life safety systems
BY THOMAS P. HAMMERBERG
RAISING THE BAR TO SAVE MORE LIVES
There has been discussion about
unwanted alarms in the last few years. The fire
service says this is “an industry problem,” but is
it? What can be done to improve the reliability
of fire alarm systems so people stop ignoring
alarms when they activate?
The majority of alarms are not the result of
a fire, and there are many causes of unwanted
alarms. It may be that smoke detectors are not
installed properly or the wrong type is used
for the application. It may be manual stations
being actuated maliciously. It may be water
flow switches not adjusted with enough delay to counteract water surges. It may be the
result of maintenance activities in the area
of smoke detectors. It may be due to owners
not having their fire alarm systems tested and
There are many possible reasons. As profes-
sionals, we should be doing everything we can
to make our fire alarm systems more reliable.
There are still too many underqualified individuals designing systems. Often, engineers
design fire alarms but, due to lack of experience, pass on the design responsibility to the
contractor installing the system. Technically,
“design” is an engineering function, and unless the contractor is also a licensed engineer,
it is usually illegal for them to perform design,
yet it happens all the time.
Contractors should report unqualified designers to their state’s engineering boards. In
some states, contractors can design the systems they are going to install themselves. In
others, being NICET III certified enables an individual to design a fire alarm system. Although
this is a continuing problem, I don’t believe it
contributes to the majority of unwanted alarms.
Often, the low bidder installs a fire alarm,
So, starting this year, if you have not already
but they are not necessarily the most quali-
fied. Systems installed improperly can certainly
contribute to an increase in unwanted alarms.
Installing smoke detectors near air diffusers
or in environments that may contain elements
within the response parameters of the de-
tector—for example, in break rooms, near
bathrooms with showers, in areas with gusty
airflows, in garages, etc.—can increase the
likelihood of unwanted alarms. We need to pro-
mote more local requirements for certification.
Underqualified inspection and testing per-
sonnel can also contribute to an increase in
nuisance alarms. If these inspectors are un-
able to identify potential problem areas, the
unwanted alarms continue. NICET now has
a new Inspection and Testing of Fire Alarm
Systems certification to give inspectors the
opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge of
inspections and testing.
Lack of enforcement by fire department
personnel can also contribute to the problem.
Contractors have no enforcement authority to
make owners fix faulty systems, and if fire
department inspectors don’t enforce repairs,
problems do not always get fixed in a timely
manner. I am amazed how many times I hear fire
inspectors complain about problem systems,
yet they don’t enforce the codes to compel the
owner to fix the systems.
Although we need improvements in all
of these areas, it is time owners start taking
more responsibility to ensure their life safety
systems are in good working order. According
to NFPA 72, owners are responsible for main-
taining their systems. They may or may not be
able to perform any work themselves, and in
most cases, they are probably not qualified;
however, they are still accountable. If only we
could get insurance companies to require proof
of inspection and testing before renewing in-
Owners hire low bidders because they
feel they can pass liability on to that contrac-
tor. However, the owners are still responsible.
When you install a fire alarm system, plan to
provide some training to your customer’s staff,
so they better understand the importance of fire
alarm systems. It can have a significant effect
on reducing unwanted alarms.
The bottom line is that we have unwanted
alarms, and we will continue to have unwanted
alarms, until everyone involved steps up. Apa-
thy is not acceptable when we are dealing with
life safety systems. Unwanted alarms contrib-
ute to increased trade-offs in the codes where
fire sprinkler systems can negate the need for
fire alarm equipment. While that may be what
is in the codes, it is not always the best plan
for fire protection.
done so, plan to improve your staff and cus-
tomer training. Use your leadership to raise the
bar for life safety, and let’s save more lives.
HAMMERBERG, SE T, CFPS is president of Hammerberg & Associates Inc. He
serves as the Automatic Fire Alarm Association (AFAA) Inc.’s technical director. Tom
represents AFAA on a number of NFPA committees. He is also a member of the ICC
Industry Advisory Committee. He can be reached at
The bottom line is that we
have unwanted alarms,
and will continue to have
unwanted alarms, until
everyone involved steps up
to improve their part.