Jarret Van Berkom (pictured) of Electro Watchman in St. Paul, Minn., wonders whether placing a fire alarm panel ahead of all else is legal, and what the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has to say about it.
"We have a lot of apartment and office buildings that are connecting elevator emergency phones to the same phone lines as the fire alarm. They have the fire alarm ahead of the elevator phone so there is no problem with it interrupting the fire alarm signal. But what happens when the fire alarm goes off and seizes the line to send alarms? The people in the car are left without phone service."
The predicament above was brought to us by Jerret Van Berkom of Electro Watchman in St. Paul, Minn. He is asking if the issue of placing the fire alarm panel ahead of all else is legal, and what the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has to say about it.
This month, we'll take a closer look at the issue of digital alarm communication transmitter (DACT) requirements. We'll also look at how something as critical as an elevator telephone might be dealt with in the field.
Topic Taps Uncharted Territory
First, let me say that the issue of an elevator phone and a fire alarm DACT is all too common. I'm actually amazed this issue has never occurred to me before receiving Van Berkom's E-mail. At the same time, I'm not the only one in the industry who was caught off-guard with this question.
The first thing I did was contact NFPA's public affairs arm. I was promptly put in contact with Lee Richardson, the organization's staff liaison, who was just as baffled by this inquiry as I was.
"You may be on to an entirely new question that has yet to surface," he told me in a phone conversation. "Let me check the code set that covers elevator issues and I'll get back with you."
Richardson called me back in a few hours with the news: "There is nothing in NFPA or other code sets that tell us what to do."
His immediate response to the dilemma at hand was to suggest the use of a separate phone line. Of course, that is not always going to be a satisfactory solution to this problem, especially when there are only two phone lines on premises and the owner has no intentions of adding another one.
What NFPA Codes Indicate
The first place we must look when there's a code question such as this is NFPA 101, Life Safety Code. Another important code set is NFPA 72, National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code, 2010 Edition.
Section 188.8.131.52.1.1, NFPA 72, says, "A DACT shall be connected to the public switched telephone network (PSTN) upstream of any private telephone system at the protected premises."
In other words, the elevator telephone must be connected after the fire alarm panel DACT, which means that when the fire alarm panel is dialing and communicating, someone trapped in the elevator will not be able to get help through the use of the elevator emergency telephone.
To further illustrate the problem, Section 184.108.40.206.1.3(A) says, "DACT shall be configured so that, when it is required to transmit a signal to the supervising station, it shall seize the telephone line (going off-hook) at the protected premises and disconnect an outgoing or incoming telephone call and prevent use of the telephone line for outgoing telephone calls until signal transmission has been completed. A DACT shall not be connected to a party line telephone facility."
Some Reasonable Solutions
NFPA's Richardson made several suggestions, many of which alarm companies already follow.
"One solution is to use a third phone line," he recommends. And where there are only two telco landlines present, he suggests that cellular be used as a secondary means of communication for the DACT. In some cases, a single cellular unit will qualify for both primary and secondary paths.
Using cellular for telco 2 will essentially free up the second landline. In this case, the second landline can then be used to connect the elevator emergency phone to the PSTN.
"I would be in favor of using the second phone line for the primary elevator emergency phone," says Bradley Howard, a Columbus, Ohio-based NICET Level IV fire alarm technician. "The new NFPA 72, 2010 edition, does have some provisions that allow the designer to set priorities to the various life-safety needs. This situation most likely being people stuck in an elevator, I'd consider that to be an emergency to protect people first, then the building, then property."
What Howard is suggesting is that the elevator emergency phone be allowed to remain ahead of the fire alarm panel DACT on telco 2 using a line seizure relay that connects to the elevator phone.
Al Colombo is an award-winning writer who has covered electronic security and life safety since 1986. Visit his Web site at www.alcolombo.info, and check out his Security Sense blog.