Engineers Can Improve Fire Alarm Design Documents With These 7 Tips

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Austin Grant, P.E.


February 2, 2021

An issue all too common in the Fire Alarm industry is that contractors often are asked to bid on installation of Fire Alarm systems based on low quality Fire Alarm construction/design documents. Ultimately, higher quality construction/design documents will reduce the cost of the Fire Alarm system for the building owner by allowing contractors to provide bids that can be evaluated “apples-to-apples”; this decreases confusion during the bidding process and minimizes or eliminates change orders.

Here are 7 tips for engineers to improve the quality of their Fire Alarm construction/design documents:

1.     Provide a Clear Scope:

Most importantly, the project scope needs to be very clear to contractors. Is a new Fire Alarm system to be provided, or is the intent to modify an existing system?  Clarifying the scope will require some digging. For example, if the intent is to add devices and notification appliances to an existing system, it is important to know whether new devices are compatible with the existing system, that the existing system is not obsolete, and the panel system has sufficient capacity for expansion. If an existing system is to be utilized, it is very important to indicate the model of the Fire Alarm Control Panel, as many panels are proprietary and only certain contractors can make modifications to the system.

2.      Specify the Type of Fire Alarm System Required:

If a new Fire Alarm system is being specified, the engineer is responsible for establishing the objectives and design criteria. This requires code research as well as discussion with the client as to expectations for the system. Documents should indicate if notification is to be required throughout the building, or if a dedicated function Fire Alarm system is to be provided (such as for elevator recall or sprinkler system monitoring). Design documents should be clear as to type of notification, whether a voice evacuation system is to be provided, or if horns and strobes will be utilized. The engineer should also specify the type of communication to be utilized for monitoring, whether through radio transmission, cellular communicator, telephone lines, etc.

3.      Coordinate Fire Alarm Equipment Locations:

The engineer needs to coordinate the location of Fire Alarm equipment. Ensure that enough space is provided for the Fire Alarm panel and any additional power supplies for notification or voice amplifiers. Coordination is required with the electrical engineer, as Fire Alarm control panels and power supplies require dedicated circuits. Temperature and humidity controls may be necessary for the equipment. Based on the location of some Fire Alarm equipment, weatherproof or explosionproof devices may be needed or guards to be protect the devices.

4.      Coordination With Other Disciplines:

Fire Alarm systems are often required to interface with other building systems. For instance, the design documents should indicate locations of flow switches and tamper switches for the sprinkler system, connections to suppression system releasing panels, connections to fire pump controllers, duct detector locations, elevator control interfaces, and even smoke control systems. Omitting these items can result in change orders and delayed schedules.

5.      Use Consistent Symbols:

Device symbols should be easy to understand for the fire alarm or electrical contractor. The best way to accomplish this is to be consistent, and use symbols from NFPA 170, Standard for Fire Safety and Emergency Symbols.

6.      Audibility, Intelligibility, and Candela Ratings:

The engineer is responsible for considering anticipated sound levels as well as acoustical characteristics. Providing sufficient notification appliances for audibility and/or intelligibility can be tricky. Failure to include enough notification on the design documents can result in change orders when audibility or intelligibility criteria is not met during acceptance testing. The engineer should also consider the visibility characteristics and specify required candela ratings for strobe appliances.

7.      Be Thorough:

Incomplete design causes many issues. The engineer should be thorough when designing each fire alarm system. Consider everything. Are carbon monoxide detectors required? Will single- and multiple- station smoke alarms be installed in residential occupancies, or will system detectors be required? Have low frequency sounders been specified for sleeping rooms? The engineer should be well versed in code requirements and consider all aspects of the fire alarm system.