Fire & Life Safety: Fire Alarm Signal Transmission

Oct. 14, 2016
2016 code changes regarding the length of time it should take between an alarm and fire dispatch

Here are two reader questions regarding the time it should take for fire department dispatch once a fire alarm signal has been initiated:

1. We have been told several times by inspectors in three nearby townships that we “failed to notify their communications center in time” during functional acceptance tests of new fire alarm systems. Where is it explained in NFPA 72 (2010, 2013 and 2016 editions) how long do we have in this regard?

2. What happened to the big push to have [all] fire Alarm Signals verified before dispatching the fire department (we are still using the 2010 edition of NFPA 72 in my state)?

These questions can both be answered with the same code. In Chapter 14 of NFPA 72, “Inspection, Testing, and Maintenance,” at, you will find one place stating the communication time allowed for your monitoring company to receive and record the Alarm Signal: “Receipt of the correct initiating device signal at the supervising station within 90 seconds shall be verified.” Then, in Chapter 26, “Supervising Station Alarm Systems,” section gives us the “End-to-End Communication Time(s) for Alarm(s)” — which is the same in the 2010, 2013, and 2016 editions:

“The maximum duration between the initiation of an alarm signal at the protected premises, transmission of the signal, and subsequent display and recording of the alarm signal at the supervising station shall not exceed 90 seconds.”

Notice the stated transmission time is a maximum of 90 seconds, regardless of the transmission technology being use. When the alarm is seen and heard at the protected premise, you have up to 90 seconds for the monitoring company to accept and record the alarm signal successfully. For this step, 90 seconds is clearly the maximum time allowed.

Step two starts at the end of the first step and allows for the time it takes an operator at the monitoring company to read the account information and instructions shown on the screen and possibly handle an incoming call from the subscriber. The Annex explains that routine handling should take a maximum of 90 seconds from receipt/display of an alarm signal at the supervising station until “initiation of retransmission to the communications center.” You and the inspector may verify this using the monitoring company’s software to confirm that the operator clicked on “CALL FD” within 90 seconds of their receipt and display of the alarm signal. This second step allows another 90 seconds after the first step is successful.

One issue is that the operator’s call is now at the mercy of the telephone company, which is regulated by the FCC, and the call may not go through as promptly as the local inspector thinks it should. A high-traffic fast busy signal, a busy signal at the local fire department or communication center itself, the waiting time on hold, or any malfunction of the telephone system at any point extends this time and will not look good for you, but cannot flat-out be considered a failure on your part.

In 2013 a new third step became an option: NFPA 72’s “Alarm Signal Preverification” rule (26.2.2), which allowed the local fire authority to require “Alarm Signal verification” for specific properties deemed to be troublemakers due to excessive unwanted alarm signals. If you are using the 2013 edition, and a fire alarm signal comes in from an account for which the local FD requires verification of a “true fire,” the operators will first have to call the FD and inform them an operator is in the process of contacting someone at the site to verify if the signal that came in was a false/unwanted alarm or not.

This Section in 2013 read: “Where Alarm Signal verification is required by the responsible fire department, the supervising station shall immediately notify the communications center that a fire Alarm Signal has been received and verification is in process.”

However, this new section in 2013 for “Alarm Signal Preverification” was eliminated from the next 2016 edition and the preverification phone call was removed. But the 2016 edition largely kept the eight verification rules and restated one — item No. 5 was made clearer in describing ‘how’ and ‘when’ Alarm Signal Verification was to be applied.

Another new 2013 edition verification rule went away in the 2016 edition. In the 2013 version of NFPA 72, only an authorized person on site with a PIN could report an actual fire (smoke, heat, flames, etc.) at the protected property. The 2016 edition now allows anyone the operator reaches at the site to inform them of a “true fire.”

It remains in both editions that only authorized personnel on site using a PIN can verify a false/unwanted alarm and stop the operator’s dispatch of the local FD. Both editions also state if the operator cannot determine from talking to on-site persons if a true fire emergency exists, the operator must call the local FD and report the fire alarm signal just in case — all within 90 seconds.

I think the title of this new section is misleading, since no one is actually trying to verify an alarm signal; and to further complicate matters, we already have the term “alarm verification” used in regards to smoke detectors. A better section title might be: “Fire Emergency Verification” or “Occupant Verification of a Fire Emergency.”

Whatever it’s called this third step will definitely add more time before a dispatch can occur. It seems your inspectors finding your calls not coming in quickly enough may not be aware of all the requirements surrounding this communication process.

Using a butt set to listen in on a DACT transmission process at the site during the first transmission step could at least make you aware of a communicator glitch early on. When the digital information leaves the protected premise, there are some signal paths along the way to the Fire Department that could become delay points.

Usually, it is how the final alarm notification call is handled by the telco and/or dispatch center for which you and the monitoring company cannot be held responsible. Given that the adopted code allows for the two communication steps, no inspector should require a Fire Department notification time of less than three minutes. Starting with the adoption of the 2013 or 2016 edition of NFPA 72, the fire department could require on site verification that could make that wait time up to 4.5 minutes.

Editor’s Note: Please consult Greg Kessinger’s detailed flow chart of this situation in the photos section of this article.


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