Replacing Fire Alarms in Existing High-rise Buildings

Know when replacement is necessary and how to comply economically.

What are the requirements for the existing system in my facility?
Before addressing this question, a quick look at the recent changes to the infrastructure of the model building codes is appropriate.

The recent introduction of two new model codes, NFPA 5000 and the International Building Code, as contenders for influence in the building safety community has substantial effects on the design requirements of fire-alarm systems. First, as the new codes are becoming adopted by more jurisdictions, local enforcement and understanding of the requirements of these codes is still in transition. A wide variety of local interpretations for fire-alarm system requirements may need to be considered. Second, many jurisdictions are amending the requirements of the codes to continue previously long-standing practices and to address local concerns. Third, NFPA 72 - National Fire Alarm Code is still the standard for the quality and survivability of both codes. In addition, there is a movement in the life safety code community towards performance-based codes in lieu of the traditional prescriptive requirements

All these changes provide both opportunity and potential pitfalls for the installer of the replacement fire-alarm system. The primary opportunity present is that local authorities seem to be more open to well-conceived variances to the prescriptive requirements of the codes. The pitfall is that the design rationale "we have always done it that way…" can result in numerous change orders and delays before a system is permitted.

This invites a word of caution about "grandfathering." Most jurisdictions have different requirements for existing and new fire-alarm systems, and often replacement systems are held to the old existing-system standards. Most jurisdictions, however, can require that the design of a replacement fire alarm system comply as closely with the new-system requirements as is feasible. Building management often succumbs to vendors presenting a device-for-device replacement as an escape from implementing new codes. Using a grandfathered fire alarm system design as an excuse to avoid system upgrades may present problems with the local authorities and result in future liability issues. If the new requirements are found to be too expensive or impracticable, alternative design solutions can often be proprosed. These are best achieved by designing a performance-based or alternate method of meeting the codes' intent.

Finally, the technical capabilities of fire-alarm systems have expanded in the past 10 years, and many of the new features can be of particular benefit in high-rise applications. Some systems have dual processing units that can permit operation of a panel during maintenance or installation. Some networks have broadband transmission capabilities that can permit real-time, evacuation-zone voice transmission from unlimited distances, including other buildings. Graphic displays can show the fire-alarm devices on diagrammatic risers or block floor diagrams, or detailed electronic drawing backgrounds from building documents.

Smoke detectors are now guided by algorithms that substantially reduce the incidence of false alarms. The availability of these new features forces prospective purchasers to study the intended operational needs of the new fire alarm system. The high-rise owner must determine if a feature will benefit the building's operation or if it is just an unneeded bell or whistle. Many of these vendor-promoted must-have features are common to several manufacturers, while others are exclusive to specific vendors. Some capabilities are inherent to the panels, while others must be purchased as options. Some existing systems are genuinely forward compatible so that the new features can be added to existing panels, while others require replacement of the processors or network.

All these considerations take on even more importance when you consider the substantial consolidation in the fire-alarm industry. Many brands of the past 25 years are now owned by fewer companies. Almost all fire-alarm systems now have communication protocols that are proprietary. The selection of a system will require a long-term commitment to the system manufacturer, not just the installing or service company. The quality of service, testing and inspection and the requirements for future building renovation make the vendor selection a decision that you will have to live with for many years.