How the Alarm Industry Can Raise the Bar to Properly Test Systems

Equipment, layout, wiring, transmission equipment, service and monitoring need to be tested together to ensure a “system” operates as intended.

A lot has been written recently about alarm equipment and how some of it has not tested reliably under adverse conditions. There is no question that testing equipment for its ability to act as intended when a situation occurs is very important. But what about the entire system — meaning: equipment, wiring and signal transmission — and whether the system of these interconnecting devices has been tested together?

It is a discussion that needs to be had.

Most equipment manufacturers have their equipment tested by a National Recognized Testing Laboratory (NRTL) such as UL, FM or ETL. The NRTL tests the equipment for both how the piece of equipment itself works as well as how it works with other equipment/wiring that would be used to make a system. Whether it’s a fire alarm system or a burglar alarm system, the devices need to be tested together to make sure the system operates as intended.

Meeting the Appropriate Standard

For instance, products manufactured by Honeywell, DMP and Bosch (to name a few) submit their products to a NRTL for “listing.” This listing gives assurances that the equipment tested meets the standard for the device. However, the manufacturers do not always “cross-list” their products with other equipment manufacturers products. So, a fire alarm system with a UL Listed control panel manufactured by Notifier probably won’t work with UL Listed smoke detectors manufactured by Edwards.

While both are UL Listed for their purpose, they weren’t tested together. So, what does this mean?

In order to ensure that a system is installed according to the applicable code and/or standard, the equipment used should be “Listed” together and a UL Certificate (or FM Placard) should be issued. By issuing a certificate to the property owner for a system — whether a commercial fire alarm system, a commercial burglar alarm system or even a residential system — the Listed alarm company is indicating that the system installed, as well as the ongoing service to be provided, meets the appropriate standard.

No one wants a third party overseeing their operation, but would you buy a stock in a company that didn’t have an audit by an accounting firm that issued an opinion that the financial statements fairly represent the financial condition of the company? Probably not.

Consider the NRTL the same as a public accounting firm for the alarm industry, the insurance industry and AHJs and that being Listed by a NRTL is their opinion that the company can provide the proper service under the standard.

How would the alarm industry be if all systems had to be certificated? Many would say they don’t want the expense; no one does. But more equipment would be needed, systems would be installed according to the national standard, fly by nights would be gone, false alarms would be reduced dramatically and the end user would get a system that works when it’s supposed to and not when it isn’t supposed to.

As an example, and not to show my age, about 30 years ago there was an industry meeting at UL’s headquarters in Northbrook, Ill., where, besides alarm companies, many insurance companies attended to hear about UL’s residential certificate program.

The thought was that insurance companies give discounts to homeowners with alarm systems if they get a letter saying they have an alarm system, so why not have that alarm system be certificated by the installer? The insurance companies would then have third-party oversight that the installing company put the system in according to the applicable standard and can give a bigger discount to those getting a certificated system (and a lesser amount or none to those systems without it).

What Licensing Doesn’t Do

While the highly protected risk group of businesses, such as jewelry stores and banks, have required certificated systems by the insurance industry for many years, basic burglar alarm systems have been installed and monitored in a manner that may not meet an applicable standard.

Doing this would have raised the bar for basic alarm services rendered and given the end user a system that was installed per the standard. Licensing by states is important to make sure that those who are in the alarm business aren’t criminals and have some proficiency with alarm systems. What licensing doesn’t do is to oversee the systems those companies install, service and monitor — which is why a NRTL overseeing the companies in the industry is important.

It’s understandable that in the past the alarm associations had been against promoting certificated systems as the “norm.” Whether this was due to their members not being able to meet the appropriate standard, not wanting the extra expense of getting Listed, or just not wanting a NRTL overseeing their operations is difficult to determine.

This said, while not pushing NRTLs, the industry associations remain a valuable resource and are doing well with education, licensing and awareness. It has always been my position that systems should be installed according to the appropriate codes and standards. If not required, it won’t happen. If required, the cost of UL Listing and certificates (which is not prohibitive) would be more than made up by the additional business for systems and service(s) needed to comply with certification.

It would be nice if both the industry associations and the NRTLs could work together on leveraging contemporary technology to take as much administration effort and cost out of the equation as possible, so that the benefits of NRTL Certification (like CPA financial oversight) can become the norm it should be.

The bottom line is that while it’s important to make sure the equipment works properly, it’s even more important to know that the system — consisting of equipment, layout, wiring, transmission equipment, service and monitoring — is done according to the appropriate codes and standards.


Richard Kleinman is President of AFA Protective Systems, a full-service fire and security systems provider with multiple locations spanning the entire Eastern U.S.

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