Fire and life safety applications can be tricky business. This is especially so given the complexity of authoritative codes, rules, and regulations. Further, fire alarms require reliance on myriad variables, including monitoring, first responder reactions, and end user education. All said, the fire alarm business can be difficult to learn and master, and only those with specialized training and knowledge will be successful.

SDM recently spoke with a handful of experts in the fire alarm field and asked them to answer questions and offer tips for simplifying the sale, design, and installation of fire alarm applications.

SDM’s pundits include the following: Don McInnes, national account manager, ADT Security Services Inc., Brookfield, Wis.; Keith Simpson, president and CEO, Simpson Security Systems Inc., Alexandria, La.; Roy Cats, president/owner, Fire Protection Inc., Seattle; Janet Geismar, general manager for South Florida, Aerwav Integration Services Inc., New York; and Morgan J. Hurley, technical director, Society of Fire Protection Engineers, Bethesda, Md.

SDM: How do you determine what type of code governs a given application?

MCINNES: I always start with the client and ask to see the occupancy permit for the premises. If none, then I call the building department and ask how the address on file is classified. I also check both state and local fire alarm requirements and referenced codes.

SIMPSON: The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) tells you how to do it, while NFPA Life Safety Code 101, BOCA National Building Codes, and the Uniform Fire Code tell you when to do it.

CATS: Call the local AHJ for each and every project.

SDM: Briefly describe a fire alarm application on which you have worked recently. What were the key reasons it was successful?

GEISMAR: We recently completed a high rise building (44 floors) in Miami that included parking and a retail level, as well as hotel and condominium floors.

On the hotel levels, each hotel unit was provided with the addressable/analog smoke detectors to provide the best possible protection as well as letting the hotel staff and security know when someone was tampering with a detector. The hotel was mainly concerned with what was happening on their floors, but also for any alarms in other areas of the building that may affect them. Because there were several floors of ‘future tenant,’ all power supplies and amplifiers had to be engineered and installed when the core of the building was installed. The building also has an extensive smoke removal system which is controlled by the fire alarm system.

SDM: Where do you turn for fire alarm training?

HURLEY: There are a number of sources of quality fire alarm training. For those who wish to better understand the National Fire Alarm Code, the NFPA is a logical choice. The Automatic Fire Alarm Association (AFAA) has a good program for engineering technologists and others who desire NICET certification. For the engineering community, the Society of Fire Protection Engineers has an excellent course on fire alarm systems design.

MCINNES: The National Burglar and Fire Alarm Association’s (NBFAA) NTS Fire Alarm Installation Methods (FARM) is a great course. Also, the NFPA’s Fire Alarm Workshop is an excellent source of information.

GEISMAR: Some states require a special fire alarm certificate and provide a list of people that teach those courses. NFPA also offers great courses. Ask local authorities and specifying engineers; they also know who the experts are locally.

SIMPSON: We turn to NFPA classes, the Automatic Fire Alarm Association, and NICET. Get NICET certified, and end any questions or doubts on your experience.

SDM: Where do you turn for accreditation?

GEISMAR: Find out what the local and state requirements are first. NFPA provides great training, NICET offers certifications, and states usually have a list of qualified schools for their state exams.

MCINNES: NICET, NFPA, CFPS, and National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA).

HURLEY: For engineers, there is no substitute for the professional engineer’s (P.E.) license. Similarly, for engineering technologists, NICET certification is a necessary credential.


SDM: How do you deal with liability issues specific to the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA)?

CATS: Review the ADA with your customers and always use supporting documentation. Document everything you do.

MCINNES: Always offer an ADA compliant system as an alterative quote, even though the building does not comply. Explain to the client that it may cost less to install the additional audio/visual devices with the initial installation. And remember that the ADA is civil rights legislation.

SIMPSON: Get knowledge and tap into this market. All you need is professional liability insurance and errors and omissions that most firms already have.

SDM: How do you educate end users on what they should do if a fire alarm goes off?

GEISMAR: After each system is installed, the fire alarm contractor should provide live training for the end user. Instructions should be provided in writing for further use. These instructions may vary from municipality to municipality, so it is important to know what each one requires.

MCINNES: Early on in the design process I put labor for orientation and training to work with an identified fire warden or safety individual responsible for the client’s life safety and evacuation plan. The dealer should provide detailed written and visual training.

CATS: Provide training at the time of the installation. Go through the manual with the end users, and make sure they understand everything before you leave. Provide free annual testing with fire drill.

SIMPSON: How a company answers this question determines whether you consider your company just a fire alarm company or a fire and life safety company.

SDM: Other advice?

SIMPSON: Money is well spent on NFPA seminars and NICET certification. Employees must be trained and 100 percent fire alarm savvy to compete in today’s market. Also, the leaders of a firm cannot depend on employees to hold their licenses. I hold all licenses required for Simpson Security Systems Inc.

MCINNES: If you are not willing to get certified by NICET, then leave fire alarm systems design and installation to properly credentialed fire alarm professionals.

CATS: Specialize. Do only fire or security; don’t do both.

Training and Accreditation Resources

National Fire

Protection Association (NFPA)

1 Batterymarch Park

Quincy, Mass. 02169

Phone: (617) 770-3000


National Burglar & Fire

Alarm Association (NBFAA)

8380 Colesville Road, Suite 750

Silver Spring, Md. 20910

Phone: (301) 585-1855


National Institute for Certification

in Engineering Technologies (NICET)

1420 King St.

Alexandria, Va. 22314

Phone: (888) IS-NICET


Automatic Fire Alarm Association Inc.

P. O. Box 951807

Lake Mary, Fla. 32795

Phone: (407) 322-6288