NFPA code changes=business for fire installers

Monday, June 1, 2009

Fire codes do not normally signify a sea change in the fire industry, but this year may be different.

NFPA 2010 contains major changes having to do with mass notification. The new code will be approved at the NFPA conference this month (in Chicago June 8-11) and many believe this will translate into new business opportunities for fire installers.

“The 2010 code is unprecedented. I think there will be more work than there are integrators proficient to install [mass notification systems], regardless of who the manufacturer is,” said Aaron Chisena, product marketing manager for Bosch Security Systems. “For the fire installer, the opportunity is huge.” However, like executives from GE and Honeywell, he said installers need to get up to speed, fast, on the code requirements, and the intelligibility component specifically.

Recent months have seen a flurry of activity with manufacturers offering new education and training programs.“This is the first time I’ve seen such sweeping changes in NFPA 72,” said Mike Madden, national sales manager for Gamewell-FCI, a 25-year veteran of the fire industry. Madden believes there has been an uncharacteristic sense of urgency inside and outside of the industry about mass notification, and much anticipation of these codes.

“I think a lot of pressure will be brought to bear on states [to adopt codes] by state fire officials and local city fire officials,” he said. They don’t want a repeat of what happened at Virginia Tech in a publicly or privately owned building, he said.

What are the changes? First, the name of the code has been changed to the National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code. “Now [the code will mandate systems] that do more than evacuate occupancies in the event of fire, it’s really about systems that notify people in all types of emergencies,” Madden explained. 

The chapter that addresses mass notification in the new code is called “Emergency Communication Systems (ECS).”

The verdict is out on the term ECS. More than one insider suggested to Security Systems News that ECS may confuse a marketplace that’s accustomed to “mass notification systems.” However, there was universal praise for the fact that the code defines what components and capabilities an ESC needs to include to meet code.

Morris Stoops, GE Security’s project manager, mass notification, said that in the past few years, manufacturers have come up with various products, which they call mass notification systems. The telecom industry, he noted, has introduced “mass notification systems” which may be more appropriately called email notification systems. “You talk to a campus administrator and they say, ‘we have a mass notification system, we send out emails.’ It’s one of the ways you notify people, but it’s not a whole solution,” Stoops said.

“What the code and UL [UL 2572, a new desk standard that tests mass notification products] do is they put brackets around what you need to have if you say you have a mass notification system.”

The code highly recommends that mass notification systems integrate with fire systems. “The reason for that is complexity,” Stoops said. “If you have two different systems and you try to marry the two so that mass notification can override a fire system [is something that] has proven to be difficult [unless the two are designed to integrate],” he said.

Stoops said the college administrator he referred to earlier had an emergency situation and the first thing that went down was the network, so sending emails was not possible. The new code establishes credibility for mass notification systems, he said. “If you use a fire-based mass notification system, it has backup, it’s maintained and tested regularly, and that [standard] of supervision, maintenance and testing has now migrated into mass notification.”

“The real issue is having one system that does all of these things [and supervises all of the components that make up a mass notification system] makes sense,” said Ted Milburn, GE Security’s product marketing manager for fire.

Gamewell-FCI’s Madden outlined three important components of an ECS: local operator console; strobes; and intelligibility.

“Local operator consoles is something that’s never been done in a standard fire alarm sytem. The code mandates that you have consoles strategically located around the building so there is easy access for authorized personnel to generate a message.” Typical fire alarm strobes are white, but ECS strobes must be amber. “This is a visual indication that the emergency is a mass notification versus a fire alarm event.”

Everyone who spoke to Security Systems News for this story indicated that the intelligibility requirements are very important, and will necessitate extra training for most fire installers.

“In the past, you wanted a fire alarm to make a lot of noise, so people would hear the alarm and get out of the building. Now [with ESC], you may be dealing with a hazardous waste spill, an intruder alert, a tornado or a fire,” Madden said. “You need to tell people what type of emergency it is and you need to ensure that the message is understandable, that there’s clarity. You don’t want distortion.”

 Both GE Security and Honeywell are conducting mass notification seminars across the country. Executives from both companies say that it’s education, understanding the requirements of the 2010 NFPA code, that they’re focusing on first. The installers, designers, engineers and AHJs need to understand the code. “There are a lot of people trying to sell equipment.What’s sorely lacking is education,” said Madden of Gamewell-FCI, who is a presenter at Honewell’s mass notification seminars.

Duane Hannasch, of Fire Alarm Control Systems, is a Gamewell-FCI distibutor who attended a Honeywell seminar in early May. He’s more experienced than most with mass notification systems, having worked with several military installations. (The new NFPA code borrowed heavily from the military’s mass notification code, known as the UFC code.)

Hannasch said one of the most challenging aspects of the code for everyone (installers, engineers and AHJ’s) is intelligibility requirements.

“They’re used to putting in speakers based on requirements for fire alarm - you might have one every 70 feet - but when they see them every 20 or 30 feet, they say, ‘what’s the deal?’”

In addition to attending seminars put on by manufacturers like Honeywell or GE, Hannasch advised less-experienced installers to familiarize themselves with the NFPA 2010 code, download a copy of the UFC from a government Web site for further information, and he strongly supports high-level NICET training for employees.

Madden suggested sending employees to a sound propigation class. “It’s great experience even though sound training isn’t mandated. A lot of people think they can live by the old rules and design these systems like old fire systems. But if they screw up, not only will the industry get a black eye, the customer won’t be happy.”