Making Fire Alarm Systems ADA Compliant

Knowing the ADA regulations can help you keep your facility within code, allowing equal access to the fire alarm system

According to the American Association of People With Disabilities, there are 39.1 million people with disabilities living in the United States, including the mentally challenged and those who are limited in activity due to chronic health or physical impairments.

With these people in mind, the U.S. Congress created the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) on July 26, 1990. Its primary purpose is to provide equal access to facilities and services for all Americans with physical challenges through removal of barriers in our built environment. The U.S. Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board (Access Board) was tasked to develop architectural standards for compliance with this new law. These standards are called the Americans with Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG). Section 4.28 of the ADAAG specifically provides guidelines for fire alarm systems.

The ADA cannot be enforced by local jurisdictions as a code, since no local government can enforce federal law. However, a few local jurisdictions have adopted local laws with the same language as the ADA, which essentially provides them the ability to enforce the ADA as code. Most fire alarm designers consider NFPA 72-1999, 'National Fire Alarm Code' as 'equivalent facilitation' to comply with the ADA. The requirements found in NFPA 72 exceed the minimum requirements found in the ADAAG.

Does the ADA Require a Fire Alarm System?
The ADA does not require a fire alarm system. NFPA 101, 'Life Safety Code,' NFPA 5000, 'Building Construction and Safety Code' or local building codes will mandate where a fire alarm system is required for new construction. Once a fire alarm system is installed, the ADA requires equal access to the system. For example, a system that provides an audible signal must also provide a visible signal to provide equal access for hearing-impaired occupants.

Where Is Compliance Required?
Basically, any property or part thereof, subject to occupancy by members of the public with physical impairments must be designed and built to provide equal access for all persons. However, many industrial facilities would not be entirely accessible to the general public. In a large welding fabrication shop, for instance, areas not subject to use by the public are not required to be ADA compliant, unless there are physically challenged workers in those areas.

The ADAAG does not require individual work areas (offices) to be ADA compliant, unless the areas are subject to public access. Physically challenged employees must identify their needs to the employer, and the employer must provide access throughout the areas used by the employee. Corridors, restrooms, meeting rooms and lobbies used by physically challenged employees are also required to be ADA compliant.

There are three areas in which ADA compliance is required for fire alarms: signaling for the hearing impaired, signaling for the blind, and access to manual fire alarm boxes for the physically challenged .

Signaling for the Hearing Impaired
The intent of the ADA as it relates to visible signaling for the hearing impaired is to provide an illumination level of 0.030 lumens per square foot at eye level. The prescriptive guidelines found in Section 4.28 of the ADAAG require a minimum 75-candela strobe with a spacing of not more than 100 feet between appliances. The ADAAG does not specify a polar light output distribution for the appliances, which leaves loopholes and makes design and enforcement difficult.

However, NFPA 72, 'National Fire Alarm Code' requires listed appliances and a minimum illumination level of 0.0375 lumens per square foot at the floor, which greatly exceeds the ADAAG minimum level of illumination. The only nationally recognized product standard used for listing visible notification appliances is UL 1971, 'Standard for Safety Visible Signaling Appliances for the Hearing Impaired.' Using dual-rated appliances (e.g. 15/75 cd) and following the requirements found in NFPA 72 is a generally accepted means of providing a level of protection equal to the ADAAG.

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