Fire & Life Safety: Permit Process Primer

Dec. 2, 2013
Answering common questions associated with the review of fire installation plans

Permits are required for any construction regulated by your adopted building code — and this usually includes most fire and life safety systems. The following are my answers to some common questions regarding the fire alarm permit process: 

Who will review my fire alarm installation plans?

The local building department has building inspectors who are usually licensed and/or certified by the state. These inspectors may hire outside plan reviewers who are often engineers/architects who are usually licensed/certified by the state to perform plan reviews. Some building departments may elect to review the plans themselves; and some small or rural jurisdictions will not have a qualified inspector — in which case you will submit your plans to the state agency charged with this responsibility.

How can I determine the total fees for the permit and plan review?

Local and state inspection departments usually require a base fee for the permit and charge incrementally more for larger installations. Paying per device is OK, but you can get taken to the cleaners if a standard generic “electrical permit” imposes a fee based on the square footage of the structure. You will find it disproportional when submitting plans for a manual fire alarm system as opposed to paying per device. Some jurisdictions will even allow you to choose between the two.

How do I make sure I charge my customer enough to cover these costs without losing the contract because I overestimated the fees?

Many alarm companies will have the permit/submittal/inspection fee included in their fire alarm bid; however, some will have the building owner pay these fees directly, rather than overestimate the final cost. Make sure to explain to the customer that this arrangement ensures they will not be overcharged.

Why do I have to submit fire alarm plans after I get the job if the architect already has the building permit and the structure is already under roof?

The construction application necessary for breaking ground required the name of a registered design professional “who shall act as the registered design professional in responsible charge.” While this person (usually an architect) placed fire alarm symbols on his plans, the plans were not actually reviewed for compliance with the fire alarm rules of the code. While fire safety equipment is sometimes indicated on the plans for bidding purposes, the “the registered design professional in responsible charge” usually requests that the building department allow the fire alarm system (and HVAC, plumbing, elevator, etc.) plans to be “deferred.” When you complete your fire alarm “shop drawings,” the IBC states you must first submit these to “the registered design professional in responsible charge” who “shall review them and forward them to the building official with a notation indicating that the deferred submittal documents have been reviewed and found to be in general conformance to the design of the building.” The building department will then determine if your plans are in compliance with the code.

What if the project is an existing building and there is no registered design professional in responsible charge?

In this case, the building official will receive plans for approving the installation of a fire alarm system. Some states allow licensed and certified fire alarm designers or alarm technicians to prepare the required documents for submittal. (Chapter 9 of the IBC lists what is to be included with submittal documents.) All states allow licensed or registered architect or engineer’s to submit fire alarm documents and plans for approval by the code official.

What if the fire alarm submittals are rejected by the building department?

The reason for rejection will be put in writing listing what information is lacking or things they believe need to be changed and/or corrected. All is not lost if the reviewer made an error — you can explain the misunderstanding to the building official and provide clarification in writing by responding to each listed “deficiency.” Sometimes all they are looking for is assurance from you in writing, that the system wiring will be installed in compliance with the 2013 edition of the NEC, for example. Sometimes a note or other change on the drawings will be required. Most jurisdictions allow simple clarifications or changes to be resubmitted without an additional charge. Any “violations” listed in the rejection of the permit application should have the applicable code numbers associated with them. Make sure they are applicable, citing the correct edition/year, and whether any code “exceptions” were considered.

Do I have to get a permit from the fire department, too?

Fire departments usually do not provide permits for construction — this is normally the job of the building departments; however, as a courtesy, some building departments ask for an additional set of plans to be provided so that the local fire official may also review the plans. Don’t worry; they will review for the compliance with the same rules, codes, and standards the building department enforces.

When do I need to get a permit to install security alarm and other low voltage systems?

Any electrical power supplied by other than a Class II power supply source, or voltages greater than 30 volts rms/42 volts peak, or 60 volts dc, you should determine if an electrical permit or special licensing is needed. Always check local business licensing requirements. While a permit for the installation of a security system may not be required in all cases, the installation company may be required to have a license. In Ohio, for example, we exempt any permit for “electrical wiring, devices, appliances, apparatus or equipment operating at less than twenty-five volts and not capable of supplying more than fifty watts of energy.” Fire alarm systems required in certain occupancies are specifically addressed. To locate your state’s license requirements, you can begin at the Small Business Administrations’ website:

Greg Kessinger is SD&I’s fire alarm and codes expert and a regular contributor. Email him your fire & life safety questions at [email protected].