Getting Full Value and Safety From Fire Alarm Verifications

One of the most important points in the life safety cycle of a building is the verification of the Fire Alarm System as required after building construction or additions to the fire alarm system. Unfortunately, it is also one of the most misunderstood processes in that cycle by designers, installers, technicians and owners. This lack of understanding by those responsible creates significant problems for building and fire safety codes officers and may endanger the public.

One of the reasons for this concern is that the fire alarm system is almost invisible and is therefore taken for granted by most occupants or users. If a building was commissioned and occupied without a working plumbing, heating, electrical, or data system, the occupants would quickly complain. When the keystone life safety system in a building is not operating or not fully functional, few people, beyond perhaps the building operator, will necessarily be aware.

Verification of the fire alarm system happens at the end of the construction schedule. At this time, there is often significant pressure from the general contractor, the coordinating professional, the owner, tenants, and others to get into the building, and the fire alarm verification process is seen as an obstacle rather than the critical quality, reliability and effectiveness control process it is meant to be. Too often the professional engineer or their representative, the fire alarm technicians, and the electricians are pushed to “just get it over with.” This pressure, sometimes compounded by the costs of verification being underpriced in the original bid process, can potentially result in a rushed verification. A rushed job can mean that shortcuts are taken, and that assumptions are made and then improperly translated into “facts” in the verification report, which may then be signed and sealed by a professional engineer and submitted to the Building SCO as part of the required schedules. If the professional engineer doesn’t review the verification report in detail, these “rushed facts” are not evaluated and the critical life safety system in the building—a system which, when designed, installed, and verified properly, would have a reliability and effectiveness rate of over 99 per cent—can no longer be relied upon to the same degree.

In short, the fire alarm installation and verification process is designed with checks and balances specifically because these systems are critical. If everyone does their job well, successful systems are virtually guaranteed. If somebody misses any of their responsibilities, systems will fail, problems will be created, and in the worst possible extreme scenario, people may die. A documented instance when these errors and omissions have occurred placed sleeping residents in significant danger and resulted in ongoing legal action. Fortunately no one was injured during this event.

The expectation of the Safety Codes Act, the Alberta Building Code 2006, and CAN/ULC-S537-04 “Verification of Fire Alarm Systems” is that the forms laid out in Appendix C have been followed and completed exactly, and in their entirety. This is what the Building SCO, who is the AHJ (authority having jurisdiction), anticipates and expects. They may not always go through a verification report line by line to make sure those who prepared and approved the report did not delete, alter, or modify anything. They may reasonably rely upon and accept the work of those responsible in good faith and at face value. Only if everyone completes the entire report without modifying will it meet the legal requirements set out by the Safety Codes Act and the Alberta Building Code (and sometimes the Alberta Fire Code).

Unfortunately, some companies, engineers, and technicians seem to be of the belief that they can alter or modify the forms in Appendix C. Altering the forms in any way that changes wording or order, or that eliminates any section, creates a violation of the Safety Codes Act and a potential liability to those involved.

However, if a company sets up a template on its own letterhead which covers everything in Appendix C, with the exact wording, referencing, and sequencing, and does the same for Building Code STANDATA 06-BCI-001-R1 Appendix A, again with the exact same information, wording, referencing, and sequencing, those forms would be acceptable when fully and completely filled out by, and under, the direction of the professional engineer and then signed and stamped by that professional engineer. The template must not change or remove anything.

While it is understood that the professional engineer does not usually directly “perform” the verification (and should not be operating the fire alarm equipment unless qualified to do so), it is expected that they direct and supervise the verification, preferably on site or through a competent and qualified person, and that they review the results and confirm all documentation prior to creating and submitting the full report and certificate to the Building SCO or through the coordinating professional. The owner is required to receive a copy of the report as well, which is required to remain available on site, for review by SCOs and service personnel, for the life of the fire alarm system.

Any changes, reordering, omissions, and inconsistencies from the required format that are made by those responsible, and the resulting non-compliance with code requirements and expectations, are not the responsibility of the Safety Codes Officer to find or fix. The responsibility for compliance lies with those who conduct and sign off on the verification on behalf of the owner.

Verification reports are usually accepted by SCOs in good faith, without reviewing them in detail, based upon the assumption and reasonable expectation that the professional engineer submitting the verification report has confirmed that that all the required work has been completed and it has all been fully recorded on all the correct forms. The importance of the engineer’s involvement here cannot be overstated.

The Safety Codes Officer needs to ensure that they are asking for and receiving a full and complete verification report for themselves and their employer which evidences the proper completion of required work and documentation by the responsible individuals. Those who conduct verifications are encouraged to focus on the importance that the safety codes system places upon their work, so that the overall state and quality of verification of fire alarm systems in Alberta can be increased. Fire alarm systems are the primary life safety systems in many buildings. Ensuring that they are verified properly will better assure the safety of all Albertans.