by Nick Gromicko, CMI®
Fire alarm systems are designed to protect people and their property from fire and smoke, but they cannot be relied upon unless they are routinely
inspected by professionals. Regular inspection and maintenance also reduce expenses by preventing unbudgeted emergency repairs and costly false alarms.
Fire Alarm Systems Can Be Damaged
Fire alarm systems can be damaged in the following ways:
- infiltration by dust, dirt and other contaminants;
- improper maintenance; and
performance of degraded
How old is the system?
If you can find out the age of the system, you can get a better idea of inspection requirements.
- Systems less than five years old require little effort to maintain. In these new systems, problems are usually caused by improper installation, such as bad grounding, or environmental factors, such as voltage transients.
- Systems between five and 10 years old may experience component breakdown caused by harsh, but normal, environmental factors. Voltage fluctuations, temperature and humidity may cause system failure or nuisance alarm problems.
- Systems between 10 and 15 years old can still provide appropriate life-safety response. However, systems this old require close attention, even with proper maintenance procedures in place. If the system has a history of poor maintenance (or none at all), it’s likely that failure of components will occur.
- Systems older than 15 years may be beyond their technological life expectancy. The system may continue to work satisfactorily, if properly maintained, but it will require testing and inspection by trained specialists to ensure that proper system response will occur in an emergency.
Few property inspectors are qualified to inspect fire alarm systems, and the International Standards of Practice for Inspecting Commercial Properties do not require inspectors to inspect fire alarm systems. However, some basic knowledge about systems outside of the scope of a general inspection can be helpful. In addition, commercial property inspections give you the opportunity to educate your client about the importance of maintaining the fire protection systems in a commercial building. Your client needs to know that a fire alarm system requires periodic maintenance and an annual inspection by a licensed contractor, as required by code. You should advise your client to obtain the documentation of the previous annual maintenance inspections, which should be kept on site. They should indicate the items inspected (smoke detectors, pull stations, horn/strobes, etc.), the condition they were in at the time of the inspection, and any repairs made to the system.
Specifically, the following steps are generally taken by contractors trained in fire-alarm system inspection:
- Set the sensitivity. This requires an understanding of the particular system, the specific application, and fire detection theory.
- Simulate inputs, and test the annunciators. This requires specific knowledge of the system under testing.
- Test and calibrate the alarm sensors, such as flame and smoke detectors, per the manufacturers' specifications. This requires knowing about the different sensors—and their testing requirements, failure modes, and re-installation requirements.
- Coordinate with the local fire department to test the input to their system.
- Check the battery for corrosion and expiration date, and then take appropriate action, if necessary.
In summary, fire alarms in commercial buildings are essential life and property-saving systems, and they must be maintained and periodically inspected.