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Replacement of Fire Alarm Systems in Existing Buildings
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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 systems.

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.

Essential Challenges

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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 devices.

    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.
  3. 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 constructed.
  4. 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.
  5. 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 thoroughly understood.

    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 adjoining surfaces.
  6. 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 watches.
  7. 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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