Fire Side Chat: Get With the Program to Be a True Life-Safety Pro

As in other professions entailing a high level of skill, toiling in fire/life safety demands practitioners adhere to a well-defined and stringent set of regulations, codes and guidelines. Whether you plan to design, install or service systems, find out what is expected.

You would expect when you visit a physician that he or she has the training and qualifications required of a medical doctor. The same is true if you should need the services of a lawyer or an accountant. Well it’s no different for those who work within the automatic fire alarm community. While they may have started doing intrusion detection, a large number of alarm contractors have branched into other venues, including fire.

While it is possible to purchase fire alarm control units, smoke/heat detectors and notification appliances from a number of distributors, one still needs to process the technical training and qualifications for the installed system to work as intended. Being an electrical contractor or low-voltage systems contractor does not in itself equate to having the required knowledge to install an automatic fire detection system. The same is true for those who design systems. Being a degreed engineer and passing an examination as a professional engineer does not mean the individual is competent in the design of fire and life-safety systems.

NFPA 72, National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code, 2010 edition, provides the minimum qualifications required for the design, installation, servicing, testing and inspection of fire alarm systems. This month, we get into the nitty-gritty of it all.

What Is Required of System Designers

NFPA 72’s Section 10.4 Personnel Qualifications offers most, if not all, of the answers anyone serious about being successful in the fire/life-safety systems business needs to know. Let’s dig into the three areas within this section:

10.4.1 System Designer — Fire alarm system and emergency communications system plans and specifications shall be developed in accordance with this Code by persons who are experienced in the proper design, application, installation, and testing of the systems. — State or local licensure regulations shall be followed to determine qualified personnel. Depending on state or local licensure regulations, qualified personnel shall include, but not be limited to, one or more of the following:

1) Personnel who are registered, licensed, or certified by a state or local authority

2) Personnel who are certified by a nationally recognized certification organization acceptable to the authority having jurisdiction

3) Personnel who are factory trained and certified for fire alarm system design and emergency communications system design of the specific type and brand of system and who are acceptable to the authority having jurisdiction

Point 1 is generally for professional engineers (PE) registered by a state’s engineering board of registration. A PE refers to someone who is qualified to practice engineering by reason of their special knowledge and use of mathematical, physical and engineering sciences. This individual should also demonstrate the principles and methods of engineering analysis and design acquired by formal education and experience, with board-approved competence through licensure as a PE. However, the PE still needs to be competent within the field they practice. As such, being an electrical engineer does not necessarily mean that person has a working knowledge of automatic fire alarm systems.

In most states, the design of a system is performed by a PE. There are, of course, exceptions in which a contractor may perform a design-build installation. In this case, their contractor’s license would afford authority to perform the design, but not the know-how.

Point 2 generally refers to either the National Institute for Certification in Engineering Technologies (NICET) or International Municipal Signal Association (IMSA) certifications. NICET provides four levels of certification within its program for fire alarm systems. More info can be found at IMSA has a two-level certification program for Inside Fire Alarm. More info can be found at

Both of these programs should be reviewed by the designer to see if the certifications meet the designer’s and AHJ’s requirements to verify one’s understanding for the prescriptive design of fire alarm systems. Where performance-based design is concerned, a degree in fire protection engineering should be invoked.

The final point within Section pertains to the training a particular manufacturer may provide on its equipment. It is important for any system design that there is an understanding of the equipment being specified. But knowing the equipment does not relieve the designer of being accountable for the many requirements found within NFPA 72 concerning proper system design.

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About the Author


Shane Clary, Ph.D., is Security Sales & Integration’s “Fire Side Chat” columnist. He has more than 37 years of security and fire alarm industry experience. He serves on a number of NFPA technical committees, and is vice president of Codes and Standards Compliance for Pancheco, Calif.-based Bay Alarm Co.

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