Robert Culhane, a fire alarm technician at Fox Valley Fire & Safety, installs a fire alarm indicating device.

Frequently, fire and life safety systems are overlooked until a problem occurs, even though these systems carry the solemn responsibility of protecting lives 24 hours a day.

These sophisticated systems require more than quick visual inspections or superficial checks to gauge their performance. Creating a rigorous inspection, testing, and maintenance program assures the long-term operational reliability of a fire alarm system.

As with any other system, electronic parts and other components can degrade over time and compromise a fire and life safety system’s operation. Regularly scheduled testing, inspection, and maintenance can keep a system operating at optimum performance. In addition to ensuring protection, keeping the system in good condition reduces expenses by preventing unbudgeted emergency repairs and costly nuisance alarms.


Most systems have a productive lifespan of about 10 to 15 years. These systems can continue to provide dependable service with proper maintenance and care. Knowing the system’s age and maintenance history can determine the steps needed to maintain its operational readiness.

Newer systems, less than five years old, should require little maintenance. Environmental factors can cause component breakdown in systems between five and 10 years old. Most detectors installed today have an approximate 10-year life span. After 10 years, the entire unit should be replaced according to manufacturer’s instructions. Some systems between 10 and 15 years old can still provide appropriate life-safety response; however, they need close attention, even with proper maintenance procedures in place.

Systems approaching 20 years of age may be beyond their technological life expectancy. Parts of the system may continue to work satisfactorily if properly maintained, but trained specialists will need to test and inspect them to ensure proper system response will occur in an emergency.

Smoke detectors are designed to be as maintenance-free as possible. The dust, dirt, and other foreign matter that can accumulate inside a detector’s sensing element can change the element’s sensitivity. Detectors can become either more sensitive, which may cause unwanted alarms, or less sensitive, which could reduce the amount of warning time given in a fire.

Detectors should be tested periodically and maintained at regular intervals. In addition to the directives from local Authorities Having Jurisdiction (AHJs), technicians must follow the manufacturer’s specific recommended practices for maintenance and testing closely and refer to Appendix B of NFPA 90A and NFPA 72, Chapter 10. In essence, with proper care and maintenance, many systems can achieve extended life expectancy.

The few simple steps that follow can keep fire and life safety systems in peak condition.

Determine frequency for visual inspections to confirm proper equipment performance.

Determine frequency of tests for fire alarm system devices and components.

Determine methods for testing fire alarm system devices and components.

Recognize the importance of acceptance testing.

Determine when modifications or repairs require reacceptance testing.

Document objectives and key elements of a successful fire alarm system inspection, testing, and maintenance program for each facility.

Apply the requirements of Chapter 10 of the National Fire Alarm Code, NFPA 72–2007.

Analyze effectiveness and implementation of the inspection, testing, and maintenance of a fire alarm system.

Often, the maintenance procedure of fire and life safety systems can be traced back to the code of practice for system design, installation, and maintenance.


Water sprinkler systems became popular during the 1970s for their superior ability to protect property. Codes written at that time reflect this application. The ability of water sprinklers to protect lives came to the forefront during the 1980s and early 1990s, due in part to the adoption of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Within the past five years, most of the building standards have been written with the assumption that fire sprinklers are in place. A fire sprinkler system will allow a building to have different code requirements, such as narrower corridors and fewer exits.

Sprinklers are just one aspect of the fire and life safety system. Because they do not give early warning of a fire, a fire alarm system is needed to work in tandem with a sprinkler system to give earlier notification.

“You need fast evacuation times to protect people, and you need sprinkler systems to protect property,” says Scott Bailey, senior vice president of Koorsen Fire & Security, Indianapolis. “That seems to be the direction the industry is going and the way the standards are being written.” Koorsen Fire & Security is a privately held installation and service company established in 1946. It ranks as No. 99 on the SDM 100.

With the new NFPA Standard, 2007 edition, the direction has been modified again.

“The new standard is going in the direction of mass notification systems versus fire alarm systems, but not many places have adopted it yet,” Bailey adds. One popular facet of mass notification is a voice system to annunciate an emergency in a building. The system can override the fire alarm system to give evacuation instructions. You also have the ability to hit a tornado button or hurricane button that would give a voice instruction.

The U.S. military has driven this trend. Some bases have started implementing mass notification systems. The NFPA has carried forward the military’s emphasis of mass notification to the private sector in the new NFPA 72, which was originally written to define a fire alarm system.

“When the new mass notification system standard is adopted by a state or governmental agency, the private sector may respond with a similar requirement. The end result is that the industry is going to rely more heavily on speaker systems and voice evacuation systems,” Bailey emphasizes.

Fire alarm systems must be integrated with other building systems, such as security and communications to provide emergency notification. The notification system must consider occupants who could be anywhere within any building in the building complex or campus, indoors and outdoors.

“The main issue with voice instruction is clarity and volume,” Bailey explains. “With voice speakers you do not get the same decibel levels as you do from a horn or siren. To get good clarity and good auditory levels, you need to space the speakers closer together. Once you’ve done that, you have good clarity, but you still don’t have the same volume levels as you do with other audible devices.” That means that voice evacuation systems will require many more devices to achieve good voice clarity.

Although there’s a time and place for typical horn- or siren-based notification devices to alert people, Bailey says people respond better to voice evacuation systems in certain instances, particularly when people need specific information about non-fire emergencies. “When people are told what to do during an emergency, they tend to follow the instructions,” he says. “If it’s a voice evacuation system, people believe the threat is real.”