Fire & Life Safety: The Value of Tests and Inspections

July 10, 2014
Growing your T&I business will protect your customers while adding to your recurring revenue

Usually the goal of a fire alarm system is to allow occupants to escape quickly and create a safer building for firefighters to enter; however, sometimes it is also to provide supervision and monitoring of critical equipment.

The various components of a fire alarm and suppression systems are critical to the safety of the occupants and firefighters — not to mention required by building and fire codes; thus, it is imperative that the building owner is given every chance to do the right thing for all involved, and have the system regularly tested and under a Test and Inspection (T&I) contract. Hopefully, this will be a contract with YOU.

In addition to ensuring the system will operate properly when needed, your company’s T&I contract program can add significantly to the bottom line of your company; in fact, there are companies that do nothing but provide testing and inspecting of fire alarm systems others have installed.

Our goal is that the entire system, for the life of the system, meets the customer’s expectations and the code’s requirements by making sure it is always in as good operating condition as the day it passed its Acceptance Test. The only way this can be accomplished by the alarm company is through regularly and comprehensive Tests and Inspections.

Growing Your T&I Business

Are you having a hard time growing your test and inspection business? I’ll admit, there is a lot to it. One issue many alarm company owners grapple with is how extensive the fire alarm T&I services will be.

The written Test Plan required by NFPA 72 at 14.2.10, clarifies exactly what is to be tested, when and how, as well as what will not be tested. For example, the boundary of the fire alarm system extends up to and includes any emergency control function interfaces (i.e. relays). The testing of the actual interfaced equipment is outside the scope of NFPA 72. Beyond those points, NFPA has published other standards that cover those systems. We cannot continue to give the impression that we have tested the performance of other systems when in fact we have only verified we gave it the proper signal.

This new rule draws a line that makes it clear where the fire alarm service provider stops testing. But even within the system, there can be components, like duct detectors, that your company may not be testing.

In the 2010 and 2013 editions of NFPA 72 (26.5.2), there is a requirement for any monitored commercial fire alarm customer to annually provide documentation to the AHJ identifying who is responsible for the testing and inspecting of their system. This document must also indicate the responsibilities and qualifications of the party doing the testing, AND be signed by a representative of the service provider.

To help your customers be in compliance, you can provide a signed, formatted letter to each customer under contract that can be presented to the AHJ. Then, attack your list of customers who are not under contract, and start setting up calls and appointments with them to explain what tests and inspections are required, and what you would charge to provide this service. Begin with the oldest customers, or the ones with a history of false alarm problems and those with the reputation of being in more high-risk occupancy types. Any nursing home or healthcare facility not under contract should also be high on your list.

In the end, T&I will provide your company with ongoing profit built into the fire alarm business.

Tests vs. Inspections

Testing refers to the functional tests required. But Inspections refer to the visual inspections that NFPA 72 also requires. Visual inspections are performed to make sure no environmental changes have occurred that could adversely affect equipment performance. Potential problems, such as corroded battery terminals and loose or damaged equipment, cannot be detected by the FACP but could be found during a visual inspection. A telephone distribution block hanging by the cables, for example, cannot be detected unless someone performs a visual inspection.

If the use of a space has changed or other feature of building construction has caused a misapplication of a detector, then a visual inspection should indicate the need to relocate detectors or change their type. Many times the building owner or a qualified representative could perform these visual inspections (possibly with a checklist you provide), as most customers may be hesitant to pay you to go around and just look at things. All this would need to be spelled out in the Test Plan as well.

Another common gray area is testing the sprinkler system. Many dealers/integrators think they are not knowledgeable enough to test water-based sprinkler systems; or have been told by a local inspector that they have to be a licensed suppression system company in order to test these systems.

It is true that you have to be licensed to test a sprinkler system; but, you are not testing a sprinkler system — you are testing the response to the fire alarm devices connected to the sprinklers. NFPA 72 clearly lists the testing intervals and test methods of the sprinkler system waterflow alarm and supervisory devices.

The IBC and IFC both require that the sprinkler system be installed in accordance with NFPA 13, but alarm and supervisory devices are to be installed and tested in accordance with NFPA 72. The codes simply state that someone has to be testing and maintaining the fire alarm system and its monitoring of the sprinkler system. If you have the monitoring contract and testing agreement, be very careful about assuming the sprinkler company or owner is properly testing these devices in accordance with NFPA 72.

What if they don’t actually verify the alarm, supervisory, trouble and restore signals, but are simply putting the alarm system “on disregard” with the monitoring company? What if they are only verifying they heard their watermotor gong when the test/inspection valve was opened? What if their idea of supervision involves only verifying that the water shut-off valves are chained/locked in the open position?

If your wires are attached to it, then you should make sure you are capable of receiving a signal from it. Then verify it is properly annunciated, defined and retransmitted to the responsible parties, and when the switch is restored to normal, a restoration signal is initiated.

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].