, which is probably a radio.