Adhering to changes in fire code on a local basis is not a choice — it’s a “shall,” not a “should.”
Although code compliance hinges on local ordinances enacted by cities, townships, counties, and even state government, the process begins with the development of standards by organizations such as the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) of Quincy, Mass.; Underwriters Laboratories (UL) of Northbrook, Ill.; and International Code Council (ICC) of Washington, D.C.
NFPA 72 is the guidebook that fire protection professionals follow when installing smoke detectors, manual pull stations, notification appliances, and other devices. For this reason, our focus for the remainder of this story will be on NFPA 72, with minor attention to UL.
IP-Based Communications Preferred Over POTS
There were several changes in the 2016 Edition of NFPA 72 that some fire alarm installers either missed, believed not to be important, or their local jurisdiction deemed unacceptable. One of them is the use of performance-based, IP-oriented communications over that of traditional Plain Old Telephone System (POTS).
Charles Aulner, president of National Training Center Inc (NTC) of North Las Vegas, Nev., adds that one of the things NTC runs into in the field is technicians and companies that continue to use two conventional telephone phone lines simply because it’s what they've always done, even though the code has changed. “Obviously, the practice in the industry is slower to change than the code is,” Aulner adds.
Because of this, the fire alarm industry, including the various fire codes, now embrace what’s commonly referred to as “performance-based communication technologies, such as cellular and the internet, both of which involve IP (Internet Protocol) communications, which is actually now more reliable than today’s hardline POTS.
“I’ll take cell phone over hardwire phone lines any day because phone companies are not maintaining them,” says Nick Markowitz, owner of Markowitz Electric & Integration of Verona, Pa. “They’ve allowed the whole network to deteriorate. So my first choice is cellular. In fact, a lot of my fire alarms — where I can do it — have internet with cell backup. Now they have the new M2M (machine-to-machine) that have both AT&T and Verizon SIM cards. You’re almost guaranteed coverage where you have internet and access to two different cellular systems.”
Changes in Smoke Detection Products
According to Richard Roux, NFPA 72 staff liaison with National Fire Protection Association, one of the changes that took place in the 2019 Edition of NFPA 72 involves residential smoke alarms and smoke detectors. Residential smoke alarms, for example, must be able to detect the difference between smoke created during routine cooking and that of other more serious sources.
“The new standard for smoke detectors has continually been pushed back,” says Chris Miers, regional marketing manager with Bosch Security and Safety Systems, Fairport, N.Y. “The changes in this edition standard are major in scope, most notably of which are the addition of three new fire tests: detection of flaming polyurethane foam; detection of smoldering polyurethane foam; and reduction of nuisance alarms. As a result of this, substantial changes have to be engineered to detector construction both inside and out.”
Miers adds that these changes include air flow, smoke chamber size and shape, sensing technology, and firmware algorithm updates. With the strict code changes for smoke detectors coming, every manufacturer will need to be compliant.
In order to make all of this happen, UL has changed a lot of their rules relative to the detection ability of these detectors. Thus, traditional photoelectric and ionization detectors must pass a new flame and cooking test, and, of course, they’re not passing them without the use of additional sensors. Although the concept of multi-criteria detection isn’t new, manufacturers are now required to change their designs in order to comply with the new code. And so, NFPA 72 and the product standards enacted by UL for listing purposes go hand-in-hand.
Changes in the Upcoming NFPA 72 2022 Edition
There are four areas where significant changes will take place in the NFPA 72 2022 Edition: cybersecurity, color-coded tagging, remote access, and survivability.
1. Addressing the need for cybersecurity: According to NFPA’s Roux, “The requirements for cybersecurity, which is rather brief, is contained in Chapter 11 of the upcoming 2022 Edition. There isn’t a lot of meat to it, and it basically says that cybersecurity shall be provided where required by building codes, the AHJ, specific projects, and things like that.”
Jon Hughes, vice president of marketing and product strategy with Edwards/Kidde Systems of Bradenton, Fla., says that an outgrowth of current NFPA 72, Chapter 24, dealing with risk analyses of emergency communication systems acknowledges the vulnerabilities to products such as fire panels, which establish connectivity with outside networks, and aims to provide direction to the industry working to help assure their products can’t be used by bad actors as points of entry to building networks.
2. Color-coded tagging for fire panels: A lot of states already have some kind of color tagging system in place. But now a special section of the new code will include specific information that relates to the what, where, when, and why behind it.
“We’ve added an annex on color tagging fire alarm systems — green, yellow, and red,” Roux says. “Where the system is operational, you'll have a green tag displayed on the face of the panel. And of course, if the system is questionable or slightly impaired, it will have a yellow tag. If the system is to the point where it doesn’t work and a fire watch is required, it will have a red tag.”
3.Remote access over cellular/internet: In years past, when a significant change has taken place in the system, it’s necessary to retest the system, and that’s still the case. Also, where changes involve panel programming, this work must be performed on site. Someone must be there, at the location to retest and assure that all is well. But now, thanks to a specific change in the upcoming 2022 Edition of NFPA 72, remote access is allowed — but ONLY where it comes to updating the firmware/software in the fire alarm panel. System programming and any necessary retesting must be done on site.
“It’s counterintuitive to cybersecurity, but nevertheless it’s in the upcoming code,” Roux says. “So this means that a company, an organization, a technician, an owner can do stuff with their fire alarm system from a remote location. They’ll have a program of sorts to do it with, probably through the cloud, where they will log in, establish their credentials, and then they can reset, silence, perform remote diagnostics and update software.”
4.Power Limited Cable Survivability: According to Roux, for those who install fire alarm systems, changes in NFPA 72 in this regard pertain to cable survivability. In most buildings, when any alarm-initiating widget activates, it activates all the speakers, horns, and strobe lights in the building. In particularly difficult buildings, such as high rises, huge horizontal complexes, or a hospital where they relocate people when there’s a fire alarm, it’s no longer a general alarm.
“This commonly requires a two-hour rated assembly; and wherever these wires pass from the control panel to the horns on the 8th floor, for example, that wire must be protected in a more robust manner [than is customary], and so we call this ‘survivability,’” Roux says. “This has always involved a two-hour rated cable or raceway of some kind, but now the committee has seen fit to reduce it in some occupancies to a one-hour rating.”
Whether a code change involves the 2016, 2019, or the upcoming 2022 Edition, always check with your local AHJ, code official, or inspector to find out which edition of the code that your community uses. In some cases, like Ohio, there’s a separate set of ordinances — in this case called the Ohio Building Code (OBC) — that provide details on what you can and cannot do. Double check before you send your blueprints to the local plans examiner, and certainly before you drill a single hole.