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Fire Detectors: Guidance on Testing Procedures for End Users and Technicians

Despite the best efforts of industry bodies such as the Fire Industry Association (FIA) when it comes to shouting loudly about the need for Best Practice, there will always be a few lingering cases of poor practice. When talk turns towards fire detectors, there really is no excuse not to test them, asserts Will Lloyd.

Perhaps the most common example of poor practice is simply not testing the detectors at all. The fact of the matter is that all such detectors located on site should be tested over a 12-month period. This is to ensure that, no matter where a fire might start, there’s an assurance that the area where the fire has indeed broken out is covered by a working detector.

Simply put, when you need a fire detector to work, you really need it to work. Unlike a mobile phone or a TV or any other entertainment device that can easily be replaced at any time (you might feel like you cannot live without a mobile phone, but trust me you can), a detector cannot wait to be replaced. It needs to be replaced as soon as possible so that people are safe from the danger that fire brings. Life safety isn’t something to ‘forget to test’ or ‘do later’ – the process is active and ongoing, and it’s important to get it right. 

Need for competence

For those working within the fire detection and alarm maintenance sector, it’s vital that the term ‘competence’ is understood. Under current fire safety legislation, only a ‘competent’ individual should carry out the testing work. A ‘competent’ person in this regard is defined as an individual with the relevant current training and experience, and with access to the requisite tools, equipment and information, and capable of carrying out a defined task.

Let’s break this down. First, the individual in question needs to be properly trained and have the right level of experience. Experience is simple – it’s simply gained over time on the job. Training helps to complement that. The Fire Industry Association (FIA) now offers vocational qualifications in fire detection alarm maintenance and installation, so it’s fairly simple to make sure that aspect is ticked off.

The second part of current legislation to pay attention to is the tools and equipment that the individual is using.  There are so many anecdotes of improper testing equipment. Some individuals have been known to use a hairdryer or paint stripper heat guns to test a heat detector. Not only is this an example of the improper use of equipment, but it may even melt the detector and/or damage the sensors and components inside, rending the detector useless.

Another classic example of malpractice is when a screwdriver is used to short the thermistor to obtain a fire signal on the panel. This should be avoided at all costs as it simply changes the electrical signal and doesn’t test the sensors in the detector which, obviously, defeats the entire object of testing a detector that’s designed to activate when the presence of heat/smoke is sensed.

Requirement for training

In the above cases, the individual would not be classed as ‘competent’ in the eyes of the law and the immediate remedy would be to obtain the correct equipment immediately and organise some proper training, such as the FIA’s Advanced Maintainer Level 3 qualification. Training is the vital part because even with the right equipment and tools, there’s still the chance to use it in the wrong way. Standards such as BS 5839-1 cover this, so making sure that there’s proper training on this standard is a step in the right direction.

Sometimes, people want to do the right thing and procure the right tools, but perhaps don’t have the right knowledge and experience to use them correctly. The advice here is simple: read through the instructions that came with the equipment and, if all else fails, ask for technical support (either from the manufacturer of the product or the FIA).

Testing equipment such as aerosol dispensers can also be problematic. This is an example of using the correct equipment, but using it incorrectly. Unfortunately, this can happen even when the intention to test correctly is there.

Typically, aerosol canisters designed for the testing of smoke detectors only require a small amount of spray. There’s no need to use loads of the spray to test the detector, and that’s where a lot of people can go wrong. It really is a case of reading the instructions that come with the testing equipment, or asking a more experienced colleague to teach less experienced individuals as to the proper use of aerosol canister testing equipment.

If you haven’t had any training for a while, then it must be said that a ‘refresher’ course never hurts. Technology is changing and detectors are slowly becoming more complex to test due to the number of multi-sensor detectors on the market that detect different things such as heat and smoke at the same time.

Multi-sensor detectors

Due to a recent study sponsored by the FIA in partnership with the BRE and other industry bodies, it has been scientifically proven that multi-sensor detectors are more effective at reducing false alarms. As a result, over the next few months and years it’s likely that many buildings will make the switch to multi-sensor detection methods.

As a result of this move towards more sophisticated detectors, there’s a need for more sophisticated testing equipment. It’s important that this type of detector is tested correctly using specialist equipment. Multi-sensor detectors have two or more sensors – eg heat and smoke – and they need to be tested simultaneously. The test equipment for this type of detector may be more specialised and expensive, but considering the precious need to demonstrate ‘competence’, a review of the equipment you have and the types of detectors you’re testing may well be required in order to ensure that you have the correct equipment – and that it’s being used correctly.

An effective service

Maintenance technicians really must have the right knowledge, tools and experience at their disposal to do the job.  If not, there’s a danger that the individual would not be seen as ‘competent’ under current fire safety legislation.

As an additional pressure, there’s currently a significant focus on fire safety at Government level that’s likely to affect the industry for some time. Those in-house professionals buying the services of fire detection and alarm maintenance companies are looking to ensure that the services they enlist will do the best job they can.

Buyers are lot more ‘savvy’ and, though many will shop purely based on price, many will also now be looking to consider the level of skills and training of the company they’re hiring, which is why obtaining third party certification as a company is an important method of developing the business.

Third party certification is simply gaining an independent audit to certify that your company is capable of providing an effective service, and indeed is the main criteria for membership of the FIA. Those working within the maintenance sector should certainly consider this as it will help the business to grow and demonstrate to buyers the trustworthiness of the skills they’re hiring.

Guidance from the FIA

The ‘FIA Guidance Document on Best Practice for Fire Detector Testing/Test Equipment’ covers a wide range of Best Practice in an easily downloadable PDF format.

Will Lloyd

Will Lloyd

Obviously, all the examples of bad practice shared above are not to be followed. The advice in the FIA’s Guidance Document will show you exactly what you should (rather than should not) do in order to test equipment.

The Guidance Document covers the competency requirement of technicians in more detail, as well as breaking down the requirements for the testing of fire detection devices (what requires testing, functional testing, general testing procedure, test methodology and more examples of bad practice), as well as test medium and fire detection types (including how to test multi-sensor detectors as well as other regular smoke and heat detectors).

There’s also salient advice on Health and Safety during the test procedures (since detectors tend to be on the ceiling and fairly inaccessible).

To download the ‘FIA Guidance Document on Best Practice for Fire Detector Testing/Test Equipment’, visit the FIA’s website and search the publications library under the ‘Resources’ tab.

Will Lloyd is Technical Manager at the Fire Industry Association

About the Author
Brian Sims BA (Hons) Hon FSyI, Editor, Risk UK (Pro-Activ Publications) Beginning his career in professional journalism at The Builder Group in March 1992, Brian was appointed Editor of Security Management Today in November 2000 having spent eight years in engineering journalism across two titles: Building Services Journal and Light & Lighting. In 2005, Brian received the BSIA Chairman’s Award for Promoting The Security Industry and, a year later, the Skills for Security Special Award for an Outstanding Contribution to the Security Business Sector. In 2008, Brian was The Security Institute’s nomination for the Association of Security Consultants’ highly prestigious Imbert Prize and, in 2013, was a nominated finalist for the Institute's George van Schalkwyk Award. An Honorary Fellow of The Security Institute, Brian serves as a Judge for the BSIA’s Security Personnel of the Year Awards and the Securitas Good Customer Award. Between 2008 and 2014, Brian pioneered the use of digital media across the security sector, including webinars and Audio Shows. Brian’s actively involved in 50-plus security groups on LinkedIn and hosts the popular Risk UK Twitter site. Brian is a frequent speaker on the conference circuit. He has organised and chaired conference programmes for both IFSEC International and ASIS International and has been published in the national media. Brian was appointed Editor of Risk UK at Pro-Activ Publications in July 2014 and as Editor of The Paper (Pro-Activ Publications' dedicated business newspaper for security professionals) in September 2015. Brian was appointed Editor of Risk Xtra at Pro-Activ Publications in May 2018.

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