Issue 6: Replacement of Fire Alarm Systems in Existing Buildings
By Byron L. Briese, P.E. and Robert Libby, P.E.
The 1980's saw a significant expansion of commercial real estate
within the United States. Now, nearly twenty-five years after
construction of many of these buildings, significant retrofit activity
is often required to maintain these buildings to current safety and
efficiency standards. This stock of buildings may be equipped with
failing roofs, unreliable fire alarm systems, inefficient mechanical
systems, control systems of limited capability and that are no longer
supported by the equipment supplier, worn elevator systems and related
challenges in other building systems.
Of prime concern to the fire protection engineer is that the life
safety system within this stock of buildings now requires attention, and
typically some degree of upgrade or replacement of the fire alarm
system. This brief article acquaints the fire protection engineer with
many of the challenges involved in a fire alarm upgrade or replacement
project in an existing building.
Existing fire alarm systems may require replacement for a number of
reasons, including: increased failure rates of system components;
inability of manufacturers to provide replacement parts (particularly
microprocessors and power supplies); failure of the system to meet
owner/occupants current needs; and the lack of trained service personnel
with adequate knowledge and understanding of older model fire alarm
The fire protection engineer must understand significantly more then
the technical abilities of new systems and devices that may be available
in the marketplace or the current requirements of applicable codes. To
complete a project successfully, the fire protection engineer must
understand the dynamics of the complete process of a prospective fire
alarm replacement project.
The engineer charged with the upgrade or replacement of a fire alarm
system in an existing building faces a number of significant obstacles.
Principal challenges can be generally categorized as follows:
Application of Codes and Standards: With respect to a fire alarm upgrade or replacement project, what codes, standards and regulations are applicable to the work?
As with any fire protection project involving building systems, it is
of vital importance to identify the germane standards for the work at
the first stage of the project. NFPA 72, The National Fire Alarm Code,1
remains the installation standard governing most projects in the US.
The building and fire codes of a specific jurisdiction typically provide
additional requirements. Often, in many occupancies in the US, the
Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) may also be found to be
applicable. At the onset of the project, it is of vital importance that
all stakeholders (owner, engineer, Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ),
etc.) involved with a project agree to the standards (and editions of
those standards) that will be applicable to the work.
Inappropriate Existing System Architecture: Simply put, the
existing fire alarm devices may be of the wrong style or capability, or
possibly at the wrong locations, based on current equipment capability
and/or the requirements of current codes. Additionally, existing
conductors and circuits may lack the required capacity to support new
For example, fire alarm pull stations may be found to be at
inappropriate heights, some equipment may be found in a building that
was never required or needed to satisfy the life safety goals for the
building, and visual notification appliances may be completely lacking
or of an older (non-compliant) style. Wiring/conductors may be
insufficient to support new equipment requirements.
Building Infrastructure Deficiencies: The existing building may
not be configured to permit wiring to be extended to required areas.
Challenges may be encountered due to the routing of existing cable,
"hard" construction of the building and lack of existing access points
to permit the pulling of new conductors.
To accommodate the requirements of the project, new risers and conduit
may be needed and soffits may need to be constructed to permit the
routing of cable. Additionally, to permit pulling of new cables, access
panels may need to be installed. To house the main fire alarm control
panel and/or remote panels, new fire resistant assemblies may need to be
Project Scheduling Conflicts with Building Operations: Most
fire alarm upgrade and replacement projects are undertaken in operating
buildings. As such, installation and testing of a new fire alarm system
may have significant impact on building operations.
An installation plan must be developed at the inception of the
project, detail added as information becomes available and regular
updates made as the work unfolds. The project plan must comprehensively
account for all uses of the building during the project. Since fire
alarm replacement projects extend for some length of time, not only must
the standard uses of the building be fully understood but other
renovation projects planned for the building, particularly those that
may impact the location of fire alarm devices.
Aesthetics Concerns: Like other building systems, fire alarm
devices should blend harmoniously with the balance of the building.
Further, the changes to locations of devices must account for
requirements to return the surfaces to an acceptable condition.
The appearance of the system should be discussed at the inception of
the work. Acceptable devices (including color), mounting methods, use of
surface mounted conduit or raceway, and the requirements to return
surfaces from where fire alarm devices may have been removed should be
The costs and schedule for work involving a building which will permit
the use of surface mounted conduit and simple cover plates for use at
existing locations will vary significantly from work in a building where
no surface mounting of conduit is permitted and abandoned locations
must be patched and either painted or covered with vinyl to match
Maintenance of Required Level of Protection: Of greatest
importance in an existing, occupied building is the protection of
building occupants. The level of protection afforded to building
occupants can not be diminished during execution of the project.
The project schedule must address how, at a minimum, existing levels
of protection will be maintained throughout the project. Additionally,
this issue can be addressed through a detailed changeover plan, training
of the building staff in the use of the new equipment as it is brought
on line, regular updates on the pace of the work and the use of fire
Testing and Acceptance Requirements: The manner and timing of
system testing, particularly in an occupied building, may be disruptive
to the operations in the building.
Good planning and workmanlike installation, from the initial stages of
the project, are the chief methods to minimize the impact of testing on
building operations and avoid retesting. In non-"24/7" buildings,
testing can often be completed after-hours. For "24/7" operations,
testing will have some degree of impact on operations. Often, testing
can be completed during periods with minimal use of the building; in
those cases good communications through signage, letters or emails to
tenants/occupants and strict attention to the schedule is a must. Where a
long turn-over schedule exists and multiple series of testing must be
accomplished, consideration should be given to using music to retest
speaker circuits that have already passed sound tests.
Documentation of testing is an often overlooked step in the process.
Complete, detailed records must be maintained to insure that testing is
completed and to avoid retesting of an area or item of equipment.
1NFPA 72, "National Fire Alarm Code," National Fire Protection Association, Quincy, MA, USA, 2002.
Byron Briese and Robert Libby are with Rolf Jensen & Associates
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The Society of Fire Protection Engineers (SFPE) was established in 1950 and incorporated as an independent organization in 1971. It is the professional society representing those practicing the field of fire protection engineering. The Society has over 4,600 members and 100 chapters, including 21 student chapters worldwide.