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Bringing a Product to the Global Fire Alarm Market
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Bringing a Product to the Global Fire Alarm Market

By Isaac Papier, P.E. | Fire Protection Engineering

In an ideal world, the concept of a global product would be commonplace. Economies of scale would be optimized for design and manufacturing, and a universal training program would be provided for designers, installers and service personnel, and travelers might be able to expect a comparable level of fire safety worldwide. Unfortunately, reality is far more complex.

While there are many codes and standards used throughout the world, generally these can all be grouped into one of three categories; building codes, installation standards, and product standards. While it is quite common for these to be separate documents, it is not unusual for these codes and standards in some jurisdictions to straddle these categories.

Building codes specify how the structures should be built, with the scope of requirements ranging from foundations, load bearing members, interior and exterior features, means of egress, ventilation and fire protection features, such as fire resistance, suppression and fire detection and alarm systems. The building code is typically a series of publications, where each publication deals with specific subject matter, such as the building structure, plumbing, mechanical features and fire protection. In the U.S., building codes include the International Building Code,1 NFPA 5000,2NFPA 13 and NFPA 101.4

These codes are not published as an instrument of law, and therefore have no statutory power in their own. However, they are deliberately crafted with language suitable for mandatory application to facilitate adoption into law by state regional and municipal authorities.

In Canada, it's the National Building Code of Canada and the National Fire Codes of Canada published by the National Research Council of Canada. As in the U.S., these codes have no legal status until they are adopted by individual jurisdictions that regulate construction. As a matter of practice, the Canadian Building Code is the model building code that forms the basis for all the provincial building codes. Some jurisdictions create their own code based on the National Building Code; other jurisdictions have adopted the National Building Code with supplementary laws or regulations to the National Building Code. The concept of adopting supplementary laws and regulations throughout the world is a major factor in the complexity of the real world and often a barrier to a manufacturer's ability to produce a global product. For the FPE, it very likely means specialization in a specific region.

In Europe, it's the Eurocode, published by the European Committee for Standardization. Application of the Eurocodes in various Member states is voluntary and is envisioned to remain so in the future. "Nationally Determined Parameters” (NDP) allows the member states to make modifications that are based on geographical, geological or climate conditions as well as level of protection they wish to achieve or even traditions linked to lifestyle. This arrangement fosters national deviations that essentially prevent a truly pan-European fire alarm system.

In China, the building code known as Code of Design on Building Fire Protection and Prevention5 is part of the building national standards developed by state agencies with input from industry, designers and municipal agencies. These regulations are administered by the ministry of public security through local and provincial level fire services. Individual cities have the authority to develop and enforce local building standards. While the Ministry of Public Security is a national entity with great powers, the latitude given to the cities to develop and enforce local standards does make for differences, but not to the extent seen in Europe.

While the goals of these codes are the protection of life and property, many were developed independently and therefore approach the same subjects in a somewhat different manner. This results in a difference in equipment design, installation and operation.

Although one would assume that the U.S. and Europe, as major developed economies with unified building codes, may be further along with a uniform set of codes, reality is considerably less favorable. For the U.S., a number of factors complicate things. First is the existence of two building (fire)codes. Unfortunately, most jurisdictions do not utilize the current edition of the code, and many jurisdictions are more than one edition behind. A further complication is a state by state advocacy to move the code adoption cycle from the current three-year period to six-year. While as of this writing this effort has been stopped in virtually every state where it has been proposed, this effort remains ongoing, and the situation may change.

In Europe, while the Eurocode is part of a united European initiative, in practice significant differences exist between many of the E.U. member states. One example is the unique requirement in France for a fire alarm interface for the fire services. This does drive different product requirements in specific E.U. countries.

The building code typically refers to installation standards that specify technology and devices and how to install, maintain, and test the system. For fire alarm systems in the U.S., this is NFPA 72.6 In Canada, this is CAN/ULC-S524,7 and in Europe this is EN 54-14 Fire detection and alarm systems Part 14: Guidelines for planning, design, installation, commissioning, use and maintenance, published by European Committee for Standardization, CEN. They are adopted by various jurisdictions through reference in the building code.

Typically, the reference is to a specific edition, which may or may not be the latest edition. A further complication occurs where a local jurisdiction adopts a particular building code and concurrently may reference a different edition of an installation standard than the one referenced in the building code.

The model code specification identifies a process for determination of devices suitable for a specific application. This frequently involves a conformity assessment process performed by third party certification agencies. This is where product standards come in.

In the U.S., these standards are generally published by Underwriters Laboratories and FM Global. Product certification to these standards is a declaration that these devices can be installed in an NFPA 72 compliant fire alarm system. In Canada, fire alarm product standards are published by Underwriters Laboratories of Canada. Product certification to these standards is a declaration that these devices can be installed in a CAN/ULC-S524 compliant fire alarm system. In Europe, these are EN (European Norm) standards published by the European Committee for Standardization (CEN). Product certification to these standards is a declaration that these devices can be installed in a CPR compliant fire alarm system. Because of E.U. regulations, compliance with the CPR is mandatory, although the level of compliance varies among the member nations.

While U.S. and Canadian standards are similar, a number of differences require products tested for use in one country be retested for the other. Over the past 10 years or so, the National Electrical Manufacturers (NEMA) has been leading an effort to harmonize U.S. and Canadian fire alarm product standards. This has been a long and difficult process that has produced a number of "Harmonized” UL/ULC standards; unfortunately, they still include many national deviations that still make the products somewhat different.

The EN standards are different than U.S. and Canadian standards and are specifically written around the Construction Products Directive. While there have been claims that EN tested and certified products would be suitable for use in a NFPA 72 compliant system, this is really not true because of differences in specific requirements. Examples include different fire tests for smoke detectors, operating ambient temperatures for fire alarm equipment, time to report a fault and alarm condition, variable voltage operation, minimum standby power operating time, and tests that are optional in EN standards while mandatory in UL standards. Most importantly, the E.U. EN certifications can be viewed as a limited time licensing, in that there is no factory surveillance program as there is with the U.S. certification agencies.

Another major challenge for manufacturers who seek to produce a global fire alarm product is the conformity assessment process and the agencies that provide this service. In much of the world, these non-governmental organizations operate in the private sector and often compete against each other.

In the U.S., the Conformity Assessment System (CAS) providers are accredited as Nationally Recognized Test Laboratories (NRTLs) by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The accreditation is based on specific technical areas. Each NRTL must demonstrate its competency, both technically and facility-wise, to test and certify fire alarm equipment. Unfortunately, these NRTLs view each other as competitors and have therefore been unwilling to establish a system of data exchange that would help expedite and reduce product certification time and costs.

In Canada, the conformity assessment provider accreditation is provided by the Standards Council of Canada. Here, too, the accreditation process is based on specific technical areas, and manufacturers face a similar problem of the conformity accreditation agencies' willingness to accept data from other accredited agencies.

In Europe, conformity assessment bodies are nominated by their member nation governments and designated as notified bodies by the European Commission. A notified body is designated based on specific requirements, such as knowledge, experience, independence and resources to conduct the conformity assessment. Each member country has designated a notified body, and in some countries, this is the only accepted conformity assessment provider. Other nations may accept multiple notified bodies.

The European conformity assessment business is very competitive, and three agencies have emerged as dominant players that are accepted on regional bases. Although all the agencies utilize the same EN standards, there is considerable variation in interpretation, and therefore many notified bodies are not accepted outside their home country. As in the U.S., notified bodies shun data acceptance for the same reasons as their U.S. counterparts. Sharing of data between U.S. conformity assessment service providers and their European counterparts is very rare.


The International Standards Organization (ISO) is a network of the national standards institutes of 148 countries. It operates on the basis of one membership per country, with a central secretariat in Geneva, Switzerland, that coordinates the system.

The primary goal of ISO is the development of international standards that serve as the basis for free and open international trade of goods and services. The standards developed by ISO cover a broad spectrum of services and devices, ranging from quality control systems, mechanical devices, and fire alarm equipment.

As the primary goal of all existing national standards is to enhance fire safety for building occupants and the built environment, it would seem that a set of international standards could be developed through the ISO process by combining best practices from each of the existing standards. While this is a noble concept, development and implementation of an international set of standards is a challenge. Politics and business interests, while not openly discussed in technical committee meetings, are key factors. These factors make committee negotiations difficult and often frustrating.

While Canada and the U.S. are actively working toward harmonizing their standards, they face a formidable challenge when it comes to harmonization with ISO because the base documents utilized for development of the ISO fire alarm equipment standards are the European EN standards. Having these standards be identical is essential for the Europeans because they have a mandate to use the ISO standards when they are published, and the Construction Products Regulation is rooted in E.U. agreements. For the U.S. and Canada, this requirement for being identical poses conflict with their respective building and model codes. Unfortunately, negotiations at the technical committee levels are difficult, and very little progress at compromise has been achieved.

The ultimate goal of harmonized international fire alarm standards, while many years away, remains a very desirable deliverable. Numerous, dedicated, hard working individuals labor diligently at the task of developing, refining and updating the standards to achieve these global best practice standards. While progress is difficult and time consuming, eventually that goal will be achieved, because it is the right thing to do so that the best products and systems become the global norm.

With the development of harmonized global standards for fire alarm systems, the remaining major hurdle for global equipment will be the conformity assessment service providers. Because of limited resources, a manufacturer must choose which markets to enter. This system is a major cost and time barrier that typically reduces the accessible market and significantly increases costs – which ultimately must be borne by the end customer.

Isaac Papier is with Honeywell Life Safety.


  1. International Building Code, International Code Council, Washington, DC, 2012.
  2. NFPA 5000, Building Construction and Safety Code, National Fire Protection Association, Quincy, MA, 2012.
  3. NFPA 1, Fire Code, National Fire Protection Association, Quincy, MA, 2012.
  4. NFPA 101, Life Safety Code, National Fire Protection Association, Quincy, MA, 2012.
  5. GB50016, Code of Design on Building Fire Protection and Prevention, Ministry of Public Security, Beijing, 2006.
  6. NFPA 72, National Fire Alarm Code, National Fire Protection Association, Quincy, MA, 2013.
  7. CAN/ULC-S524, Installation of Fire Alarm Systems, Underwriters Laboratories of Canada, Ottawa, Ontario, 2006.

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