The fire alarm system is a life-safety system; people's lives depend on the system working. That is why you are testing the system, to make sure it works.
Science and Art
Testing is a science. It's guided by the National Fire Protection Association, Inc. (NFPA), by local laws that enforced by the fire marshal and other AHJs, and it's guided by the policies of the company you work for.
Testing is an art. It requires requiring a general idea of how a fire alarm system works, and also it requires the specific installation you're testing. The less specific information on the installation you're testing, the more you are guessing how it works. Guessing is the artistic part, and the artistic part is the hard part.
The idea, though, of testing a Fire Detection and Alarm System (FDAS) is to make sure all fires are detected, and when there is a fire, all occupants will be alarmed (Notified via sound and flashing lights). Most systems will also call the monitoring company (who calls the fire department), and will activate smoke and fire controls.
To accomplish the testing, every input device, like smoke detectors, pull stations, waterflow switches, etc. detects fire. When testing input devices, use what a fire uses:
- For smoke detectors, use at least canned smoke; fires don't carry magnets around with them
- For pull stations, remove the breakable glass, and as if you're running away from a fire, try to pull the pull station
Follow through, and make sure the input devices activate the output devices.
Look and Listen
Go around the building, listen to each horn or speaker, look at each strobe to see it flash. On addressable devices, don't trust internal microphones on horns and speakers, or internal photocells inside of strobes. Someone may have covered the device with a shelving unit, put tape over it to stop annoyances, or build a new wall over it. All of these have happened. Go, look and listen yourself.
Testing batteries is more of an art than a science. The batteries are meant to keep the fire alarm system working for 24 hours, and then still have enough power left over to support the output horns, strobes, and speakers for 5 minutes or 15 minutes.
Unless you are willing to turn off the utility power to the whole fire alarm system, wait 24 hours, and then sound the alarms in the whole building for 5 minutes or 15 minutes, you will not find a totally accurate method of testing batteries. Remember, when performing this kind of a test, you have to do a complete walk-through of the building to make sure all of the horns, strobes, and speakers work for the entire testing period.
As an alternative, you have to decide on a method of battery testing, get used to what you are receiving as a result, and decide whether the batteries are good or bad from there.
Remember, though, there are some absolutes.
- Batteries are good for an average of 5 years: half of the batteries won't last 5 years, half of the batteries will last more than 5 years. No one knows how long a particular battery will last. It's also important to remember that the 5 years starts from the date of manufacture, not from the time it was installed.
- All batteries have to be replaced after 4 years in service. You never know how long the battery sat on a shelf between the time of manufacture and the time it was put in service.
- Some fire alarm companies require that the batteries are replaced after 3 years in service.
- Some locations require that the batteries are replaced every other year.
- Batteries have to be matched pairs. The matched pairs have to be using the same manufacture and the same date-code. If the batteries are not matched pairs, one will be weaker than the other, and discharge quicker.
There is a science to understanding each building's fire alarm system, but there is an art, also.
Because buildings are so varied, there is no single source that fully describes a fire alarm system that works with all buildings. Unless you have the current as-built blueprints with you as you test, you have to make guesses for many parts of the fire alarm system.
The good part about guessing is that each time you make a guess, and confirm that the guess is accurate, you build up your personal database of fire alarm systems.
Disabling Parts of the Fire Alarm System for Testing
Almost every fire alarm system you test will be partially disabled during the test.
Without disabling, a truly accurate method of testing is to:
- Pull a manual pull station
- Walk though the building to make sure all horns, strobes, and speakers activate, and stay activated for the entire test period
- Check all fire doors, make sure they shut
- Check to make sure air handlers shut down, if they're supposed to
- Check to make sure fire and smoke dampers close, if they're supposed to
- Go out to the parking lot to see how long it takes for all the occupants to leave
- While in the parking lot, see how long it takes for the fire department to arrive
- Reset everything
Do this procedure again for each and every pull station, smoke detector, heat detector, waterflow switch, etc. in the building. Not many people will put up with the repeated alarms.
Let's be realistic.
Start disabling parts of the whole system.
- Put the system on-test with the monitoring company so they don't take the action of calling the fire department. But, at some point in the test, make sure they have received alarms
- Talk to the building manager to the manager notifies the occupants they don't have to leave. A several days' notice before you arrive might be helpful, and some sort of announcement over the fire alarm speakers might also be helpful.
- Follow you company procedures on silencing the horns, strobes, and speakers
There is one important thing to remember, though, about disabling parts of the system while testing. "The more you disable; the less you are testing."
The art of testing is knowing what can and what can't be disabled. Make sure you're comfortable with disabling any part of the system.
Remember, you are testing a Life-Safety Fire Detection and Alarm System. Make sure all fires will be detected, all occupants will be notified of the alarm, the system takes action to protect from smoke and fire, and the fire department can be notified.