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Fire Alarm design is it engineering?

michael bakerA special blog post by Michael Baker

As I travel the USA I notice that some states consider fire alarm system design to be engineering. My state of Oregon has been wrestling with this issue since at least 2004 when OSBEELS (Oregon State Board of Examiners for Engineering and Land Surveying) asked the Oregon Department of Justice to opine on the role of a fire alarm system designer. The result was a declaration that the design of fire alarm systems is considered to be engineering and therefore may only be done by an Oregon licensed professional engineer:

“The design of fire protection services and systems falls within the purview of engineering. As such, it must be performed by a registered professional fire protection engineer.”

A copy of their memo may be downloaded from here: http://www.etnews.org/docs/OR_Dept_of_Justice_memo_11-30-04.pdf.

The most obvious problem with this interpretation is the lack of licensed fire protection engineers in Oregon. I count 9 that reside within the state. Look for yourself here: http://www.osbeels.org/.

When I was submitting permit applications that included fire alarm system design, many jurisdictions in and around Portland required that I be certified NICET level III in fire alarm systems. If my work included interconnection to other systems such as deluge or smoke control, the Building Official or Fire Marshal would require a supporting statement from a Fire Protection Engineer. That’s the way SFPE (Society of Fire Protection Engineers) sees it as well:

“The fire protection Technician is an individual who has achieved NICET Level III or IV certification in the appropriate subfield and who has the knowledge, experience and skills necessary to layout fire protection systems.” Read this article for more details.

You can download the SFPE position statement here: http://sfpe.org/upload/sfpe_position_statement_october_2005_001.pdf

As I see it the engineer determines the fire protection objective to be achieved while the technician lays out a system to satisfy the objective. Laying out a fire alarm system is not complex. Prescriptive design is spelled out very clearly within NFPA 72. In my opinion, a licensed electrician attending a 10-week course (40 hours) that reviews the fire alarm relevant bits of IBC, NFPA 70, and NFPA 72 can layout a fire alarm system to the satisfaction of a building official or fire marshal.

Now the Oregon Building Codes division, Electrical and Elevator Board is considering changing the Oregon Administrative Rules to allow “J” (Electrician, General Journeyman) and “LEA” (Electrician, Limited Energy Technician, Class A) license holders to submit fire alarm system shop drawings.

“… because the electrical portion of a fire protection system is a non-complex electrical installation.”

You can download their most recent memo regarding this proposed change here: http://www.etnews.org/docs/Oregon_Fire_Protection_Design_exemptions.pdf

I agree with the proposed change though I recommend adding a requirement that the designer be certified NICET Level III or IV in fire alarm systems. That would ensure that the individual has specific fire protection job knowledge and work experience. The National Fire Alarm Code encourages this as well:

“NFPA 72 4.3.2* System Designer.
A.4.3.2 Examples of qualified personnel include individuals who can demonstrate experience on similar systems and have the following qualifications:
(1) Factory trained and certified in fire alarm system design
(2) National Institute of Certification in Engineering Technologies (NICET) fire alarm certified – minimum level III
(3) Licensed or certified by a state or local authority Fire alarm system plans and specifications shall be developed in accordance with this Code by persons who are experienced in the proper design, application, installation, and testing of fire alarm systems.”

Clearly NFPA 72 requires the designer to be experienced in installation and testing of fire alarm systems.

There is another alternative and complex solution. If you use Home security Boston services, police and fire departments respond instantly to your emergency when an alarm is triggered.

What does your community do?

View other articles by Michael Baker

{ 4 comments… add one }

  • Michael August 4, 2008, 7:17 am

    The state has requirements depending on the building you are working in. For instance regulated facilities by the state require an act 144 lisc which just takes you to a test. Locally we have been pushing for NICET level III for design. I guess if you read the Michigan Building Code, these submittals typically come as a deferred submittal. This requires that the design professional in responsible charge look at the submittal to make sure it is correct and meets the design of the building.

    I think this is a great way to go, the design professional or FPE dictates the way it should go, then the sprinkler layout or alarm layout (who meets NICET III in the appropriate area) should layout the system based on their needs. I know that I get frustrated when the layout guy says, I know its wrong but that’s what the A/E wanted. So why does the AHJ become the bad guy then when the layout guy knew it was wrong. Politics I guess

  • Arsnman4 August 4, 2008, 8:51 am


  • wpadmin August 5, 2008, 5:35 am

    We’ve been updated on this situation:

    Last Thursday the Oregon Electrical Board met to resolve this and wound up with a temporary solution. For the next 180 days they’ve rolled back the clock and will allow electricians (J, S, and LEA) to once again submit fire alarm shop drawings. During the 180 day period they will have a committee look more closely for a permanent solution and to define the term “non-complex”.


  • Roger September 19, 2008, 11:37 am

    you don’t have to be a “fire protection engineer” to do the design. The new opinion for the Oregon DOJ says Architect or Engineer is competent to do the work can do it. The argument for only fire protection engineers no longer has a place in this issue.
    Oregon law is pretty clear when it says all desgin work on an non-exempt building is required to be done by an architect and/or engineer, with the exceptions for a supervising electrician when the same company does the work. This is only for the electrical portions and not for the rest of the design and layout of the detection and notification devices….

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