We often talk to integrator members that are practicing according to outdated codes or best practices. To help you keep up, we put together this brief summary explaining why you should stay current with code revisions and best practices (such as the PASS K-12 guidelines).
The information featured here can be shared with your sales and design professionals to help them guide building owners, the Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ), and design professionals in finding the solution that meets the code requirement and serves the customer’s needs.
Keeping Track of Updates
Changes have been made to the International Fire Code (IFC) from the 2012 to 2015 edition regarding Group E occupancies. The most notable change: An occupant load of 100 or less does not require an emergency voice/alarm communication system as long as the fire alarm system can provide occupant notification that meets the typical requirements of a fire alarm non-voice system.
Interpretation: Any Group E occupancy that has an occupant load of 100 or less does not need to have an emergency voice/alarm communication system. The fire alarm system can be the standard system of initiating devices and notification devices per NFPA 72.
Any Group 3 occupancy of 100 or more is required to have an emergency voice/alarm communication system installed in accordance with NFPA 72 Chapter 24. This means the mass notification system must provide audibility and intelligibility to all occupied spaces.
NFPA 72 2013 Edition: Standards for Designing an Emergency Voice/Alarm Communication System
NFPA 72 Section 24.4.2 provides the requirements for the design of an emergency voice/alarm communication system. The standard for loudspeakers is as follows:
“(1) The loudspeaker layout of the system shall be designed to ensure intelligibility and audibility.
(2) Intelligibility shall first be determined by ensuring that all areas in the building have the required level of audibility.” (NFPA, 2013)
Interpretation: The key difference is between audibility and intelligibility. NFPA 72 requires you to first establish that a tone signal meets the audible requirements of Chapter 18. In a Group E occupancy, you must meet the audible requirements for a public mode (15 dB above ambient noise levels). The industry standard for ambient noise level is 60 dBl however, Table A.18.4.3 in NFPA 72 states that the average ambient noise level of an educational occupancy is 45 dB.
Additionally, an audible signal must be present in all areas in which the building is occupied. By definition of NFPA, an occupied area is “an area of a facility occupied by people on a regular basis.” (NFPA, 2013)
This does not mean that every space in a school needs an audible device – as long as there is an audible device nearby that will produce 15 dB above the ambient noise level of that area. For example, each classroom may not require an audible device as long as the audible device in the hallway can provide an audible level that is 15 dB above the ambient noise level of the classroom. Keep in mind that a room behind a closed door is measured to lose 10 dB to 24 dB.
Hallway speaker has a dB rating of 98 dB @ 10 feet
Classroom (center) will be approximately 20 feet from speaker (12 dB loss)
Classroom door closed (10 dB loss)
Ambient classroom dB = 45 dB
(98-12-16)= 70 dB
45+15=70 dB required
70 dB=70 dB, so the audible device in the hallway is enough to produce audibility for the classroom.
Intelligibility is different. Intelligibility is about whether the sound is clear and distinct. In order to have an intelligible sound, you must have more devices set a lower audible level to achieve acceptable intelligibility measurements.
For a Group E occupancy that requires an emergency voice/alarm communication system, the design would require more speakers in hallways and in all occupied areas: classrooms, gyms, media centers, multi-purpose rooms, etc. This could also include adding a speaker in restrooms; a restroom is considered an occupied area.
Per NFPA 72, the maximum distance between speakers should be no more than two times the height of the ceiling (up to 20 feet). NFPA acknowledges that most ceilings are 8 feet to 12 feet high, allowing for spacing of speakers to be between 16 feet and 24 feet.
Why Some AHJs Aren’t Requiring Emergency Voice/Alarm Communication Systems
First, we need to verify what code has been adopted. Even if IFC 2015 has been adopted … is there an exception or modification made in the AHJ’s statutes or regulations?
Example: The State of Massachusetts states that “Where the Fire Department determines that partial or selective evacuation is not desired, but, rather, total evacuation is required, then a distinctive signal in lieu of a voice alarm is permitted.”
The AHJ may determine that the requirement for an emergency voice/alarm communication system shall not apply to or “grandfather” in certain occupancies. For example, an existing occupancy doing a renovation or fire alarm upgrade may not be required to comply with IFC 2015.
Notes About IFC-2015
907.2.3 Group E
A manual fire alarm system that initiates the occupant notification signal utilizing an emergency voice/alarm communication system meeting the requirements of Section 907.5.2.2 and installed in accordance with Section 907.6 shall be installed in Group E occupancies. When automatic sprinkler systems or smoke detectors are installed, such systems or detectors shall be connected to the building fire alarm system.
- A manual fire alarm system is not required in Group E occupancies with occupant loads of 50 or less. Note: IFC 2012 referred to occupant loads of 30 or less. This increased the occupant load to 50.
- Emergency voice/alarm communication systems meeting the requirements of Section 907.5.2.2 and installed in accordance with Section 907.6 shall not be required in Group E occupancies with occupant loads of 100 or less, provided that activation of the manual fire alarm system initiates an approved occupant notification signal in accordance with Section 907.5. Note: This exception is new and was not in IFC 2012.
- Manual fire alarm boxes are not required in Group E occupancies where all of the following apply:
- Interior corridors are protected by smoke detectors.
- Auditoriums, cafeterias, gymnasiums, and similar areas are protected by heat detectors or other approved devices.
- Shops and laboratories involving dusts or vapors are protected by heat detectors or other approved detection devices.
- Manual fire alarm boxes shall not be required in Group E occupancies where all of the following apply:
- The building is equipped throughout with an approved automatic sprinkler system installed in accordance with Section 903.3.1.1.
- The emergency voice/alarm communication system will activate on sprinkler water flow.
- Manual activation is provided from a normally occupied location.
907.5 Occupant Notification Systems
A fire alarm system shall annunciate at the fire alarm control unit and shall initiate occupant notification upon activation, in accordance with Sections 907.5.1 through 907.5.2.3.3. Where a fire alarm system is required by another section of this code, it shall be activated by:
- Automatic fire detectors
- Automatic sprinkler system waterflow devices
- Manual fire alarm boxes
- Automatic fire-extinguishing systems
Exception: Where notification systems are allowed elsewhere in Section 907 to annunciate at a constantly attended location.
907.5.2.2 Emergency Voice/Alarm Communication Systems
Emergency voice/alarm communication systems required by this code shall be designed and installed in accordance with NFPA 72. The operation of any automatic fire detector, sprinkler waterflow device, or manual fire alarm box shall automatically sound an alert tone followed by voice instructions giving approved information and directions for a general or staged evacuation in accordance with the building’s fire safety and evacuation plans required by Section 404. In high-rise buildings, the system shall operate on at least the alarming floor, the floor above, and the floor below. Speakers shall be provided throughout the building by paging zones. At a minimum, paging zones shall be provided as follows:
- Elevator groups
- Interior exit stairways
- Each floor
- Areas of refuge as defined in Chapter 2
Exception: In Group I-1 and I-2 occupancies, the alarm shall sound in a constantly attended area and a general occupant notification shall be broadcast via the overhead page.
907.5.2.2.1 Manual Override
A manual override for emergency voice communication shall be provided on a selective and all-call basis for all paging zones.
907.5.2.2.2 Live Voice Messages
The emergency voice/alarm communication system shall have the capability to broadcast live voice messages by paging zones on a selective and all-call basis.
907.5.2.2.3 Alternate Uses
The emergency voice/alarm communication system shall be allowed to be used for other announcements, provided that the manual fire alarm use takes precedence over any other use.
907.5.2.2.4 Emergency Voice/Alarm Communication Captions
Where stadiums, arenas, and grandstands are required to caption audible public announcements in accordance with Section 1126.96.36.199 of the International Building Code, the emergency voice/alarm communication system shall be captioned. Prerecorded or live emergency captions shall be from an approved location that is constantly attended by personnel trained to respond to an emergency.
907.5.2.2.5 Emergency Power
Emergency voice/alarm communications systems shall be provided with emergency power in accordance with Section 604. The system shall be capable of powering the required load for a duration of not less than 24 hours, as required by NFPA 72.
Upgrade vs. Maintenance
The codes can be confusing as to when it is required to complete an upgrade of a fire alarm system. To begin, it is best to look at each situation and determine whether the change to the fire alarm system is due to maintenance or because of requirements to be upgraded to current code.
Maintenance: Chapter 14 of NPFA 72 requires that the fire alarm system be maintained and in working order. Any impairments and/or deficiencies to the system must be corrected within 24 hours or written notification is to be submitted to the local AHJ with a plan as to how the system will be repaired.
As fire alarm panels age and are discontinued, maintenance may include the replacement of the panel. In this case, installing a fire alarm panel that is up to the current code is allowed without having to upgrade the entire system. This corrects the impairment and provides the customer an upgrade path for the fire alarm system.
Upgrades: NFPA 101 states that, if any alteration of a building or life safety system is more than 15% of the system or building, the system or building must meet the current code.
An upgrade would be required if the local AHJ requires that either a panel or system needs to meet the current code. For example, if the local AHJ tells a customer, “You need to upgrade from a conventional (zoned) system to an addressable system,” then this is an upgrade and must conform to the current code.
In this example, in most cases, the local AHJ is not looking for the upgrade to happen in the next 90 days. Instead, the AHJ is looking for a plan of action to upgrade the system within 90 days of the noted deficiency (in this case, the deficiency is a non-addressable system). The plan of action can call for as many as five years to complete, allowing the customer to allocate resources and funds to do a phased approach to bringing the system up to code.
A phasing example could be:
- Phase I: Upgrade of fire alarm control panel that can accommodate the new code and monitor the existing initiating devices and activate the existing notification appliances.
- Phase II: Upgrade of existing initiating devices to current code (addressable devices). In this phase, the additional initiating devices required by the new code would also need to be installed.
- Phase III: Upgrade of existing notification appliances. This phase would include moving the system from a tone/visual system to an emergency voice communication system as required by Chapter 24 of NFPA 72.
We believe that our integrator members need to comply with all the applicable codes, standards, and regulations that govern our work.
We also believe that integrators have a responsibility to provide guidelines and lend expertise to code-making officials. This blog isn’t intended to be used as a tool to sell more systems, but rather a tool to help your sales and design professionals guide building owners, AHJs, and design professionals in finding the solution that meets the code requirement and serves the customer’s needs.
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