Fire alarm systems and smoke alarms are life safety systems that save countless lives each year, both civilians and firefighters. The International Residential Code requires interconnected, hardwired smoke alarms in all new construction (Section R313) and the International Building Code and International Fire Code (Section 907.2) call for manual or automatic fire alarm systems in most commercial buildings with high life occupancy or other hazards. In addition to new construction, the International Fire Code also has provisions for fire alarm systems and smoke alarms in existing structures (Section 907.3).
There has been a lot of discussion lately concerning residential smoke alarm technology. Americans have relied on low-cost ionization type detectors for more than 30 years. Some new information, however, indicates that ionization technology may be slower in detecting smoldering fires while they are most effective in alerting residents to fast-flaming fires. Photoelectric detection technology has also been available for decades and recent testing indicates this technology may respond faster to smoldering type fires. Because photoelectric technology is several times more expensive than ionization, most homes have the ionization type devices presently installed.
Since one can never predict what type of fire may occur, there have been recent recommendations by many fire service organizations to advise the public their best protection is to install both types of smoke detectors or a “dual-technology” detector. Some jurisdictions have introduced legislation that would make the requirement for combined ionization and photoelectric smoke alarms or dual technology laws. While this may seem a logical approach, it has not been fully substantiated by thorough and independent scientific testing, nor has it gone through a consensus process utilized for updating codes or standards. Laws are tough to pass, but even tougher to change once enacted and signed into law. Future information or technology may render these laws effectively obsolete, but still on the books. This is an important consideration for any code-related issues that may seem to be right today but may turn out to be wrong tomorrow.
There are many factors that need to be tested and considered by all the technical experts and stakeholders before a change can be made to the International Residential Code to expand its requirements beyond the current requirement for interconnected, hard-wired smoke alarms in each sleeping room, in the hallway outside each sleeping room, and at least one on each floor. The question of how to provide the best possible protection from all types of fires in residential dwellings is an important life safety concern that is best answered through a governmental consensus process, such as those used for changing building codes or installation standards developed by the International Code Council.
As a member of the fire service, this is another area where fire service participation in the code development and installation standard development process will be critical in determining the future requirements for smoke alarm technology in homes across America. The International Code Council uses a governmental consensus process that accepts code change proposals and testimony from any interested party, but limits the final vote to determine what is published as requirements in any of the I-Codes to governmental voting members.
Governmental members are those who administer building and fire safety codes for their jurisdiction and are “First Preventers” – code officials and other public safety servants as opposed to those representing any special or financial interest. They may go under the title of fire chief, fire inspector, fire marshal, or fire code official, but the labels merely obscure their common mission to prevent harm by ensuring code compliance before a disaster occurs. The fire service is welcome to apply for Code Council Governmental membership and fully participate in code development.
Properly installed and maintained manual and automatic fire alarm systems in commercial buildings such as public assembly buildings, high-rises, hospitals, factories, mercantiles, schools, and malls to name a few, are also essential life safety systems. International Building Code and International Fire Code include provisions for the installation, testing and proper maintenance of these systems. These coordinated and companion documents provide the utmost public and firefighter safety when used together. They identify the types of buildings that require a manual and/or automatic fire alarm system based on life risk, building construction features, and/or fire or hazardous material risks. The International Fire Code references the National Fire Protection Association – Standard 72, National Fire Alarm Code for commercial fire alarm system design, installation, and maintenance specifications.
Proper installation, correct location of smoke detection devices, and regular inspection, maintenance, and testing of all devices are essential for proper system operation and the prevention of false or nuisance alarms, a potentially dangerous response for fire service and the public. The International Fire Code is written to ensure the fire alarm systems will detect smoke quickly and alert occupants in sufficient time to safety exit the building. These fire alarm systems must be designed by qualified professionals. The permit application must include detailed plans that are reviewed by trained fire and building code plans examiners prior to installation. Qualified (and in some cases certified) installation technicians must complete the installation for acceptance testing by fire inspection personnel. The International Fire Code requires all fire protection systems must be installed, inspected, tested and approved prior to any public occupancy of the building.
When the fire alarm system is temporally inoperative for maintenance, repair, or testing, the International Fire Code requires a fire alarm system impairment coordinator is used to ensure occupant and firefighter safety. Building owners are required to follow several basic steps to communicate system impairments and provide alternate means of occupant safety for the duration of the impairment.
Finally, the International Fire Code prohibits the use of any device that has the appearance of a life safety device (i.e. smoke detector, heat detector, manual pull station, etc.) for any other purpose. This includes covert security equipment that is disguised to look life part of the fire alarm system.
When commercial fire alarms systems are properly installed and maintained, they perform very well. When they are not, the public and fire service are subject to unnecessary “false alarms” that puts everyone at risk. The public may be slow to respond to the home smoke detector or commercial fire alarm if it is “always going off” with no smoke or fire condition. The fire service may be at risk of injury during response and may also suffer from false alarm syndrome; becoming complacent that the response for the activated fire alarm will turn out to be a false activation and not taking the same safety precautions we would take for a confirmed fire. These human responses defeat the effectiveness of fire alarm systems and smoke detectors as life safety systems.
The fire service will need to pay special attention to fire alarm maintenance requirements and periodic inspections as the national economic recession may lead business owners to cut back on the required maintenance to balance their budgets. Work with your fire inspectors to promptly inspect premises with a sudden increase in fire alarm activity to avoid potential problems.