Communication: A critical fire alarm system component
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Communication: A critical fire alarm system component

By Stacy Welch, P.E. | Fire Protection Engineering

The advancing technology of fire alarm systems today is remarkable from detectors that are able to sense what type of material is burning to interactive touch screens that precisely identify fire location from a remote site. Available technology can often exceed the performance expectations for hotels and many other types of buildings. However, the challenge for fire protection engineers who consistently work to improve the level of safety for others is not technology; it is the age-old problem of communication.

In many cases, the first communication hurdle is with the owner. Fire protection engineers don't often think of themselves as educators, yet that is exactly their role when providing the owner an understanding of available systems and reaching a consensus of what the performance objectives will be. The importance of this initial phase can't be overemphasized. There is no way to get from here to there without knowing where "there" is.


The next big communication requirement is with the designer. Does the designer fully understand the level of integration that will be required? Does the designer have the expertise to prepare specification documents and to incorporate the performance objectives agreed upon? For example, Marriott International has specific requirements for using smoke detectors in guest rooms and for carbon monoxide detectors near all fuelfired equipment. Because these items are not required in most jurisdictions, it is critical that they be communicated to the designer and then to the installer through plans and specifications. If this does not happen effectively, changes are made well into design or construction at an increased cost and inconvenience.


Next is communication between the fire alarm system installation contractor and the other trades. Because the fire alarm system is intertwined with many other fire protection systems, including the automatic sprinkler system, smoke control systems, stair pressurization systems and kitchen suppression systems, it is essential that all trades understand exactly how they will interact. Upon activation, will the sprinkler flow switch send the proper signal and initiate the evacuation tone? Will smoke detector activation cause the fire alarm system to send the proper signals to open dampers and start fans for the smoke control system? All of these integral components and their associated functions must be properly defined and communicated in the specifications.


Lastly is the importance of communication during the commissioning of a building. Has the system been completely pretested and tested? Have the fire alarm system installation contractor and the mechanical contractor confirmed that the proper dampers open? Is the "smoke detector outside of room 301" actually the smoke detector outside of room 201? Has the NFPA 72 "Fire Alarm System Record of Completion" been completed? And how about communication with the building staff who will now be living with this system? Has the orientation been held, the owner's manual delivered and record drawings provided?


The performance expectations of the fire alarm system in hotels must be approached in an all-encompassing manner. This is one of the few systems in a building that has an effect on so many other systems. Communication is critical in transforming the performance expectations into effective, dependable, maintainable and understandable fire alarm systems.


Stacy Welch is with Marriott International.

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