The requirements for personnel qualifications in the 2010 edition of NFPA 721 and its predecessors have broadened over 30 years of code and standard evolution. Qualified is an intangible and subjective term and, therefore, cannot be defined in a way that applies to all situations. How, then, can a code or standard include qualification requirements that will help to assure that systems meet established performance goals - whether those goals are code minimums or specific, defined project performance requirements?
Merriam Webster 2 defines qualified as:
- a : fitted (as by training or experience) for a given purpose; competent
b : having complied with the specific requirements or precedent conditions (as for an office or employment); eligible
The term qualified personnel has been used in NFPA 72 and its predecessors since before 1979 without any definition. (See sidebar Recent History of Qualifications Requirements in NFPA 72.) In later editions of NFPA 72,examples of what it means to be qualified were added. However, it was not until the 2010 edition that the following definition for qualified was excerpted from NFPA 96 and included in NFPA 72:3
Qualified. A competent and capable person or company that has met the requirements and training for a given field acceptable to the authority having jurisdiction.
Both the dictionary definition and the NFPA 72 definition require some way to determine if an individual or organization is qualified to perform certain tasks. They must have training or experience for a given purpose. Or, they must comply with specific requirements or precedent conditions. In the case of NFPA 72, they must meet the requirements and training for a given field acceptable to the authority having jurisdiction.
NFPA 72 was reorganized in the 2010 edition and all personnel qualification requirements were co-located in Chapter 10, Fundamentals. The requirements for a system designer are as follows:1
10.4 Personnel Qualifications.
10.4.1 System Designer.
10.4.1.1 Fire alarm system and emergency communications system plans and specifications shall be developed in accordance with this Code by persons who are experienced in the proper design, application, installation and testing of the systems.
10.4.1.2 State or local licensure regulations shall be followed to determine qualified personnel. Depending on state or local licensure regulations, qualified personnel shall include, but not be limited to, one or more of the following:
- Personnel who are registered, licensed, or certified by a state or local authority.
- Personnel who are certified by a nationally recognized certification organization acceptable to the authority having jurisdiction.
- Personnel who are factory trained and certified for fire alarm system design and emergency communications system design of the specific type and brand of system and who are acceptable to the authority having jurisdiction.
An important change in the 2010 edition, compared to prior versions, is the emphasis on state or local licensure regulations. This is consistent with a 2008 position statement issued by the Society of Fire Protection Engineers (SFPE), the National Society of Professional Engineers and the National Institute for Certification in Engineering Technologies (NICET).4 That position statement sets forth the responsibilities for and the relationships between licensed engineers and engineering technicians for the design and layout of fire protection systems. Throughout the position statement, the word qualified is used to describe the participants of a project. The position statement points out that engineers or engineering technicians overstep their respective roles if they participate in aspects of design for which they are not qualified by education and/or experience. It later notes that there are minimum education, training and experience established to help define qualifications for licensed Professional Engineers. NICET also has a program certifying fire protection engineering technicians that is based on minimum levels of experience combined with testing.
It is important for signaling system designers and technicians to work within established laws and regulations and stay within their area of expertise. The former is fairly black-and-white while the latter is sometimes more difficult to define. For example, when does the layout of afire alarm system become the practice of engineering?
For fire alarm systems, an engineer should:
- select the system type and components
- identify the fire alarm panel location
- create system concept riser diagram(s)
- identify interface(s) required with fire safety functions,other fire alarm systems and other building systems
- determine average ambient sound level
- determine minimum illumination and placement of visual devices
- identify all initiating device and notification appliance locations.
Based on the engineers design, the technician can:
- lay out the circuiting and placement of initiating devices,notification appliances and other system components
- prepare riser diagram(s)
- calculate notification appliance circuit voltage drops
- calculate battery size for secondary power
- select the specific equipment being furnished for installation.
The results can be catastrophic where a person who is technically competent in the fire alarm system layout fails to engineer the system performance and fails to coordinate with other fire protection systems. (See the 2003 article Engineering Failure or Failure to Engineer? for additional discussion on this subject.5)
Many people are familiar with engineers who have designed fire detection systems without careful consideration of how that system could be accessed for periodic inspection testing and maintenance. Many will say that a qualified fire alarm technician could have done a better job. Similarly, there are many examples of systems designed by fire alarm technicians that failed to adequately establish realistic fire protection goals and that failed to provide a system that would actually meet the owners needs. Many will say that a qualified engineer could have done a better job. The authority having jurisdiction might find faults with the engineer or the technician. Those AHJs have seen those mistakes beforehand know they could do a better job. Then there are those AHJs that have forced installers to put in smoke detectors in every closet and crawl space of a building despite the lack of any code requirements and after being informed by an engineer and the installer that they provide little if any actual protection and will lead to numerous false alarms. The engineer and the installer know better.
For most projects, particularly the larger and more complex ones, it is unlikely that one person has all of the necessary qualifications to provide the best system design. There are many phases in the life of a fire alarm or signaling system. There are also many different stakeholders, each of whom may be involved during different phases of the system life. Checks and balances between stakeholders is the best way to minimize and mitigate potential shortcomings.6
Recent History of "Qualifications"
Prior to the 1990 edition, the NFPA 72 series of documents only required that the testing and maintenance of systems be under the supervision of qualified personnel. There were no requirements for system designers or other personnel involved in the life cycle of a fire alarm system. However, as systems were becoming more complex and more installations were being done for specific fire protection purposes other than simple code compliance,the industry recognized that many of the stakeholders had an impact on the quality, reliability and effectiveness of systems. So, starting with the 1990 edition, examples of personnel qualified to perform inspection, testing and maintenance of initiating devices were added to the appendix of NFPA 72E.7 In 1993, as NFPA 72E was combined into NFPA 72, the list was moved into the body of the code.8
The 1996 edition was the first edition of the code that requires plans and specifications to be developed by persons who are experienced in the proper design, application, installation, and testing of fire alarm systems.9 In 1999, that paragraph was modified to require evidence of qualifications to be provided to the authority having jurisdiction upon request. In addition, examples were added to the annex of the code. Also in 1999, a requirement was added for installation personnel to be supervised by persons qualified and experienced in the installation, inspection and testing of fire alarm systems.10 That requirement included a list of examples in the body of the code.
In 2002, there were no changes regarding qualified personnel. However, a new section was added to permit authorities to require verification of compliant installation by a qualified and impartial third-party organization.11
That section describes a system of verification that is, in part,typically the responsibility of a system designer - verification that a system has been installed in accordance with approved documents and that it works as intended. This section permits an authority to require third-party verification in situations where the designer is also the person or entity that was responsible for the installation or the testing.
Examples of qualified system designers were relocated in 2007 from the annex to the body of the code. These requirements were later edited in 2010 and emphasis was placed on state and local licensure. Also in 2010, all personnel qualifications requirements were added to a common section (10.4) in the Fundamentals chapter. These include qualifications for system designers, system installers, inspection testing and maintenance personnel, and a new set of requirements for supervising station operators. Qualification requirements for persons who design, install or service public emergency alarm reporting systems remain in that system chapter (Chapter 27).
What will the 2013 edition of NFPA 72 add or change with respect to personnel qualifications? That is uncertain as the document is currently in the public comment phase. Possibilities include delineating differences between persons qualified and responsible for acceptance inspections versus periodic inspections; acceptance tests versus periodic tests;and general system maintenance versus system repair.
- NFPA 72, National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code, National Fire Protection Association, Quincy, MA, 2010.
- NFPA 96, Standard for Ventilation Control and Fire Protection of Commercial Cooking Operations, National Fire Protection Association, Quincy, MA, 2008.
- Society of Fire Protection Engineers (SFPE), National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE), National Institute for Certification in Engineering Technologies (NICET) Position Statement, The Engineer and the Engineering Technician, Designing Fire Protection Systems, July 28, 2008.
- Engineering Failure or Failure to Engineer? Fire Protection Engineering, Winter 2003.
- Checks and Balances, the Consensus Process at Work, Fire Protection Engineering, Summer 2009.
- NFPA 72E, Automatic Fire Detectors, National Fire Protection Association, Quincy, MA, 1990.
- NFPA 72, National Fire Alarm Code, National Fire Protection Association, Quincy, MA, 1993.
- NFPA 72, National Fire Alarm Code, National Fire Protection Association, Quincy, MA, 1996.
- NFPA 72, National Fire Alarm Code, National Fire Protection Association, Quincy, MA, 1999.
- NFPA 72, National Fire Alarm Code, National Fire Protection Association, Quincy, MA, 2002.