Services & Maintenance: Hot Commodity

By Robert Gomersall
Published in the April 2010 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

building fire system maintenance life safety technology

Performing regular maintenance to building systems and equipment makes good sense to facility managers (fms). The benefits gleaned from proper maintenance can be expected to save an organization money in the long run, but more importantly, they minimize liability risks. This premise holds true for fire protection systems in place in facilities of all types.

Proper maintenance of a facility’s fire protection system ensures its proper operation in the event of a fire emergency. The Station nightclub fire that occurred in West Warwick, RI in 2003, for instance, has thus far resulted in more than $175 million in liability damages as well as jail terms for the building owners. Adherence to building codes can avoid, reduce, or mitigate many situations that could otherwise become highly tragic.

In keeping fire systems in good working order and code compliant, there are three areas that should be most significant to an fm:

  • Maintenance of the facility fire alarm system performed by the fm and his or her staff;
  • Periodic test and inspection of the system in accordance with the fire alarm codes in effect; and
  • Improvements that offer a potential payback in the future and minimize liability risks further.

System Maintenance

Unfortunately, many fms are somewhat limited as to what they and their staffs can actually do to maintain a system, aside from checking for physical or water damage and cleaning of smoke detectors.

When dealing with a conventional fire alarm system—a panel that indicates the zone or area of alarm rather than point identification, the maintenance that facility staff members can perform is limited to periodic cleaning of the smoke detectors in the event of nuisance alarms. The detectors should be cleaned in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions, as these instructions can vary. Some manufacturers only recommend the periodic application of a vacuum cleaner hose to the detector periodically, while others may allow partial disassembly for cleaning.

In a facility using an addressable fire alarm system with analog sensors that offer point identification, detector maintenance can be made much easier. This is because the individual sensors are displayed on the panel, with indications regarding sensors that are becoming “dirty,” “very dirty,” or approaching an alarm condition.

Eventually, addressable systems will become more cost-effective than conventional, less intelligent systems, particularly in installations containing a large number of smoke detectors. This is because cleaning detectors on an “as necessary” basis eliminates the need for wholesale cleaning and/or replacement of detectors required with a conventional system.

Periodic Testing And Inspection

The most important facet of maintenance lies with the periodic testing and inspection of the fire alarm system to ensure its proper operation in accordance with the applicable codes for a facility’s location. Fms should consult their local AHJ (authority having jurisdiction)—usually the Fire Marshal—regarding the fire alarm codes in effect for his/her building. These codes will dictate the number and interval of periodic inspections and tests required, together with any regulations concerning timeliness of repair of defects revealed by the inspections.

The AHJ can also inform an fm if the tests and inspections must be performed by licensed or otherwise certified personnel and explain how the facility can locate companies authorized to perform this function. Most jurisdictions require such licensing or certification. The use of properly licensed or certified personnel can often reduce facility liability in the event of a problem.

Another item that aids in proper test and inspection is the presence of as-built drawings, which are usually stored in a locked cabinet near the fire alarm control, depending on code regulations. These drawings are a custom set of prints showing the entire fire alarm system and location of all initiating devices and notification appliances; this information assists the inspector in performing a thorough job.


An improvement that can offer fms the most “bang for their buck” when looking to the future is upgrading a fire alarm system to meet the latest code requirements. Codes in some municipalities allow for older systems on a “non-conforming” basis. This means the system was installed in accordance with codes and regulations in force at the time of installation and need not be updated as long as the building remains unchanged. Ultimately, this is a decision where the AHJ’s opinion weighs heavily.

If the building has been substantially altered or otherwise modified, the current codes will apply, and a system update or possibly a new system may be required. Tragic fire events such as those affecting The Station nightclub in Rhode Island and the Chicago Cook County office building (another tragic fire that occurred in 2003) have caused codes sanctioning these older, so called “grandfathered systems” to come under heavy scrutiny.

Planning for future alterations and additions makes good sense. Given the current state of the economy, pricing and financing options being offered by some distributors/installers make planning for expected system upgrades a viable choice in the present. In addition to heightened protection provided by the latest in life safety systems, fms can smooth the way for the inevitable changes and expansions that will accompany a future economic recovery.

Whether shopping for a complete fire system replacement or a few minor renovations, fms should pay attention to the cost of both equipment and installation. Some systems can be networked over one pair of twisted, unshielded wires, which reduces material and labor costs. The need for limited wire also enables these advanced systems to reuse a great amount of wire from a building’s existing fire alarm, thereby limiting costs and construction destruction to a building’s façade.

The addition of multicriteria sensors is a potential investment for eliminating false alarms. These detection devices weigh input from a smoke sensor while measuring carbon monoxide (CO) and infrared radiation emitted by a developing fire in a facility. These elements are processed to decide if a genuine fire event is taking place. Multicriteria detectors, along with the system’s monitor and control modules, should also be able to operate over a pair of twisted, unshielded wires.

As many fms struggle to keep aging fire alarms up to code, some have turned this challenge into an opportunity to implement a reliable, supervised, and cost-effective means for emergency communications. U.S. Department of Defense and National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) codes governing the design and installation of these systems maintain a robust fire alarm system to be the best solution to serve as the backbone for a mass notification/emergency communications system (ECS). Code mandated fire alarm renovations mixed with these new standards, along with mounting public pressures, have caused emergency communications packages to top the list of life safety improvements requested by fms.

The present economy might cause fms to hesitate considering such a venture, but planning fire protection upgrades now can offer financial benefits in the future, not to mention improved protection. Fms can consult a local fire alarm/life safety engineered systems distributor or manufacturer to begin researching the options.

Gomersall is a 35 year veteran of the fire and life safety industry. In his product manager position with Gamewell-FCI (, Gomersall contributes to the development of new technologies while supporting specifiers, facility managers, and installers on the design and implementation of fire and life safety systems. Gamewell-FCI manufactures fire alarm, life safety, and emergency communications systems for commercial applications worldwide.

What fire system changes are you planning? Has code compliance been a challenge? Send your thoughts to