Fire Alarm Expert: All This Noise Isn’t Helping

Suddenly the fire alarm signal begins blaring inside the cab. There is nothing to do but let the elevator take you to your floor or the floors of the other passengers. If the car’s been recalled, maybe the elevator will stop, reverse direction and begin to descend, non-stop to the designated recall floor. I am sure by now you’d be feeling a bit concerned or maybe even a little panicked. Fortunately, due to several changes in the 2007 edition of NFPA 72, this unpleasant scenario may be occurring less often.

One of the important changes to the rules for elevator occupant notification has been the removal of the requirement for the sound to be heard “in the occupiable area.” Now 7.4.3.1 states that notification rules only apply to parts of the building required to be served by the (fire alarm) system. This change enables the new 2007 wording in section 6.8.6.2.4 to include elevator notification which eliminates the need for audible fire alarm notification in elevator cars. And thanks to the new rule at 6.8.6.2.2, which eliminates the requirement for visible signaling in these cars, any hearing impaired riders will also feel less anxious.

Additionally this wording implies that existing notification in elevator cars may be disconnected. If it’s disconnected, there will be no decrease in safety to the elevator’s occupants. Once the elevator reaches the selected floor or the “designated level,” and the doors open, the fire alarm situation will be evident. “Ding”--they are free to move about the country.

This new concept of ‘leave them alone, there’s nothing more to be done’ is also carried through with other new rules found in section 6.8.6.2 of the 2007 edition of the fire code. This new section also mirrors the new elevator rules by adding similar wording for “Exit Stair Enclosures” and “Exit Passageways.”

6.8.6.2 Notification appliances shall not be required in exit stair enclosures, exit passageways and elevator cars in accordance with 6.8.6.2.1 (and 6.8.6.2.3). To clarify… 6.8.6.2.1: Visible signals shall not be required in exit stair enclosures and exit passageways; and 6.8.6.2.3: The evacuation signal shall not be required to operate in exit stair enclosures and exit passageways.

Dangerous distractions
The current thinking is that those who have passed through the exit (doors) on each floor have done so because they were already notified by the fire alarm system and they are already in the process of escaping the danger. Driving them on would likely cause more anxiety with unnecessary noise and disorienting flashing lights. In fact, all that additional distraction may be dangerous.

In the voice evacuation section of the 2007 edition, 6.9.10.3, the undesirable situation associated with re-notifying the occupants using a stairwell is also addressed:
6.9.10.3: Where provided, speakers in each enclosed stairway shall be connected to a separate notification zone for manual paging only.

The previous edition of NFPA 72 had this section starting with “Where required…” (because NFPA 72 wasn’t requiring it). In the 2007 edition, this entry was changed to read: “Where provided,…” to make sure the rule is applied not just to stairways required by local code, contract, et al (which may include a requirement/specification to include voice evacuation speakers in the stairwell), but also in situations where they are voluntarily installed in exit stairways. The “separate notification zone for manual paging only” means that if voice evacuation speakers were used in a stairway, the emergency personnel would then have to make a conscious decision to use them.
Strictly from a cost standpoint (which I am aware is not the only or the most driving concern when adding fire safety to a building) you can see why there is reluctance on the part of the building owner to add horns/strobes to an elevator if they are not necessary. The expense of replacing or adding an elevator traveling cable (the cable that attaches the cab to the elevator controller) with new cabling containing more conductors in order to allow for the installation of audible and/or visible notification appliances in the elevator cars, is significant. The traveling cable alone can cost the building owner around $10 to $30 per foot. Add to that installation by qualified, licensed elevator mechanics and you can come up with a substantial number!

New wording in 6.8.6 and 6.8.6.1 adds “Mass Notification System” rules to this section of the 2007 edition:
6.8.6 Fire Alarm and Mass Notification System Notification Outputs.
6.8.6.1 Occupant Notification. Fire alarm and mass notification systems provided for evacuation or relocation of occupants shall have one or more notification appliances listed for the purpose on each floor of the building and so located such that they have the characteristics described in Chapter 7 for public mode or private mode, as required.

As you can see, rule 6.8.6.1 mentions using either “public mode” or “private mode” as required by your state or local building codes. If so required, then 7.4.2.3 allows for “private mode” signaling to be used when it states: Audible alarm notification appliances installed in elevator cars shall be permitted to use the audibility criteria for private mode appliances detailed in 7.4.3.1.

When looking up “private mode” audibility requirements, you’ll find this:
7.4.3.1* To ensure that audible private mode signals are clearly heard, they shall have a sound level at least 10 dB above the average ambient sound level or 5 dB above the maximum sound level having a duration of at least 60 seconds, whichever is greater, measured 1.5 m (5 feet) above the floor in the area required to be served by the system using the A-weighted scale.

The change in wording to “in the area required to be served by the system” from “occupiable areas” allows for certain areas like elevators and stairwells to not be notified. Another change to section 7.4.3.1 from the 2002 edition, eliminates the minimum sound level requirement of 45 dBA and now simply states that being 10 dBA over average ambient is enough noise.

This was never an issue until after September 11, 2001, when all kinds of radical ideas were proposed, including mandating CCTV cameras in the tops of elevator hoist ways to watch for flames. Once we realized that there would be no fire alarm system in the world that would protect a building from terrorists crashing a plane loaded with thousands of gallons of fuel into it, things settled down and the committees got to work writing more practical enhancements. And these are some of those practical rules. Removing notification appliances from areas where they (A) do no good and (B) where they might do harm, makes sense. These new rules aren’t enough to balance out other requirements that don’t make sense, but it’s a start.

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