Fire Alarm 411: The “What” Rules

Feb. 14, 2024
Understanding codes will help integrators avoid mistakes when specifying fire safety equipment

This article originally appeared in the February 2024 issue of Security Business magazine. Don’t forget to mention Security Business magazine on LinkedIn and @SecBusinessMag on Twitter if you share it.

Knowing what fire alarm components to install in a building is essential for designing a compliant fire alarm system. It is also essential for crafting a competitive bid that results in profitable work. Without knowing what is required, you will include too much or too little.

When bidding and designing, you must consult the second category of fire alarm rules: the “what” rules. Check out my Dec. 2023 column for a refresher on the first category, “product” rules. 

I missed these “what” rules the first time I put together a sales estimate, and because I didn’t know there were specific rules that determine what is required, I included far too much and did not win the job. In particular, I was not familiar with the International Fire Code (IFC). The IFC is published by the International Code Council (ICC). The ICC also publishes the International Building Code, International Electrical Code, International Plumbing Code, and so on. Collectively, these are referred to as the I-Codes.

I missed these “what” rules the first time I put together a sales estimate, and I included far too much and did not win the job.

In my naïveté, I assumed that the I-Codes applied internationally – that is, to countries outside the United States. It made sense to me at the time. In America we use National Fire Protection Association codes, right? In fact, it is closer to the opposite. The I-Codes are primarily used in the United States.

The IBC is adopted statewide in 49 states (with Arkansas being the lone holdout). NFPA codes have broader adoption around the world.

While the IBC has new construction fire alarm requirements in section 907, most I-Code jurisdictions also adopt the IFC. The IFC is dedicated to fire prevention/fire protection and goes into far more detail than the IBC.

Occupancy Groups

Sections 907 of the IBC and the IFC are organized by building occupancy. Occupancy is similar to, but different than zoning classifications for land use. The most common occupancies are Groups A (assembly), B (business), E (educational), R (residential), and S (storage). A building can contain more than one group. For example, a warehouse may be mostly Group S, but have an office up front classified as Group B. A strip retail building may have a mix of Group A for restaurants, B for offices, and M (mercantile) for stores.

Make sure you understand the definition of each occupancy type. It is not always obvious. A large building full of doctors might be a Group I (institutional) hospital. It may also be categorized as a business occupancy – i.e., a medical office building. If patients undergo general anesthesia, the building – or that part of the building – may be considered an “ambulatory care facility.”

Common Exceptions

Next, look for exceptions. The most common type of exception is a minimum threshold for a particular component to apply. For example, IFC 907.2.3 (2024 ed.) says that you do not need to install pull stations in a Group E occupancy if the rated load is less than 50 people.

You are likely to find the occupant load listed on the architectural plans. This is not the same as the number of employees or the expected number of customers. Occupant load is calculated depending on several factors, such as the combined width of exit doors and the square footage of the building.
Another common exception applies to buildings with complete fire sprinkler coverage. As long as the fire alarm system notifies building occupants when the sprinklers activate and there is at least one manual means of activation, pull stations may not be required at all the exits.

If you are working on an existing building – as I was when I put together my first bid – you may also need to look at the requirements in IFC chapter 11. If your jurisdiction is still under the 2009 edition, refer to chapter 46. There you will find important criteria not included in the International Existing Building Code.

The ICC offers free access to their codes. You can visit to view the International Fire Code (2024 ed.). I find the pricing and ordering information distracting. Use the left sidebar to navigate directly to the section you need.

Which Code Applies?

The International Code Council is not the only game in town. The National Fire Protection Association publishes NFPA 101: Life Safety Code. Since the Joint Commission uses this for inspections, hospital fire alarm systems often need to comply with both NFPA 101 and any adopted building codes like the IFC.

Like the ICC, NFPA makes its codes available for free online. The 2024 ed. of NFPA 101 is available at

Unsurprisingly, the U.S. government is not subject to the rules of independent organizations, including code bodies like ICC and NFPA. The U.S. Department of Defense publishes a set of documents known as the Unified Facilities Criteria (UFC).

Expect UFC 3-600-01: Fire Protection Engineering for Facilities to apply any time you are bidding or designing a fire alarm system for a U.S. military or DoD building. As of this writing, the latest version is Change 6 and can be found at

Regardless of which codes apply, make sure you understand the “what” rules. My next column will examine the “how” rules.

With a career spanning nearly every role in the life safety industry and a NICET Level IV certification, Ben Adams is a sought-after author and speaker. In 2021, he launched FireAlarm.Training to accelerate training for companies, shrinking time-to-value for new techs from months to just days. Part of this column was taken from the course Intro to Fire Alarm, which can be found at