The talk has gone on for decades toward establishing a set of minimum standards for the installation, servicing and make-up of electronic security systems. After years of effort, the vision of a security standard became a reality this summer, as the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) approved NFPA 731 — Standard for Electronic Premises Security Systems.
The 19-page standard covers the gamut of electronic security systems and installation — from the type of audible signals given off to how much space to place between wiring. The new standard has brought with it division in the industry, with seemingly every issue surrounding NFPA 731 having two sides.
The writers of the standard say it establishes an acceptable minimum of requirements for non-residential electronic security systems. Others say it sets unreasonable specifications that current equipment can’t handle.
Some say NFPA had no business establishing a non-fire standard, while others say NFPA’s standard-writing experience made it ideal to set a baseline for security systems.
Advocates say NFPA 731 will reduce the costs associated with false alarms. Detractors say it will increase the cost to the system, which will then be passed along to the end user. While the debate on NFPA 731 continues, it is moot when it comes to whether NFPA 731 will happen at all. NFPA 731 is here. NFPA’s standards committee announced its final approval on Aug. 11 and cleared the new standard for release.
The question now turns to how NFPA 731 will ultimately affect the alarm industry, and what electronic security professionals should know about it.
NFPA 731 could very well be for electronic security systems what NFPA 101 — Life Safety Code — has been for fire and life safety systems. In the works for nearly a decade, NFPA 731 covers just about every aspect of a commercial, industrial and government security system.
Evidence suggests it may take some time before cities and towns use 731 in their alarm ordinances, but there will be an immediate effect when it comes to the use of 731 for litigation purposes.
Opinions on 731 hit the extremes on both sides of the issue. It will be up to the dealer and integrator to look at the fine print of 731, listen to both sides of the issue and decide for themselves whether the new standard is fair and how they will deal with it.
In the short term, the arguments surrounding NFPA 731 will continue. In the long term, it will shape the work of just about every person who has something to do with electronic security systems.
Drive for Standards Began With Insurance Agencies
Like NFPA itself, the genesis of NFPA 731 was in the insurance industry.p Allan Apo, a manager of engineering and safety services with Insurance Services Inc., first proposed to NFPA in 1994 that it establish a premises security code.p Apo, who has worked on standards for UL and NFPA for more than 30 years, says he went to NFPA — which was started in 1896 by a group of insurance firms — because he was frustrated by what he says was the snail’s pace of the security industry and its representative associations to establish standards of their own. p “I proposed to them, ‘Look, no one else wants to touch the security area. Maybe this is something you should look at,’” Apo says. “The insurance industry has had a problem with premises security lawsuits.”
Both Sides Want People to Read Fine Print of 731
Those who support NFPA 731 and those who don’t both say the same thing: Read the fine print.
“The standard as it is now will affect the security industry from the smallest individual to the largest manufacturers,” says Scot Colby, NBFAA president. “People need to read this and understand it. The small dealer is now told what type of contact to use and how to wire it.”
At the same time, Shane Clary, who chaired the task group that drafted NFPA 731, says many are misinterpreting the content of the document.
“The problem is a lot of these people don’t know how to read code,” says Clary, vice president of code and standard compliance for alarm service provider Bay Alarm Inc. of Pacheco, Calif. “If required, the system shall be certified. It doesn’t say it is required. I urge people to read the fine print.”
People can read the draft of 731 for themselves at www.nfpa.org and type “NFPA 731” in the search area.
Isaac Papier, who until early this year was general manager of UL’s Security & Signaling business unit, says dealers shouldn’t make up their minds on which side they lean until they look through the document themselves (see the box on page 34 pf the September issue for excerpts from NFPA 731).
“When you turn that rock over, look at it carefully and see what it means,” says Papier, now the vice president of Industry Relations for Honeywell Life Safety in St. Charles, Ill. “If I were a dealer out there and saw this change coming, one of the most important things to do would be to examine it and not react negatively.”
Minimum Standards Set for Specifications, Training
It’s not that there is a lack of unity when it comes to the need for a standard. Friend and foe of NFPA 731 alike say the alarm industry needs minimum standards. It’s just that some don’t like the way 731 was put together.
“NBFAA wanted the standard to be done, but it needed to be done correctly,” says Colby. With more than 23,000 words and 19 pages, it would likely take all the pages of this magazine to go over the details, and the pros and cons, of each standard in NFPA 731. However, there are a few subchapters that stick out.
In a nutshell, NFPA 731 contains specifications for cabling, camera positions and access control; mandates training for installer and end user; and urges more verification of alarms before police are dispatched. One of the more controversial chapters involves the marking and labeling of wires to ease the servicing of the system by another party than the one that installed the system.
“If the person who installs the system is no longer available, how does the system get serviced?” says 731 committee member John Lombardi, president of Continental Instruments and Alarm Systems Inc. of Poughkeepsie, N.Y. “The marking of wires are just common sense to make it easier for the customer.”
However, the marking of cords controlling security and other portions of the new standard has some wondering if 731 gives criminals a blueprint for how to break into a system.
“The municipality will need to have a copy of the security plan on file and some people can go in and get a copy of plans,” says Norman Dayton, president of Dayton Security Inc. of Hoysington, Kan. “If a burglar wants to go through that trouble, they could understand what security is there.”
Clary responds that professional criminals likely already know the ins and outs of most systems and 731 isn’t going to tell them anything people already know. He has a strong reaction when asked whether he thinks 731 is a guide for criminals.
“That’s B.S.,” Clary says. “There’s nothing in the standard that says anything about circumventing the system.”
Some Take Issue With NFPA Writing Security Standards
For many, the issue with NFPA 731 isn’t in the standards being set, but in who is setting them.
While NFPA has been making an effort to expand beyond its beginnings in fire and life safety, it nevertheless is known more for being an association dealing with fire systems.
“They’re stretching the influence they have on fire by getting into burg,” says Norm Mugford, owner and operator of AlarmPro Inc. in Daytona Beach, Fla. “There is a necessity for some kind of burg requirements, but I don’t think NFPA should be in the burg alarm business.”
NFPA’s Richard Bielen, who served as the staff liaison for the 731 committee, points out NFPA has sponsored the National Electrical Code since 1911, which covers more than fire systems. He also says the members of the committee were representative of those who know about electronic alarm systems.
"The NFPA doesn't write the standards, we go to experts in the industry," Bielen says.
Clary says the NFPA took up a security standard because nobody else did. While some efforts have been made by ASIS Int'l and NBFAA to set up minimum standards, Clary says none of them seem to have gotten anywhere. "Why NFPA? That's a fair statement, but none of those other groups were doing anything."
Nevertheless, the NBFAA's Colby, an NFPA member himself, says a majority of NFPA members who ultimately voted on whether to accept 731 weren't in the alarm industry. He also takes issue with the fact a person had to pay the $210-plus cost to attend the NFPA Expo in Las Vegas in order to have the right to vote in the first place.
"I compare it to an auto mechanic doing brain surgery. The guys from NFPA, some of them dealt with liquefied natural gas, a guide for rooftop construction, standards for vehicle transportation," Colby says. "If the NFPA is going to write security standards, they need to restrict the vote to the security industry."
Immediate Effects of 731 Might Not Be So Immediate
What will be the immediate effects of NFPA 731? Many say few if any.
For 731 to be effective, it needs to be adopted as part of ordinances by towns, cities and states. While it has certainly made a lot of noise among those who watch standards and the alarm industry, the public at large and government leaders have little knowledge that NFPA 731 even exists.
Oxnard, Calif., Police Cmdr. Tom Chronister, profiled previously in Security Sales & Integration for his efforts to work with the alarm industry to prevent false alarms (see page 58 of April 2004 issue), says dealers fearing cities coming down on alarm companies armed with 731 should remember how government works - slowly.
"It's that whole bureaucracy you have to address. Someone is going to have to inspect these systems," Chronister, a member of the 731 committee, says. "I don't think this thing is ready for prime time. I would be surprised if any city adopts this in the first year."
When the day comes that city governments do consider implementing 731, Dayton says the fight won't be over. "731 has been passed by NFPA, but I dare say for localities there will be a fight for it being adopted," says Dayton who adds alarm companies will likely go to court, claiming 731 is unfair to their businesses. "As president of the Kansas Burglar and Fire Alarm Association, I will make sure it doesn't go into effect here."
Lawyers Have New Weapon Thanks to New Standard
Another immediate effect of NFPA 731 will be toward liability. Lawyers for insurance companies will now have a document to present in court that shows the minimum standards installers are supposed to go by.
"If something happens and I'm taken to court, I can use this document and say, 'Did you do this?'" says Insurance Services' Apo. "This is something that every responsible businessman should be doing. These are minimum standards." Also eager to use 731 will be those representing people suing alarm companies over what they say are shoddy installations. A dealer's financial future may ride on whether it can prove it abided by 731 in civil court. At the same time, 731 could be a plus for dealers that strive to perform the best practices, and for building owners being sued for not providing enough security.
"It actually does provide liability protection for the owner, as he is able to show that the security he provided was in conformance with an established standard," says Papier.
New Rules May Dictate Rise in Cost of Systems
There is a difference of opinion concerning what NFPA 731 will mean for the costs of systems.
Opponents of the standard say compliance will cause manufacturers to increase the cost of their products. That trickles down to increased costs for the dealer and, in turn, higher prices for the end user.
"The costs will be such that clients may stop having an alarm system altogether," says Dayton. "Customers will decide a system is too expensive so there will be less electronic security out there. If this code was enforced, my business would be seriously affected."
At the same time, Papier says dealers will actually see more profits because dealers can cite 731 to encourage end users not to cut any corners on security.
"It's not one of those games where the dealer has to struggle to convince the end user that this is what is needed. Now he can say, 'This is the code, this is what the code says you need to do," Papier says.
Reducing False Alarms One of the Prime Drivers
With the concerns about costs, Clary says many are losing the big picture of what NFPA 731 is about. He says the goal of creating minimum standards for the installation and operation of alarm systems is to try to reduce false alarms.
"I'm not worried about costs. I'm worried about getting rid of false alarms," Clary says. "If you're not worried about false alarms, you shouldn't be in this industry."
While he takes issue with 731 because of NFPA's involvement, Mugford, who besides leading AlarmPro serves as vice chairman of Florida's electrical contractors licensing board, says he feels a responsibility as a dealer to help reduce false alarms and increase system reliability. He says many in the alarm industry have been too resistant to deal with the false alarm problem.
"Any change that's good for the public will be fought by the industry," Mugford says. "The industry needs to change. If we don't protect police false dispatches, they won't protect us."
As a public safety officer himself, Chronister says his sole reason for helping shape 731 was to reduce false alarms. He says that doesn't mean he was looking to put the cuffs on the alarm industry.
"I don't want to see America go away from responding to alarms, but that's what will happen if we don't change the tide," Chronister says. "False alarms are killing the industry. If it requires a standard, then so be it. You've got to try it because everything else has been tried."
Short-Term Debate Is Over: NFPA 731 Here to Stay
Clary compares the current debate over NFPA 731 to the debate among fire alarm installers and manufacturers when Life Safety Code was in its infancy more than 40 years ago.
"The same concerns were raised then that you hear now," he says. "The last time I checked, the fire alarm industry is doing very well."
The Standard for Electronic Premises Security Systems is in its infancy. It will take at least one revision cycle to be refined to a point where it may not make everyone happy, but it will be fairer.
Just as it took time for Life Safety Code to take hold, it will take time for the word to be spread on NFPA 731. That gives dealers, integrators and manufacturers time to do what they can to adhere to it, but there should be no illusions that anything can keep 731 from happening. That process is over.
"731 is not going away. In the second edition, some requirements may be lessened and others added. The committee is not against making changes as long as it makes sense," Clary says. "If anyone thinks NFPA is going to let this die, I have a bridge to sell them in Brooklyn."