Many fire-protection and life-safety systems are designed to operate together in order to allow occupants to safely escape from a fire or other emergency.

For example, if a sprinkler system activates in an office building, it’s expected the notification appliances activate, magnetic door holders release and the elevator recalls to the appropriate floor. While integrated system testing confirms the “handshake” between these individual systems, this type of testing has not been mandated by any building code until now.

NFPA 4: Standard for the Integrated Fire Protection and Life Safety System Testing is a new standard first issued in 2015. It provides the minimum requirements for testing new or existing integrated fire-protection and life-safety systems where such testing is required by the design documents, commissioning plan, governing laws, codes, regulations or standards. This does not replace acceptance testing. Acceptance testing still must be conducted to test the performance of the individual system; integrated system testing follows acceptance testing to confirm the handshake between two or more integrated systems.

NFPA 4 does not provide a prescriptive list of test scenarios, testing frequencies based on the occupancy classification or the types of systems installed inside a facility. Since the level of testing varies from one building to another, NFPA 4 provides a protocol that will verify the integrated fire-protection and life-safety systems perform as intended.

The most common misconception about integrated system testing is it’s already being done. More often than not engineers, building owners, building occupants and others assume the fire-protection and life-safety systems installed in their facility have been tested to not only work individually, but also in conjunction with one another. While building owners can’t receive the certificate of occupancy (C of O) without acceptance tests for compliance with local ordinances, codes and standards, it is likely integrated system testing has not been conducted.

However, reference to NFPA 4 in multiple NFPA and ICC codes is working to change those parameters. The 2018 editions of NFPA 1: Fire Code, NFPA 101: Life Safety Code and NFPA 5000: Building Construction and Safety Code, all include a reference to NFPA 4. The latest edition of NFPA 101 now requires where two or more fire-protection or life-safety systems are integrated or where required by chapters 11 through 43 in NFPA 101, integrated system testing be conducted to verify the proper operation and function of such systems in accordance with NFPA 4. The NFPA 1: Fire Code extracts the language from NFPA 101. The language in NFPA 5000 parallels the provision in NFPA 101 by requiring integrated testing to be performed where two or more fire-protection or life-safety systems are integrated or where required by another section of NFPA 5000.

In addition, the 2018 editions of the International Fire Code and International Building Code include a reference to NFPA 4. Section 901.6.2 requires integrated system testing to comply with NFPA 4 and be completed before the issuance of the certificate of occupancy for high-rise buildings as well as smoke-control systems integrated with fire-alarm systems. In accordance with these codes, integrated system testing is required to be conducted at intervals not exceeding 10 years unless otherwise specified in a test plan.

The five major items outlined in NFPA 4 include identifying the people on an integrated system testing team who are responsible for writing the test plan, developing test scenarios and test frequencies, and documenting this information in a final test report to submit to the owner.

  • Test team: The standard outlines who could be on the integrated system testing team and lists the required qualifications and responsibilities associated with the specific position on the team. Some projects could have one member on the team, while others have several.

  • Test plans: The required test plans are project dependent and will vary in length, but 11 specific items are required to be included in the test plan in accordance with NFPA 4. The concept of writing a test plan is to have a document which the integrated test team can use to conduct the test without having to ask any questions.

  • Test scenarios: The test scenarios required by NFPA 4 are not prescriptive to the type of system, but are very common scenarios to conduct for most buildings and require events and combination of events, including but not limited to the loss of normal power, water flow and presence of smoke.

The scalability of a project, the number of systems installed in a facility, the complexity of those systems, the number of zones for each system, and several other factors need to be analyzed to determine how integrated system testing will be conducted and which scenarios will make sense to test.

When developing the test scenarios it’s important to consider any recent incidents that occurred in the jurisdiction, data associated with the types of fire protection and life-safety systems installed, as well as data on the occupancy classification to determine what the installed systems or occupancy could be subjected to and simulate those situations in the test scenarios.

  • Testing frequencies: Evaluating how often this testing needs to occur was one of the most controversial topics discussed by the Technical Committee on Commissioning and Integrated System Testing, which was responsible for developing NFPA 4. While some thought a specified time interval would be appropriate, others believed a trigger-based need would be the most effective way to ensure the interaction, operation and coordination of multiple individual systems perform their intended function.

The Technical Committee was incredibly careful with the way this section was written. Typically testing is required when (1) a new system is installed and integrated into an existing system; (2) existing systems are modified to become part of an integrated system; or (3) changes are made for an individual system that is part of an integrated system. It’s important to recognize the purpose of this testing is not to require testing every time a strobe is replaced, but rather to test the portions of the integrated system affected by the modification.

So what does all this mean for engineers, contractors, enforcers and buildings owners?

Engineers and contractors need to understand acceptance testing still requires testing the performance of an individual system. Integrated system testing follows acceptance testing to test the performance of the integration between systems. In addition, contractors may want to modify the language in their contracts from “all testing included” to include an extra line item in their bid for integrated system testing. In doing so, the contractor would need to identify the types of systems installed in the building and which systems integrate with one another in order to analyze the resources needed to conduct integrated system testing.

The authority having jurisdiction or enforcers need to be involved early in the process to communicate the types of scenarios they would like included in the test plan. For example, if a recent tragedy occurred, the AHJ might want to make sure if this incident happened again, all systems would perform in accordance with its intended design criteria. If an AHJ does not feel comfortable reviewing the test plans, a third-party review, also known as an integrated testing agent, can be hired. It would be wise for the AHJ to accompany the ITa, if possible, to continue learning from an expert who knows the systems.

Ultimately, building owners should know the fire-protection and life-safety systems they’ve invested in will work both individually and together if they are designed to do so.  Owners having all the documentation at their fingertips and recognizing the status of all the systems installed in their facilities allows owners to be well-informed and productive in the capital-planning processes.

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