Training is one of the most critical elements in the installation and service of fire alarm systems. Unless a fire technician knows and understands every aspect of the job, terrible things can happen to the people indirectly under his or her care.
Surprisingly enough, there are a huge number of fire alarm installers who really don’t know the official ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) mounting heights assigned to manual fire pulls, notification appliance devices and other items. Believe it or not, there are installers who haven’t even heard of this legislation, which has been in force since the late 1980s.
I’m sure you’ve heard this before, but in order to install fire alarm systems, you must be qualified. To be qualified, you must adhere to the expectations of your local code enforcement community. To do that, you must comply with whatever body of code the community has adopted, be it International Code Council (ICC) or National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).
What It Takes to Be a Qualified Tech
Almost everyone starts out in the fire business in the same manner — fresh and without an effective knowledge of fire codes, technology and fire detection equipment. Those new to the industry should not feel ashamed of not having all the answers when they start. But within two years or less, they should have pursued a number of training opportunities in order to better understand the fire alarm business.
Section 4.3.3 of NFPA 72, National Fire Alarm Code (NFAC), defines a qualified installer thusly: “Installation personnel shall be qualified or shall be supervised by persons who are qualified in the installation, inspection, and testing of fire alarm systems. Evidence of qualifications or certification shall be provided when requested by the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) … ”
Those who receive specific training from the manufacturer of the alarm equipment they install may be able to use that as proof of qualification. Another sign of qualification is training by nationally recognized companies that provide certification.
The individual who determines whether an organization is qualified to provide training, according to NFPA 72, Section 4.3.3(2), is AHJ. In other words, if the matter of qualification should come up when dealing with the AHJ, and if training should be an issue, NFAC says the AHJ has every right to decide what sources of training are acceptable for fire technicians working in their jurisdiction.
This is one of many reasons I have long joked that when an AHJ says to jump, instead of getting upset and arguing, simply ask how high.
Of course, knowing code is important, but this knowledge is only part of what it takes to be a good installer. The rest of the equation involves a working understanding of electronics, the hierarchy of the fire alarm systems and a good knowledge of the equipment.
Know the Basics of Electronics
Far too many installers do not have a good understanding of basic electronics. This is especially true in the area of intrusion systems, as technicians are constantly exposed to situations where knowing Ohm’s Law would help. Sad to say, even many fire technicians lack such knowledge.
Ohm’s Law, for example, is one of the most important tools in both fire and intrusion alarms. Based on a simple mathematical equation (E = IR), it’s designed to demonstrate the relationship that exists between voltage (E), current (I) and resistance (R).
One example where Ohm’s Law can be helpful is in the area of end-of-line resistors (EOLs). Both burglar and fire alarm installers use EOLs even though they do not know what these resistors do.
Ohm’s Law says that when you need to know the voltage in a circuit, simply multiply the current times the resistance. Let’s say we have 2mA (milliamps) flowing in a circuit that measures 2,000 Ohms, to determine voltage simply multiply the two together:
0.002 X 2,000 = 4V
The master Ohm’s Law formula offers a number of mathematical possibilities when seeking information about a circuit. With it you can compute current when you know voltage and resistance (I = E/R), or you can compute resistance when you have current and voltage (R = E/I). The positional relationship of each element in the chart determines whether you divide or multiply.
Resistance Is Not Futile
In the case of an EOL, the resistor limits current in an initiating device circuit (IDC) in such a manner that when an abnormal condition occurs within the circuit, the current that flows through that circuit will suddenly change, causing the fire alarm panel to react, accordingly.
Knowing how resistors work and what the color codes mean that are printed on them will help create a better, more secure fire alarm system. Knowing color code mechanics and resistance computation will also help the installer when he/she encounters a problem in the field.
For example, let’s say a fire alarm installation crew has traveled 50 miles into the countryside to install a fire alarm system in a small elementary school. Upon examination of the fire alarm panel, it’s discovered there is one less EOL than is necessary to complete the system. Knowing how to compute resistance when working with “foreign” resistors from other fire/burglar alarm systems or an outside source can mean the difference between a profitable day and one where technicians have to return to home base without a finished job.
In most cases, simply knowing what the EOL value should be will be enough for a counterman at a local electronics supply store or a Radio Shack® to make a substitution. But if the exact value of the EOL is not provided in the installation instructions, which is sometimes the case, knowing how to determine a resistor’s value can be crucial.
In some cases, it’s even possible to take several “foreign” resistors and place them in series/parallel in order to create the resistance needed to satisfy the fire alarm system. Although this could be a problem from a code perspective, electronically it will work just fine. But what does code say about this?
“Equipment constructed and installed in conformity with this Code shall be listed for the purpose for which it is used. Fire alarm system components shall be installed, tested, and maintained in accordance with the manufacturer’s published instructions and this Code (Section 4.3.1, NFPA 72, 2007 Edition).”
The most popular way to learn fire codes as well as the technology is the Internet. Online sources of fire training abound and most of them are free.