Replacing Fire Alarms in Existing High-rise Buildings

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.

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.

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.

What steps should we take?
When fire-alarm systems for high-rise buildings need to be upgraded or replaced, security and safety directors are often the messengers who bear the bad tidings to management. These professionals understand the management's concerns for safety, installation impact, and costs of a system replacement. They also understand the daily operation of their facility. The director will, however, need additional understanding to make a convincing case for the system replacement or enhancement. He or she must justify why such a project is required and provide a reasonable level of detail about the proposed system improvements. Adequate knowledge of the needed scope of the improvements helps in obtaining an adequate budget and full management support.

Usually an internal review of the costs and maintenance of the old system is the best starting point, because problems with operation, difficulty of maintenance or excessive cost can be the best justifications for a new system. If a facility has an effective system that is well-documented and -understood, some issues may still justify a system replacement or upgrade. These issues include maintenance of the equipment, changes in use of the facility, and enhancements for the benefit of occupants or responding personnel.

Sometimes an operational system has been cited by the authorities, or management has been advised that the current systems must be upgraded. While it can be beneficial to use the citation or advisory to generate support for the project, the building should not run out and find the first possible fix. The facility should work with the local authorities to develop a scheduled approach that includes developing design criteria that provides an effective solution.

The complexity and size of fire-alarm systems in high-rise buildings require that the design and life-cycle costs be considered in any system upgrade. Many high-rises are approaching the obsolescence of their current systems and will require the addition of voice notification, visual notification, expanded detection and enhanced technologies. To make these improvements, a planned, budgeted, team approach to design and installation is required. Such an approach will ensure that the fire-alarm systems in these grand structures remain as effective as possible.

Kenneth Gentile is a senior consultant with Rolf Jensen & Associates. Mr. Gentile specializes in the design, application and evaluation of fire protection and life safety systems. To learn more about RJA, please visit their Web site at www.rjagroup.com. www.rjagroup.com .

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