Is my fire protection system really fully operational?
How many of us ever notice the smoke detectors, sprinklers and various other fire protection equipment, when walking through a shopping centre? Or maybe in the old age residence where your grandparents might be residing? Or in your office building? And if you do happen to notice it, ever wondered if they work the way they’re supposed to?
Chances are, these are questions that most people don’t even think to ask. Most of us just assume that we would be safe in the event of a fire, and that everything that is intended to keep us that way, actually works.
But the truth is, this is not always the case. I was recently walking through a quite well-known mall, and noticed several manual call points that had somehow been triggered and not reset (for those that are unfamiliar with the term, it’s the little red boxes where you press a button to alert someone in the case of a fire).
I emailed the relevant people at the mall detailing this, and offered our services to do a routine check on their fire protection equipment. Shockingly, the only response I received, was a curt “Not interested”.
I couldn’t help but wonder what the response would be if the worst came to worst and a fire actually broke out, as it did at the Broadacres Lifestyle Centre in Fourways in 2013. Fortunately, no one was seriously injured in that particular incident. But in a place where the fire protection is not up to standard, the results could be catastrophic.
A fire protection system – no matter how well it was designed – if not properly installed, inspected, tested and maintained, is a life safety concern that cannot be overlooked. Fire alarm systems are expected to help protect people, property, and assets. But you can’t tell if they’re fully operational just by looking at them. As with any other system, electronics and other components can degrade over time and compromise the system’s operation. Dust, dirt, and other contaminants can cause problems with smoke detectors.
Vandalism, remodelling, and improper maintenance procedures can also damage fire protection equipment. The good news is that with proper testing, inspection, and maintenance you can keep your fire alarm system at optimum operating performance. In addition to ensuring protection, keeping your system in good condition reduces expenses by preventing unbudgeted emergency repairs and costly false alarms.
Faulty, corroded and improperly installed equipment
Where to start
Knowing the system’s age and maintenance history helps you determine the steps you must take to maintain its operational readiness.
Systems under five years old should require little effort to maintain. In systems so young, problems are usually due to marginal installation like improper grounding or environmental factors like voltage fluctuations. Periodic system testing and inspection by qualified specialists can detect many such problems.
Systems between five and ten years old may experience component breakdown caused by harsh, but normal, environmental factors. Voltage fluctuations, temperature, and humidity may cause system failure or nuisance alarm problems.
Control panel with fault message and offline detectors
Systems between ten and fifteen years old can still provide appropriate life-safety response. However, systems in this category need close attention, even with proper maintenance procedures in place. If the system has had a history of poor maintenance or none at all, it’s likely that failure of components and improper monitoring of system components will occur.
Systems approaching 20 years of age may be beyond their technological life expectancy. The system may continue to work satisfactorily if properly maintained, but you need testing and inspection by trained specialists to ensure proper system response will occur in an emergency.
The maintenance activities for fire alarm systems can be summed up in five steps.
1. Test and calibrate alarm sensors, such as flame and smoke detectors, per manufacturer specifications. This requires knowing about the different sensors – and their testing requirements, failure modes, and re-installation requirements.
2. Simulate inputs and test the annunciators. This requires specific knowledge of the system under test.
3. Set sensitivity. This requires an understanding of the particular system, the specific application, and fire detection theory.
4. Coordinate with fire department to test the input to their system.
5. Check the battery for corrosion and expiration date, then take appropriate action, if necessary.
These steps seem simple enough, provided you have the knowledge. However, that knowledge is useless if you don’t pay absolute attention to detail. Experience shows that maintenance technicians under pressure to keep production equipment running, often overlook important details because “nothing is broken.”
In addition to system age, you must consider budget and staffing resources. Does your staff have the time and expertise to properly maintain this critical life-safety system? Will it be more cost-effective to have the manufacturer’s service organization or a contractor specialising in fire alarms perform the maintenance? The most stringent standards and guidelines are meaningless unless the people performing the inspection, testing, and maintenance are knowledgeable and qualified to service the fire alarm system.
Facility maintenance people usually don’t possess the experience and knowledge found in manufacturer’s service technicians, whose daily work revolves around fire alarm system technology in a variety of environments and circumstances. Some facilities have answered this problem by sending their people to factory-sponsored training courses. This approach works, if done on an ongoing basis.
You can get around the training dilemma by using a factory service agreement. These can range from a basic on-call agreement to regularly scheduled service visits. This service usually provides response within the specified time, along with repair and replacement of equipment. For most facilities, contracting out that function makes sense.
Before you sign a maintenance agreement, though, ensure technicians are certified by the South African Quality Control (SAQCC) and Fire Detection Installers Association (FDIA) and specialize in life safety. The above certification indicates thorough knowledge of system installation and life cycle inspection, testing, and maintenance protocols.
As stated before, the best-designed fire alarm system can be rendered ineffective if improperly maintained. When pinched by budgets, it’s tempting to take the risk that a fire won’t happen and delay responsible decisions about your fire protection until the next quarter. You must ensure your fire protection system operates properly, even if that means dipping into other budgets.
Aftermath of a devastating fire
Adequate fire protection should be everyone’s concern. If you are not the person authorised to make the decisions, please pass it on to the person who is.
Using intelligent and appropriate fire protection systems that conforms to ASIB, SANS, NFPA, BS & EN standards, and maintaining them as required, will:
• Protect your business by preventing a possible fire from spreading.
• Ensure insurance pay-out should a fire break out.
• Protect your workforce from their own and other people’s mistakes by having a suitable fire extinguishing system in place.
• Keep you from losing contracts with business partners due to fire spreading uncontrollably and damaging your delivering abilities.
• Protect your inventory by being able to kill fires before they spread.
• Ensure your fire protection system don’t just look good, but is suitable for your specific environment and the demands of your mine / factory / business.
• Prevent expensive lawsuits (also with unions) by minimising the chance of fire-related injuries to your workforce.
At Secutron Fire & Integrated Systems, we specialise in the design, supply, installation, commissioning and maintenance of both electrical and mechanical fire and related security systems & equipment. For more information on and/or assistance with your fire protection system, please contact us on +27 12 997 3139.
1. http://ecmweb.com /content/fire-alarm-system-testing-inspection-and-maintenance
2. http://www.csemag.com/ single-article/testing-smoke-management-systems