Replacing Fire Alarms in Existing High-rise Buildings

Know when replacement is necessary and how to comply economically.

Many different types of facilities face common concerns when it comes time to consider replacement of existing fire alarm systems. For high-rise buildings of all occupancy types, however, there are unique requirements for fire-alarm and -detection systems. High-rise buildings are typically recognized as those with occupied floors 75 feet or more above the access level. Providing a fire-alarm system for this large of a facility is a major investment requiring technical expertise and knowledge of the applicable codes.

The first and often most challenging issue may be determining whether the existing fire-alarm system needs to be replaced. The need to replace an aging system may be obvious if it has become a maintenance nuisance with a serious financial impact. Sometimes, though, buildings have newer systems or are not experiencing problems. The security directors or building managers in these buildings are often led to understand that code compliance and liability concerns require the installation of a complete new system, and they often don't realize there are other solutions. Only a complete evaluation of the individual fire-alarm system's condition and requirements can make apparent the best options for a particular building. Even so, those responsible for the decisions affecting the alarm and detection systems should prepare themselves with a general understanding of the condition of the fire-alarm system, the high-rise code requirements and the current technological solutions that are available.

Is a new system really needed if the old one still has a pulse?
Well-maintained fire-alarm systems can have a long service life. I have seen some systems still operating well and effectively after 25 and even 30 years of service. To maintain one of these older fire alarm systems, however, one must understand the general system technology, the technical details of the particular model, and the specifics of the circuits and programming.

Today, most facilities have addressable fire-alarm technology that pinpoints the exact smoke detector, pull station or other initiating device that goes into alarm. Addressable systems began replacing conventional or zoned systems (those that indicate the area of the building where the alarm occurs) in the mid- to late 1980s. Older, conventional systems can still be found operating, some even in good condition. Still, since these systems are usually well into their second decade of use, it can be difficult to find parts for them and technicians trained to service them. A conventional system has less programming capability and expandability than the addressable systems. This means that enhancing the system to accommodate the newer code requirements along with any changes to the building use can be difficult, if not impossible. The third strike against maintaining the conventional system is that some local jurisdictions' codes require systems to be addressable. In this case the money put into maintaining a conventional system is money being spent to postpone the inevitable.

The addressable systems that have been installed during the past 20 years have also experienced numerous changes in technology. Finding technicians and parts for some of these older addressable systems can be even more difficult than finding them for conventional systems. So, how can an addressable system be determined obsolete? The vendor that represents the system will often say that it can be upgraded a piece at a time, or that it is "forward and backward" compatible. While some of the addressable systems can expand to meet additional requirements, this piecemeal method may be a cover for the "I can repair your axe" approach to fire-alarm system upgrades. First I sell you a new handle, and then I sell you a replacement head. This approach can keep competing fire-alarm vendors out and profit margins on locked-in equipment up.

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