Replacing Fire Alarms in Existing High-rise Buildings

Know when replacement is necessary and how to comply economically.


Even for addressable systems, extensive troubleshooting can be intrusive and expensive for high-rise facilities. Some of the addressable systems installed between about 1982 and 1995 have primitive programming and diagnostics compared to current systems, and there is a shortage of qualified technicians trained on these systems. This may be indicated by turnover in the technicians servicing the system and labor-intensive service invoices. And even then, the problems in the systems often still cannot be easily diagnosed and corrected, indicating that there may be an expertise shortage.

In all older systems, no matter how well maintained, a critical part can fail, sometimes with a catastrophic impact on system operation. This can result in required fire watches, in which personnel must be on a patrol dedicated to spotting fires. If the part cannot be found, a complete system replacement must be contracted for on an emergency basis. These installations usually come with a high price tag and considerable inconvenience. Also, although it is an older system that fails, the replacement designed may or may not be "grandfathered."

The second vulnerability is the proprietary "gotcha." If a component fails, a fire-alarm service company may replace an older intelligent component with a newer one. Since the new fire-alarm technologies are proprietary, this repair prohibits competitive replacement options in the future. Should code-required improvements or system expansions be needed, the high-rise may be forced to choose between throwing away newly acquired equipment and giving up the option of competitive pricing.

For those addressable systems that can be upgraded piece by piece, a phased-in replacement can offer a budget-friendly program. This approach spreads out a major capital expense over several years. It also permits more use of existing-system code requirements in lieu of the often more stringent new-system code requirements. There is no need for this approach to limit competition in securing the best pricing. If the phases are based upon a knowledge of the existing equipment parameters, circuits and final operational objectives, you can still obtain competitive installation costs.

What does this new system have to have that we don't already have?
After determining that a new fire-alarm system is required, the design, purchase and installation must take into consideration the current high-rise requirements and the state of the industry. The code requirements for fire alarms in high-rise buildings have expanded considerably in the last decade. The additional requirements for fire-alarm systems in high rises come from several directions. The codes have placed additional requirements on the tall buildings from both life safety and handicapped accessibility perspectives. Recent years have also seen institutional changes that affect the high-rise fire-alarm system. These changes include consolidation in the fire-alarm manufacturing sector, emergence of new model building codes and rethinking of the emergency response operations to possible high-rise catastrophes. Finally, the last 10 years have seen a revolution in the technology inside fire-alarm equipment that should be considered as replacement systems are planned.

A simple list of the requirements for a high-rise building that go above and beyond the requirements of most occupancies includes the following:
- Voice notification
- Firefighters' telephone systems
- Survivable fire command rooms
- Survivability of circuits
- Utility room detection
- Vertical, multi-floor duct smoke detection

Additional requirements found in the accessibility standards and some local jurisdictions include:
- Visual notification for the hearing-impaired public
- Floor re-entry
- Zoned evacuation
- Stair pressurization
- Smoke evacuation
- Corridor smoke detection
- Addressable initiating devices

The various types of high-rise occupancies may have design requirements that can be more or less stringent than those in the above lists, and often the enforcement practices vary substantially. For example, some jurisdictions rigidly enforce the visual notification requirements or even have a separate review conducted by agencies responsible for accessibility. (In Texas, a state agency reviews the visual notification design.)

There are operational considerations that are also available to the high-rise buildings. For example, depending upon the applicable code, special suppression systems and duct smoke detection may be permitted to send a supervisory condition instead of an alarm condition. A supervisory condition does not require occupant evacuation.