Watch Your Language (and Fire Codes)!

Monitoring Matters columnist Kevin Lehan discusses the impact of NFPA 72 code revisions on authorities having jurisdiction (AHJs) and central stations.

The alarm industry needs to watch its language by participating in the evolution of governing fire codes and being careful about using the specific terms that represent what you actually mean.

Regarding fire-code development, the alarm industry missed a chance to secure private companies’ ability to compete for monitoring revenue from every type of commercial fire account.

At the June 25 National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) annual meeting in Chicago where final language for the 2016 edition of the NFPA 72, National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code was voted upon, language stating that listed central stations shall be permitted to receive alarm, supervisory and trouble signals was overturned by members with a vote of 142-80.

Private Sector Still at AHJs’ Mercy

The impact is that authorities having jurisdiction (AHJs) can still deny UL central stations from monitoring some commercial fire alarm systems. Often, the reason is that local governments operating Public Safety Answering Points (PSAP) provide monitoring service, and by denying entry into the market by private industry, they can create a monitoring monopoly in that jurisdiction. This is happening now in northern Illinois by some departments and could be implemented anywhere NFPA 72 is the fire code.

With greater industry participation in the NFPA code revision process, alarm contractors could have ensured themselves the chance to compete for business. However, members of the fire services that benefit from the ability to create monopolies outnumbered installers who came to vote.

This is a perfect example of why alarm contractors need to become more involved in NFPA code development. As an industry, we cannot sit on the sidelines any longer. Instead, we must participate in the process.

The day was not a total loss, however. For the first time, the words “listed central supervising station” are included in of NFPA 72. This makes it clear that UL-Listed central supervision stations are permissible under the code to provide this service.

Unfortunately, the final language does nothing to curtail the conflict of interest whereby the AHJ is both a market participant and the arbiter of the code.

Know Distinctions and Say What You Mean

Generically, most alarm contractors refer to the company that performs monitoring service for their subscribers’ systems as a “central station” but that term has a specific meaning in NFPA 72. More often than not, the term you should use is “supervising station,” which encompasses “central,” “remote” and “proprietary” station service.

A supervising station that meets the standard of UL 827 (Standard for Central Station Alarm Services) may perform “central station services,” which requires more stringent standards than remote station monitoring. One distinction between these two is that central station service is required to be controlled and operated by an entity that is contracted for installation, inspection, testing, maintenance and runner service. Conversely, remote monitoring service puts this onus on the system owner and does not require runner service.

This is a tremendously important distinction and one related to the code revision above whereby UL “listed central supervising stations” are specifically stated as being able to provide remote supervision service.

Oddly, UL central stations have been denied a chance to provide that service, which is a step below “central station service.” In fact, using the language of previous versions of NFPA 72 that did not specifically identify listed central supervising stations in, but instead used the term “alternate location approved by the authority having jurisdiction,” some AHJs only allow the government-operated PSAP to receive those signals.

Other AHJs take this a step further and require commercial fire-alarm system owners to either pay for the more extensive and expensive central station service or be monitored by the local PSAP that only provides remote station service. Again, this is a means to push a great majority of the market share to the government entity.

The remedy to this is to be cognizant of the NFPA revision process and the business impact of the language employed. Also, by using the correct terminology for the type of monitoring service you offer, you can make your subscribers aware of the local market conditions if governments overreach. Remember, those are tax-producing bodies and they can have quite an impact on how the government treats its local businesses.

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