Douglas Krantz - Technical Writer - Describing How It Works

How Can I Feel More Secure when Working on Fire Alarms?

Bad things happen when you're testing any electronic system, which is why you're testing them. Mainly, let people, especially management, know that the fire alarm system can accidently go off. Then, when it does go off, no one is surprised.

How Can I Feel More Secure when Working on Fire Alarms?

How Can I Feel More Secure when Working on Fire Alarms?

Greetings Douglas,

I've read a lot of your articles trying to learn more about low voltage fire alarm. I wire for many of these systems, but I'm always a bit nervous in dealing with them. For instance, the proper way to put the system in test for a fire Department walk thru. What will put a panel in alarm, such as disconnecting existing horn strobes to relocate.

So in other words, what would you suggest to learn more about these systems to feel more secure in working on them.

Thank you, JA

To start with, you never go on site because someone wants to pay you to be social; you go on site either because something isn't working right (service), because the system has to be changed (installation), or the system has to be tested (with the fire department or normal annual testing).

Any of these situations can and will case the alarms to sound off, and if the monitoring company isn't told not to dispatch the fire department, the fire trucks will come. You also need to be aware that if there's problem with the system somewhere that you don't know about, even touching the door to the panel can set off the alarms. (It has happened.) Remember that you are there, not to be quiet, but to inspect or fix something.

The first thing you do when you arrive on site is to inform those in charge that you are there and that there is a real possibility that the alarms will sound off. Never sugar-coat the explanation, it always is a possibility. Let management know that sounding off the alarms can't always be helped, but you are going to try to prevent that alarm from sounding.

When those in authority know that the alarms could sound off, they won't get mad at you if the alarms sound off. Of course, they may then tell you to come back at a better time so there will be less disturbance.

Fire Department Walk Through

The fire department is there to see how the system works when they aren't there. The panel should be "green light" normal, everything working. Don't disable anything or put the system on test before the fire department arrives.

When the fire department arrives, make sure they know the system will dispatch the fire department; if they don't want that, they'll tell you to put the system on test with the monitoring company.

I have had a fire marshal walk out and not inspect the fire alarm system because the sprinkler company had the system on test with the monitoring company before the fire marshal arrived. He wanted the system to be operational for several hours to make sure the monitoring company would dispatch the fire department as if alarms were real. His opinion was that if they would respond differently if they suspected that they were being tested. Small monitoring companies are capable of doing that.

If the owner wants something disabled (you've talked to the owner when you first arrived), and the fire department doesn't want it disabled, get the owner and fire department together. Between them, some arrangement can be made because most people are reasonable.

Disconnecting Wires on an Active Fire Alarm System

Unless there is something wrong with the fire alarm system, disconnecting a wire should not cause anything to go into alarm.

Two things, however, can and sometimes do happen:
  • Something could be wrong with the system so disconnecting a wire does set off the system alarms, and here come the trucks
  • Like the rest of us, you accidently touch wires together which sets of the system alarms, and here come the trucks

Just assume that something will happen to set off the alarms, talk to management before touching anything, and put the system on test before touching anything.

Assume the Worst, it Probably Won't Happen

One time, three days after replacing a panel in an occupied apartment building, I was training the maintenance person on operating the new panel. Merely pressing the reset button caused the system to go into full alarm.

The maintenance person who was being trained was the only management is the building, so he was not mad at me for setting off the alarms. I had the system on test with the monitoring company before doing anything, so the fire department wasn't dispatched for the false alarm. I was then free to find the smoke detector that went into alarm.

OK, that happened one time. Most of the time something like that doesn't happen.

Remember, though, the fire alarm system is designed to get everyone's attention. Just talk to management on arrival, let them know there is always a remote possibility of alarms, and that you will do everything you can to prevent the alarms, but the alarms could go off while you're on site. If the fire department isn't there for a walk though, make sure the monitoring company won't dispatch them for a false alarm.


Also remember, if anything is put on test or disabled, you are personally responsible for life safety. If there is a real fire while anything is disabled, having talked to management helps a lot.

Also, if there's a real fire, you call the fire department.

Real fires rarely happen while you're there, but the possibility exists. Just keep these things in the back of your mind.

Talk to People

The procedures for disabling the fire alarm system are different for each situation. The big thing to remember when doing anything on the fire alarm system is to talk to everyone who has to take action when alarms sound off.

Douglas Krantz
Life Safety
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