It’s Better Than It Was

We often hear people say “it’s better than it was” when talking about retrofitting alternative fire protection systems into existing buildings, but are these systems truly better or safer?

To answer this question, we must first acknowledge the fact that the International Building Codes (IBC) simply provides the national minimum requirements for a “…reasonable level of safety, public health and general welfare though structural strength, means of egress, stability, sanitation, adequate light and ventilation, energy conservation and safety to life and property from fire, explosion and other hazards. The scope of the code includes construction, alterations, relocations, enlargement, replacement, repair, removal and demolition of every building or structure, or any appurtenances connected or attached to such buildings or structures.” This is simply to ensure that all phases of construction meet a reasonable minimum degree of safety for buildings and those that occupy them.

While some alternatives are allowed by code, they are typically an independently designed variation to the standard of practice. These systems are often viewed as a cheaper option but often become problematic and more expensive in the long run than if we had simply installed to the original code requirements. Owners also struggle moving forward with push back and are quite often required to justify the liability of partially installed alternative systems, have additional requirements added later, or are simply required to install the originally required full systems.

Secondly, we must address the inspection testing and maintenance (ITM) side of existing fire protection systems. NFPA standards for ITM assume that fire protection systems meet those original minimum design standards at the time of construction and in turn only require a minimum level of ITM in order to assure a reasonable expectation of reliability. NFPA 25, The Standard for the Inspection, Testing, and Maintenance of Water-Based Fire Protection Systems does not require verification that the design of the systems is adequate and assumes that it met the minimum design standards at the time of construction. NFPA 72, The National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code is not to be used to require a level of performance that is greater than that which would otherwise be required by the applicable code, the minimum.

When we install fire protection system in buildings that do not meet the current code minimums, we set ourselves up for catastrophic events. Not only are we dealing with systems that do not meet the original minimum code requirements from the time of installation but now those systems lack the basic requirement for ITM. Currently we do not have an ITM standard that addresses alternative systems installed in buildings leaving the building owner, contractor and local Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ) without guidance. In those regions adopting NFPA 4, The Standard for Integrated Fire Protection and Life Safety System Testing, the owner might have to develop a plan for end-to-end system testing in some specific instances. This is also problematic and potentially more expensive for those existing buildings with alternative systems, as it would require an individual evaluation of the system prior to the development of that testing plan.

We must start to understand that the design and subsequent inspection, testing and maintenance of building fire protection systems is based on the understanding that they are installed to the current adopted minimums at the time of construction.

If we are unable to verify a reasonable expectation of reliability for safety, then it’s not better than it was.