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Sunday, February 12, 2017

Relationships with Your Local AHJ

In the fire alarm industry we have National Codes and Standards as well as Local Ordinances to follow.  To name a few, the National Codes/Standards are the IBC (International Building Code), IFC (International Fire Code), NFPA 72, and NEC (National Electrical Code).  Now, while some of the literature in these references may be crystal clear, others are often clear as MUD!  This is why you always hear the term "Up for Interpretation".  This is an easy way for local AHJs (Authority having Jurisdiction)  to put their own spin on these references.  If you have been in the fire alarm industry long enough, then you will understand that it can get very frustrating when dealing with an AHJ that is out of line.  In these situations you must be a courteous professional that knows the codes and can stand their ground.

If you are in the fire alarm business and directly handle the design of systems, then you will more than likely deal with an AHJ on multiple occasions.  I suggest being prepared.  If you are submitting a system for review, make sure you bring the National Code references pertaining to your design. Also it is very wise to research the City's local ordinances to see if they have adopted any codes that may be more stringent than the National codes we base our systems on.  A while back when I first started designing systems, I came across a medium sized office building with a large warehouse used by a landscaping company.  With a B type occupancy and over 20 sprinkler heads, the National Code required a dedicated function sprinkler monitoring system.  I should also mention that there were less than 100 persons on floors other than the level of main egress with a total occupant load of less than 500.  With that said, only one horn would be required near the FACU.  Now the City where this building was located, had a local ordinance to require full occupant notification throughout for any B occupancy structure containing more than 100 sprinkler heads.  This was my fault for not checking with the City prior to my design.

I strongly believe that we learn from our mistakes and this particular one has taught me to really research all aspects of the design criteria before presenting a finished product to the client, FPE or AHJ.

Now in some cases, the AHJs are just plain out of line.  Fire officials typically have the attitude that more is better and in some cases they are correct.  Coming from the contracting side of the industry, I would love to see more stringent codes enforced that mandate additional equipment.  However, I also understand that money talks.  To the fire department, money is not the driving factor of their decisions.  Their job is not to help save the end-user money rather it is to instruct them on what their buildings require in the event of a fire emergency.  Us as the designers and contractors are the middle man for the clients.  It is our job to perform value engineering and get the customer a top notch system that meets all National and Local codes all without breaking the bank.  If you ever come across a hard nosed fire prevention plan checker or inspector, don't lose your cool!  This will only make matters worse and in no way help you achieve a signature on your ROC (record of completion) or permit.  In these cases I always like to ask the inspector or plan checker the following: "Can you please reference your requirement in the code so that I can apply it to my next design?".  In more cases than not, they will have to get back to you because they don't have the answer.  This is the easiest way to get them to back off.  By asking for this information, you don't sound like you are second guessing them and that you are actually relying on them for assistance.  Once they realize their requirement is not in the National or Local codes, you should be on the correct path to moving past any discrepancies.

Another great practice when designing systems for your clients is to hold pre-application meetings at the fire prevention office.  This is an excellent opportunity to lay all of your cards on the table.  Make sure to represent your clients concerns and make sure to document everything.  This makes sure that everyone is on the same playing field and shows your client that you are looking out for their best interests.

Designing fire alarm systems can be very fun and rewarding if you know what you are doing.  Make sure to become familiar with all applicable codes and regularly attend code seminars to stay ahead of the curve.

Friday, February 3, 2017

NFPA 72 Tabs for NICET Exam

NFPA 72 2013 Code Book with NICET TabsPreparing for the NICET exam can be frustrating, intimidating and exhausting.  When you are feeling the pressure to pass this exam, keep one major thing in mind, "It's not necessarily what you know or how much you can store in memory.".  The key to NICET along with any other timed test is time management.  If you can learn a few time saving tricks, this can drastically help reduce anxiety during the examination as well as assist you in gaining additional confidence to push forward.  Since NICET allows you to bring your own references into the testing facility, you have a huge advantage on your side!  You can use preemptive measures to prepare your books weeks before you even step foot into the facility on exam day.  

NICET Insider tip:  Keep in mind that all reference materials brought into the NICET testing facility MUST meet the criteria found on NICET's website.  The NFPA Handbook is NOT an acceptable alternative to the allowable references!

As stated above, its not what you can remember rather how well you can prepare for this exam by learning to properly navigate the reference material and turn to the correct pages to locate the needed information as quickly as possible.  Now obviously there are going to be answers you know off the top of your head and that's great!  These immediate responses will allow you to ultimately bank additional time for the questions you do not know so well.  The goal of this technique is to rapidly respond to any given question with the knowledge and confidence to grab the right reference and turn to the correct page without any delays.   Tabbing your code references is essential to success.  Remember that NICET does not allow any non-permanent tabbing of your personal code books.  This means that your code book tabs will need to be permanently attached via tape or glue.  You cannot use loose sticky notes.  They will be removed once you enter the NICET testing facility.
NFPA Code Book Tabs
These are the Sticky Tabs we Recommend

How and where to tab your NFPA 72 code book

A lot of future NICET exam students ask me where to place the tabs to give them the best advantage.  To be honest the tabs are completely up to you as well as what NICET level you are testing for.  What I can tell you is there are a few tabs that are in my opinion necessary and applicable to all levels and exams.  These tabs would include each chapter, the different Annex sections and tables.  I also provide tabs for Annex "A" chapters 17 and 18 as there is a lot of valuable information in the Annex for Notification Appliances as well as Initiating Devices.

The tabs themselves are not exactly large enough to descriptively write out what they represent so its up to you to come up with a system that works for you.  I recommend just using numbers for the chapters, letters for the Annex, T for tables along with some sort of numeric or alphabetic system for what it represents and TOC for the table of contents.     Below is a breakdown of the reference tabs I recommend for your NFPA 72 2013 edition during the NICET exam:

  • TOC - Table of Contents page 14
  • DEF or 3 - Definitions found in Chapter 3 page 19
  • DOC or 7 - Documentation page 33
  • FUN or 10 - Fundamentals page 65
  • CKTS or 12 - Circuits and pathways page 73
  • TEST or 14 - Inspection, Testing and Maintenance page 75
    • T-I(vis) - Table for VISUAL Inspection Frequencies page 77
    • T-I(fun) - Table for FUNCTIONAL Inspection Frequencies page 81
  • INIT or 17 - Initiating Devices page 94
    • HD - Heat Sensing Detectors page 95
    • SD - Smoke Sensing Detectors page 97
    • AIR - Air Sampling Detectors page 99
    • DOOR - SD for Door Releasing Service page 100
  • NAC or 18 - Notification Appliances page 106
    • AUD - Audible Characteristics page 107
    • VIS - Visual Characteristics page 109
    • T-VIS - Table for Visual Spacing page 110
  • CONT or 21 - Emergency Control Function Interfaces page 112
  • PPFAS or 23 - Protected Premises Fire Alarm Systems page 116
  • ECS or 24 - Emergency Communication Systems page 124
  • SUPER or 26 - Supervising Station Alarm Systems page 137
  • PUBLIC or 27 - Public Emergency Alarm Reporting Systems page 151
  • HOUSE or 29 - Single and Multiple Station Alarms and Household FAS page 162
  • A - Annex A page 169
    • A17 - Annex for Chapter 17 page 201
      • T-SD/HD - Tables for Detector Spacing page 205
    • A18 - Annex for Chapter 18 page 219
  • B - Annex B page 271
  • C - Annex C page 310
  • D - Annex D page 311
  • INDEX - Document Index page 334
NFPA 72 2013 Code Tabs for ChaptersPicture of NFPA 72 2013 with Tabs for NICET ExamNow this is very important!  The placement of tabs in your NFPA 72 code reference is everything.  I recommend placing the chapter and Annex tabs along the right edge of the document in a staggered order so they are easy to read and access at any time during the exam.  The tables and other tabs are highly recommended to run along the top border of the document.  This will reduce clutter and increase efficiency though organization.  

Lastly if you must include additional tabs for individual section support, I highly recommend placing the tab along the edge of the document that is closest to the needed text.  This way when you open the code book to that section, the tab will quickly guide you directly to where you need to be.  

If you need additional help with the NICET exam process I suggest you join our Facebook group or you can purchase our NICET practice exams.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Voice Intelligibility for Accurate Occupant Notification

Voice Intelligibility for Clear Evacuation Message
Do you know the reason behind modern fire alarm systems?  They are intended to recognize a potential life threatening fire situation such as smoke, flame or heat.  It is then their responsibility to alert the masses.  If the whole point to a fire alarm system is to alert and inform occupants, then what good does it do if these occupants can not understand the evacuation message?  This is what prompted the National Fire Protection Association or NFPA to change the title of NFPA 72 from the National Fire Alarm Code to the National Fire alarm and Signaling Code first seen in the 2010 edition.

Side note:  Did you know that NFPA 72 is not a Code reference rather a Standard?  Learn more in this article title Fire Alarm Codes vs. Standards.

I am sure seasoned fire alarm system designers have had this pounded into their heads by now but news flash, fire alarm notification signals are no longer the priority in some scenarios.  We have always been taught that our occupant notification alert or evacuation messages were to take precedence over any other audio or tone.  To an extent this is still correct including outputs such as Musak, Public Address or P.A.,  Concert or Performance Audio, etc.  There are now and have been for some time, fire alarm systems incorporating additional features that make up what is known as Mass Notification.  The alert tones, voice messages and canned message instructions of a mass notification system are to take priority over any fire alarm notification output.  This was the reason behind the revision and extended title of NFPA 72.  The National Fire Protection Association added the word "Signaling" to the title of NFPA 72 as well as chapter 24 covering Emergency Communication Systems (ECS).  NFPA 72 does not cover every aspect of Mass Notification system design.  If you are seeking additional information on the requirements of these systems, you will need to obtain a copy of the Unified Facilities Criteria (UFC) document titled "Design and O&M: Mass Notification Systems"

If you research the document above, you will become aware that Mass Notification adds a lot of new criteria to the design and engineering of a given fire alarm system, however this article will serve to inform readers on the importance of a term known as Voice Intelligibility.  If you consult the Annex D of your 2013 NFPA 72 (starts on page 311) you will find all the information pertaining to voice intelligibility.  Below we are going to touch on some of the important factors to keep in mind when up against a mass notification system that must meet specified voice intelligibility measurements.

    voice intelligibility can you hear me now
  1. What exactly is voice intelligibility?  Voice intelligibility is a measure of how comprehensible speech is in given conditions.  Voice Intelligibility is affected by the quality of speech signal, the type and level of background noise, reverberation, and for speech over communication devices, the properties of the communication system.  The concept of voice intelligibility is relevant to several fields, including phonetics, human factors, acoustical engineering and audiometry.
  2. In order to meet the criteria of NFPA 72 as well as the UFC, you will need to have what is known as a risk analysis drafted up by a fire protection engineer.  A risk analysis is an individual plan for a specific facility.  This plan includes a multitude of criteria based on potential risks and threats at the given facility.  This risk analysis will breakdown segregated areas of the building and how to evacuate or hold occupants based on individual threatening scenarios.  The risk analysis will also explain acoustically distinguishable spaces or ADS.  As defined by NFPA 72 2013 D.2.3.1.1 - An acoustically distinguishable space can be an emergency communication system notification zone, or subdivision thereof, that can be enclosed or otherwise physically defined space, or that can be distinguishable from other spaces because of different acoustical, environmental, or use characteristics such as reverberation time and ambient sound pressure level.  The ADS might have acoustical design features that are conductive for voice intelligibility, or it might be a space where voice intelligibility could be difficult or impossible to achieve.
  3. Once evacuation or staging areas of the facility are understood, we will need to design the audio potion of the mass notification system.  This is where voice intelligibility comes into play.  Keep in mind the differences between audibility levels (dB) and Voice Intelligibility.  For lack of better terms, one defines the sound pressure and the other defines the clarity and comprehension of the audio.  Just because you meet the intent of NFPA 72 chapter 18 in regards to dB levels does not mean you have accomplished an acceptable measurement of voice intelligibility.
  4. How do you measure voice intelligibility?  Unlike the use of a dB meter for audibility, voice intelligibility is a little more tricky.  There are two scales used to measure intelligibility.  One is the CIS scale which stands for Common Intelligibility Scale and the other is STI or Speech Transmission Index.  To acquire this reading you will need..... You guessed it, a Voice Intelligibility meter.   
  5. What is a passing measurement for voice intelligibility?  The voice intelligibility of an emergency communication system is considered acceptable if at least 90 percent of the measurement locations within each ADS have a measured STI of not less than 0.45 (0.65 CIS) and an average STI of not less than 0.50 (0.70 CIS).  The measurement shall be taken from an elevation of 5 feet or any other elevation deemed appropriate based on occupancy.  In areas of the facility where sound levels exceed 90 dB, it may be impossible to meet these voice intelligibility measurements.  In these cases other methods such as LED signage, etc. may be used.  For reference the STI scale can be converted to CIS via the following calculation:  CIS = 1 + log (STI).
voice intelligibility meter CIS scale and STI scale


There are a ton of factors to take in when designing a mass notification system to meet the voice intelligibility requirements of NFPA 72 and the Unified Facilities Criteria.  This article is meant to touch on the main points and get you going in the right direction.

If you are in the market for a dependable voice intelligibility meter, I highly recommend the VOX01 from SDi.  This unit is compact, sturdy, very easy to use and comes packed with tons of features and abilities.  Here is a direct link to SDi's webpage containing information on the VOX01.  Below is a video of me revealing the VOX01 when it first came to market.  Feel free to check it out and let us know if you have any questions.  


Fire Alarm Codes vs. Standards

What is the difference between fire alarm codes and fire alarm standards?

The terms "code" and "standards" are commonly used to represent the same thing.  However, the two terms stand for completely different meanings.  Fire alarm codes are written rules and regulations that are then adopted as law for enforcement by an AHJ or Authority Having Jurisdiction.  Fire alarm codes once put in place, are the minimum requirements that must be complied with to provide a reasonable degree of life safety. Codes are written based on standards.  Fire alarm standards are generally produced by a consensus or technically committee to represent a minimum level of how to install certain types of protection.  Standards are focused on one particular system component and give guidelines on the proper installation, maintenance and inspecting.

NFPA 101 Life Safety Code Book
Fire Alarm Code:

Fire alarm codes specify when and where a given type of protection is required.  These fire alarm codes are a minimum requirement and are encouraged to be exceeded.  Below is a list of fire alarm and fire related code references:
  • NFPA 30 (Flammable and Combustible Liquids Code)
  • NFPA 54 (National Fuel Gas Code)
  • NFPA 70 (National Electrical Code)
  • NFPA 101 (Life Safety Code)
  • NFPA 5000 (Building Construction and Safety Code)
  • IBC (International Building Code)
  • IFC (International Fire Code)
Fire Alarm Standard:

Fire alarm standards detail how a specific protection required by the code is to be achieved.  Below is an example list of fire alarm and fire related standards:
  • NFPA 10 (Standard for Portable Fire Extinguishers)
  • NFPA 13 (Standard for the Installation of Sprinkler Systems)
  • NFPA 14 (Standard for the Installation of Standpipes and Hose Systems)
  • NFPA 20 (Standard for the Installation of Stationary Pumps for Fire Protection)
  • NFPA 72 (National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code)*
*  Keep in mind that NFPA 72 tells us how to install fire alarm systems.  It doesn't explain what type of equipment (pull stations, smoke detectors, duct detectors, waterflows, tampers) should be used.  This information can be found in the specific jurisdiction's adopted building code.

How you determine the Fire Alarm requirements.

Check with your local authority having jurisdiction to determine what edition of the applicable codes they are currently enforcing.  Most codes will determine the fire alarm and automatic fire sprinklers based on the occupancy classifications of the particular building.  If NFPA 101 Life Safety Code is enforced, consult section 9.6 for the exact system installation requirements.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Low Frequency Sounders for Fire Alarm Evacuation


Are Low Frequency Sounders Being Enforced by your AHJ


Is your jurisdiction enforcing the new code mandated 520 Hz low frequency sounders for fire alarm audibility yet?  If so how are you tackling this new requirement?  And finally did you know that the smoke alarms within the sleeping rooms and guest units do not need to meet the 520 Hz requirement?

When did this start?

System Sensor Low Frequency Sounder and Sounder StrobeNot a lot of people are aware that this requirement was originally noted in the (2010) NFPA 72 National Fire Alarm Code section 18.4.5.3.  It states "Effective January 1, 2014, where audible appliances are provided to produce signals for sleeping areas, they shall produce a low frequency alarm signal that complies with the following:
(1) The alarm signal shall be square wave or provide equivalent awakening ability.
(2) The wave shall have a fundamental frequency of 520 Hz +/- 10 percent.

Now we fast forward to 2013.

Note that the (2013) NFPA 72 Fire Alarm and Signaling Code requirements are the same found in Section 18.4.5.3

Now lets break it down.  There are a lot of code sections so stay with me.

The Annex A of NFPA 72 (2013) section A18.4.5.3 lets us know that this section does not cover the audible requirements of single and multiple station smoke alarms and instructs us to consult chapter 29 for said requirements.

If you refer to Chapter 29 "Single and Multiple-Station Alarms and Household Fire Alarm Systems" section 29.3.6 it states the following: "All audible fire alarm signals installed shall meet the performance requirements of 18.4.3, 18.4.5.1, 18.4.5.2 and 29.3.8."  Please notice that this section does not include section 18.4.5.3. This may lead one to believe that single and multiple station smoke alarms for dwelling units do not need to meet the new 520 Hz low frequency requirements.

The key section to pay attention to here is section 29.3.8 which states "Notification appliances provided in sleeping rooms and guest rooms for those with hearing loss shall comply with 29.3.8.1 and 29.3.8.2, as applicable."

Section 29.3.8.1 "Mild to Severe Hearing Loss.  Notification appliances provided for those with mild to severe hearing loss shall comply with the following:

(1) An audible notification appliance producing a low frequency alarm signal shall be installed in the following situations:

    (a) Where required by governing laws, codes, or standards for people with hearing loss.
    (b) Where provided voluntarily for those with hearing loss.

(2) The low frequency alarm signal output shall comply with the following:

    (a) The waveform shall have a fundamental frequency of 520 Hz +/- 10 percent.
    (b) The minimum sound level at the pillow shall be 75 dba, or 15 dba above the average ambient sound level or 5 dba above the maximum sound level having a duration of at least 60 seconds, whichever is greater."

Section 29.3.8.2 "Moderately Severe to profound Hearing Loss.  Visible notification appliances in accordance with the requirements of 18.5.5.7 and tactile notification appliances in accordance with the requirements of section 18.10 shall be required for those with moderately severe to profound hearing loss in the following situations:

(1) Where required by governing laws, codes, or standards for people with hearing loss.
(2) Where provided voluntarily for those with hearing loss.

What does this mean?  


Low frequency sounder internal view speaker coneIf we read section 29.3.8 very carefully you will notice the word "AND" between sleeping rooms and guest rooms for those with hearing loss.  This is telling us that the requirements of section 29.3.8.1 and 29.3.8.2 apply to ALL sleeping rooms including guest rooms for those hard of hearing.

How does this effect your design?

To this date there are no UL listed UBC smoke alarms that can produce an audible tone at 520 Hz.  In fact the only manufacture that has a UL listed 520 Hz low frequency sounder appliance is System Sensor.  This means no more mini horns in the sleeping rooms of R-1, R-2 and R-2.1 occupancies.  The only way to accomplish this is by installing a System Sensor HW-LF (low frequency sounder) or addressable smoke detector with low frequency sounder base in place of all mini horns.  This will give us the required 520 Hz in all sleeping areas during a general alarm condition.

How do we accomplish 520 Hz when the Single or multiple station smoke alarm is activated?

Since there is no such thing as a low frequency LISTED smoke alarm, I propose installing addressable system smoke detectors in all sleeping rooms and guest rooms.  On top of this an addressable control module will need to be installed for each residential unit.  The control module will then need to be wired so that it controls an individual NAC (Notification Appliance Circuit) for that particular unit.  Through programming we can activate this individual control module upon activation of any smoke detectors within the unit.  Lastly the control module for each unit will need to be mapped to activate during a general alarm condition.  This way we are activating the in room low frequency sounders via the in room smoke detectors as well as any building wide general alarm device.  This method allows us to accomplish the requirements of section 18.4.5.3 as well as 29.3.8 with listed equipment and methods.

How does this effect your final cost?

Obviously there is a lot more equipment needed to perform this requirement such as addressable system smokes and control modules.  On top of this the low frequency sounders are more expensive than mini horns.  Also note that the new low frequency sounders draw more current than mini horns which will decrease your total allowable appliances per NAC ultimately increasing the number of required remote power supplies.

This is going to be a huge adjustment for our industry which will ultimately comes with a large learning curve.  I suggest your contact your local AHJ (Authority Having Jurisdiction) and find out what their interpretations on this subject are.