Douglas Krantz - Technical Writer - Describing How It Works

Do I Have to Test All the Detectors?

By Douglas Krantz | Maintenance | 10 minutes of reading

To see if all input devices and all output devices work, all input and output devices have to be tested

Greetings Douglas,

I work in a hospital. We have 8 Fire alarm panels, all are interconnected, and total of 5000 smoke detectors, 500 multi-sensors, 50 duct detectors, and 35 beam detectors.

According to NFPA 72 code, we have to test the fire alarm system annually. In this huge facility, do we have to test each and every sensor in all rooms and floors, one by one in building? Or else, can we just test the fire alarm system's working condition, and the interface components annually?

Can we test randomly one or two detectors on each floor, and verify the interface components are connected to fire alarm system annually?

Please help me understand. Do we have to test each every one of the 5000 sensors, or can we schedule the annual testing of fire alarm system, using one or two sensors and an MCP [Manual Call Point or Pull Station]?

Thank you, SM

To quote the State Fire Marshal in Minnesota USA, "If it aint on paper, it didn't happen." I've done a lot of servicing in a hospital about as large as you describe, and I've seen how the issue of testing has been taken care of.

Reasons for Testing

There are two reasons to test every detector, call point or pull station, waterflow switch, horn, chime, strobe, and anything else connected to the fire alarm system, one at a time. One of the reasons is that's what the regulators want, and the other reason is to provide documentation to protect yourself from liability. Both of the reasons, however, are based on Life-Safety and Property Protection concerns. (There's really a third reason - that's to make sure everything actually works. Isn't that the real reason to test the devices?)

When considering what needs to be tested to make sure the Fire Detection and Alarm System works, keep in mind that the input devices do all the detecting, and the output devices do all of the alarming and protection from fires. The whole rest of the system, like panels and building wiring, is support equipment.

Regulating Agencies

Hospitals, at least in the United States, have several agencies that oversee the fire alarm systems.
  • The local and state fire departments
  • Joint Commission - an agency that accredits hospitals
  • CMS - Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services - they pay for Medicare patients, so they are interested
  • Insurance Companies - they deal with damage to property and liability issues

All of these agencies are concerned with the fire alarm system, and they all get guidance from the NFPA. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) is concerned with protection from fires.

The concern that these agencies have is not that some of the detection devices work, so they can know some fires will be detected; the concern that these agencies have is that all of the detection devices work, so they can know all fires will be detected. The agencies don't consider that a good sample of devices completely shows that all the devices work.

The same is true of fire horns, chimes, and strobes, all horns, chimes, and strobes. All of them have to be tested to know that all of them work.

Also, everything else has to be tested annually to make sure everything, and not just some of it, works.


In the place you're describing, testing will take at least 1000 man-hours each year. That's a lot of work. The testing includes your CYA required documentation.

Yes, I know. Absolutely no one will ever read the paperwork: until there's a large fire and people get hurt. At that time, if it had been documented that you did your job and tested everything, they might just let you off the hook. As you test, take your time and document that you are testing everything.

Life Safety - Detect and Warn

All fire alarm systems are there to detect fire and warn people of the fire. A fire can break out anywhere, so every means of detection has to be tested everywhere. People can be anywhere, so every means of warning has to be tested everywhere.

Everything else has to be tested, because if something fails during a fire, there is a chance that a failure will be the cause of the fire getting out of control, or someone getting injured, or worse. Basically, everything has to be tested.

Magnet Testing of Smoke Detectors and Heat Detectors

Another issue that many people have with testing is whether to use magnets or canned smoke when testing. Some manufacturers even include a method to test smoke and heat detectors using magnets.

The agencies, though, know that fires don't carry magnets around in their back pockets. They want smoke detectors to be tested with smoke, and resettable heat detectors to be tested with heat.

As a matter of fact, I have found an entire building's worth of smoke detectors (about 30 smoke detectors) that worked fine with magnets, but would not detect smoke, no matter how much canned smoke I used. If you want to test to see if a smoke detector will detect smoke, you have to use smoke.

As far as testing heat detectors go, trying to use a heat gun on the heat detectors will just melt and destroy the detectors. Use an inexpensive hair dryer instead. It is designed not to burn people, but on the high setting, it does set off the heat detectors without melting them.


As far as scheduling the testing, the issue isn't that everything is tested during a specific week or month each year, the issue is that during the year, everything is tested.

The hospital I serviced tested their system on a schedule. Basically, the hospital was divided into 12 sections, and one section was tested in January each year, the next section was tested in February each year, etc., in a sequence, until every device was tested. The testing divisions didn't change from year to year, so each device was tested during the same month annually.

If you divide up the testing so everything is tested during the year, make sure you write down how you have it divided. Then the next year you can test everything the next year in the same order. This will become part of the documentation that will be needed.

Also, keep a running log, showing each device as it is tested, and whether it worked or not. Usually, on a system that big, there'll be a printer on the system that can be used to record the testing. Keep the log - you'll need it for your CYA paperwork.

How you are going to get started on the sequential testing, I don't know. This is something that you are going to have to work out with the hospital, and the agencies that are regulating the hospital.

Bottom Line

Remember, the fire alarm system is a life safety / property protection system. Many times, people's lives and property have been protected from fire because the Fire Detection and Alarm System (FDAS) worked.
  • To protect the people in the hospital and those staying in the hospital, everything needs to be tested
  • To satisfy the regulating agencies, everything needs to be tested and documented
  • To know for yourself that everything works, and to protect yourself from liability, everything needs to be tested and documented

Test everything and document that you tested each device, one at a time, because, "If it aint on paper, it didn't happen." After a fire, you don't want someone to look at your documentation and think you didn't test something.

Douglas Krantz
Life Safety
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