Fire & Life Safety--Playing Hide and Seek with NFPA 72 Definitions

Jan. 16, 2013
The 2013 edition has new terms and definitions

A new year brings with it an opportunity for a fresh start, and the 2013 Edition of NFPA 72 is no different. Re-printed every three years, the National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code (NPFA 72) brings with it new rules and regulations that I will be explaining or complying with over the next several years. Therefore, with the opening of each new edition, I feel a bit of trepidation as well. The other day I reluctantly peeled off the shrink-wrap containing the paperback and hardbound editions of the 2013 National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code. The books have been sitting on my desk for several weeks now. It’s almost like seeing someone that you haven’t seen for a while, and you find yourself asking: “What’s new?”  

Discovering that your old friend is speaking a new language can be disconcerting.   In order to keep from having to ask “what do you mean?” all the time, I immediately paged to Chapter Three to read the definitions for the terms I’ll be using for the next several years. Whether or not I’ll adopt the new lingo remains to be seen. I thought the way of the future, and the wise, was to adopt general rules that would fit any new developments in technology. But I am finding that with the increase of possible fire alarm ‘pieces and parts,’ many more definitions have been added to this code edition—even if it meant having to invent terms.

NFPA 72 is grouping terms or combining terms to make newer, longer terms. For example, take your basic term: Alarm. The 14th entry in the definition chapter of this edition is “Alarm Signal,” and the reader is directed to turn to the 257th entry and look under the heading “Signals.” The first of 10 signals listed there (under the “S”s) is “alarm signal.” It is here that the book provides the sought-after definition: “A signal that results from the manual or automatic detection of an alarm condition.” What you can’t tell, is that there is a definition for “alarm condition” under a new heading called “condition.” An “alarm condition” is “An abnormal condition that poses an immediate threat to life, property, or mission.” There is no definition for “abnormal.” Notice that you can find the term “Adverse Condition” under “A,” right after “Addressable Device” and not under “C” with the other six “Conditions.” It couldn’t be easier, right?

All of the “alarm” definitions are now under the heading “signals,” where they use the same word “alarm” but state that each is caused by a “_____ condition.” For instance a pre-alarm signal is defined as being caused by “the detection of a pre-alarm condition.” A “trouble signal” “results from the detection of a trouble condition.”

A “signal” of some type, is caused by a “condition” of the same name, and merits a “response” category. In the new “response” section, NFPA 72 defines ‘Alarm Response,’ ‘Pre-Alarm Response,’ ‘Supervisory Response,’ and ‘Trouble Response.’ These are all defined as “Actions performed upon the receipt of [that] signal” yet there is no mention of what the action consists of as that should be in the code language as a requirement.

Of the 320 terms, or grouped terms, more than a third gives us the ‘see somewhere else’ message. The term “Nuisance Alarm” has been added but it came bundled with three other unwanted alarm types. If you look up “Nuisance Alarm” you’ll read: “See Unwanted Alarm” (another new term I didn’t know I lacked). An unwanted alarm is “Any alarm that occurs that is not the result of a potentially hazardous condition.” (Checking back under the “condition” grouping, I see there are six conditions, but “hazardous condition” isn’t one of them.) There are four examples of “unwanted alarms” listed—Malicious, Nuisance, Unintentional and Unknown.   In case you were wondering, a malicious alarm is “caused by a person acting with malice.” Good to know.

In the 2010 edition, if a patrolling guard didn’t perform his duties correctly (on time, in the prescribed order, etc.) a signal was caused. This signal, activated by their improper behavior, was called a “Guard’s Tour Supervisory Signal” which was “A supervisory signal monitoring the performance of guard patrols.” In the 2013 edition, NFPA 72re-defines this term. Per the 2013 edition, “Guard’s Tour Supervisory Signal” will now refer to “the signals routinely generated by patrolling guards activating their guard tour stations.” In other words, it is now a guard’s tour-supervisory signal, and no longer “a subset of the general category of supervisory signals as used in this Code [NFPA 72].”

So what signal is generated when a guard fails to start/finish patrolling on time, or goes out of order, or is late to or skips the next check-in station? According to the 2013 and previous editions of NFPA 72, this will automatically cause a “Delinquency Signal” which is:A signal indicating a supervisory condition and the need for action in connection with the supervision of guards or system attendants.”

There are four terms under the “Accessible” heading which change meaning depending on their context: Accessible (as applied to equipment), Accessible (as applied to wiring methods), Accessible, Readily (Readily Accessible) [which I take to mean easily accomplished without tools or equipment] and Accessible Spaces (as applied to detection coverage in Chapter 17).

New cloud terms defined

The new term “Communications Cloud” is introduced as: The area in the communications path that is supported by providers of communication services not governed under the scope of NFPA 72 in which signals travel between a protected property and a monitoring station. Depending on the type of transmission that is used, signals can travel on a single defined route or through various routes depending on what is available when the signal is initiated.”

Under the new heading of “Condition,” which is defined as: “A situation, environmental state, or equipment state of a fire alarm or signaling system,” six terms are listed which you will need to learn in order to fully understand the ten terms found under the new “Signals” heading discussed earlier. The six terms are: Normal Condition, Abnormal (Off-Normal) Condition, Alarm Condition, Pre-Alarm Condition, Supervisory Condition and Trouble Condition. A “Trouble Condition” is defined as “an abnormal condition in a system due to a fault.”   “Fault” isn’t defined, however.

The use of the word “impairment” is not new to NFPA 72, but it has been added to the definition chapter of this 2013 edition as an “abnormal condition.” Then two kinds of “Impairments” are listed: “Emergency Impairment” and “Planned Impairment.”

Although none of these changes to fire alarm definitions will significantly impact how we do business, it is imperative that fire alarm professionals learn and begin to incorporate these new terms into our vernacular. And remember, providing input and commenting on committee proposals for the next code edition update, is always an option for all of us. If you don’t like the changes being made in the codes, make it a New Year’s resolution to get involved with the next round of revisions. Have a great 2013 and a Happy New Year to all my loyal readers.