Douglas Krantz - Technical Writer - Describing How It Works
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Can the Fire Alarm System be Fixed so It Can Be Heard?

I have a question about something


Greetings Douglas,

I live in a big old apartment building, built in 1924. It used to be an old hospital...creepy. Anyways, tonight our buildings fire alarm was pulled due to a couple on the top floor set their stove on fire. We (my 9yr old son, my senior mother, and myself) have the round battery-operated smoke detectors inside the apartment.

Outside in the halls are squared red box which sounds like a very loud duck/vibration sound.

Now back in my son n my bedrooms we didn't even hear the alarm in the hall. If it weren't for my mom sleeping in a made up bedroom (previously the dining area), my son and I wouldn't have been woken by fire alarm unit our own unit detectors would go off. Which in this old building could make it difficult to get out safely.

There is a rusty old fire escape but I'm not sure how safe it is.

I live in the state of Pennsylvania. Is my landlord responsible for a more efficient fire alarm system?

And who should I contact to make sure the fire escape is safe to exit on to? Do you have any tips or ideas to help us hear the buildings fire alarm?

I am eagerly awaiting your response. This has terrified us and we are looking into moving to a safer place. Thank you for your time.

Thank you, S G

The smoke alarm in your apartment is for your safety. It is there to get you to get out of the apartment while there is only a little smoke, before there is enough smoke in your apartment to injure you, or worse. The alarms out in the halls are there to warn you that somewhere else in the building, there is a fire.

It sounds like your fire alarm system was installed about the time that the building was made over into an apartment building. At that time, the system that was installed was the state of the art. Now we look back at that system and think that the decision was based on "Any-Fire-Alarm-System-is-Better-Than-No-Fire-Alarm-System".

The problem you're describing is a loss of sound as the sound goes though the walls from the halls outside the apartment, into the deep interior of the apartment.

The evil twin of Santa Claus is the Grandfather Clause. The Grandfather Clause says, paraphrased, "Even though many improvements keep being made to the laws and technology, you don't have to tear down your whole building and rebuild it every 15 years".

The fire alarm system, at least from the Grandfather Clause point of view, is just one little part of the whole building, and the whole building probably needs to be bulldozed in order to bring it up to current codes and laws regarding safety.

Next year, there will be changes to the ideas of the best way of making a safe building, and every three years after that there will be more changes to the best way of making a safe building. An apartment building constructed now may have to torn down and rebuilt in 20 or 30 years in order to meet the standards at that time.

Enough talk about the Grandfather Clause.

The person to talk to is the fire marshal of the city you live in. That is the person designated by the city government to oversee fire safety in general, and enforce fire safety laws.

The fire marshal can come to your building, check out the fire alarm system and fire escapes, write up a few pages of safety violations, and require that all of the violations have to be fixed in 30 days, with documentation. However, the fire marshal might be limited in what can be done.

The city building inspector might also be a person to talk to about fire escapes.

Getting enough sound from the building's fire alarm system into the bedrooms is a problem. Because of age of your fire alarm system, the wiring for the system has to be totally replaced, and extended, just to get the currently required sound into the bedrooms. Keep in mind that if there is a lack-of-sound problem in one bedroom, there is a lack-of-sound problem in all bedrooms in every apartment in the building. The whole building has to be upgraded in order to upgrade one apartment.

Depending on many factors, the cost of upgrading the fire alarm system to current standards, including getting enough sound to the bedrooms, is easily $100 to $400 per apartment for the entire building. Multiply $100 to $400 by the number of apartments in the building, and the cost goes into the hundreds of thousand of dollars. To get this money, the landlord (building owner) has to get it out of people's rent.

Talk to the fire marshal and building inspectors, though. They may have ideas that will be acceptable to the fire department, the building owner, and you.

Otherwise, the other option is to move to another building that has a newer fire alarm system, with sonders in each bedroom.

Douglas Krantz
Based on his electronics training, and his understanding of Life Safety, Douglas Krantz has compiled his knowledge of Conventional Fire Alarm Systems into the book Make It Work - Conventional Fire Alarms. The book covers the basics of the Conventional Fire Alarm System, and shows how Life Safety and internal supervision affects the fire alarm system.

Douglas Krantz -- Fire Alarm Engineering Technician, Electronic Designer, Electronic Technician, Writer

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