Fire, Security & Electrical Blog

8 Steps to Undertake Before Buying a Commercial Fire Alarm

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Last Updated on 2 November 2022.

Buying a fire alarm for your business or commercial premises doesn’t have to be a head-scratcher.

You may be reading this post because:

  1. You’ve had a spot check from the fire brigade, telling you your current alarm is unsuitable.
  2. You’ve had a fire risk assessment and the report advises that you need a suitable alarm system.
  3. Your insurer has made provisions for a specific level of fire detection, which you’ve found you do not currently have.
  4. You have moved to a new premises which does not have a fire alarm, or the fire alarm is aged/faulty/unsuitable for your needs.

Read on to find out what you need to know as a business owner or manager in charge of finding the right fire alarm for your building…

Step 0: Have a Fire Risk Assessment…and Plan!

Before you even begin you must have an up-to-date Fire Risk Assessment, which will outline the level of cover you need for the desired alarm system, whilst also addressing any other issues that need resolving relating to fire safety within your building.

Click here to find out more about what a Fire Risk Assessment is, when you need one and why.

It’s fair to say that your expectation would be that you get three prices from BAFE SP203 approved fire alarm companies. As they are all following the same specifications from your Fire Risk Assessment report, and the same guidance under BS 5839-1:2017, you would assume that the prices will be similar. Here’s why that doesn’t always happen…

The Fire Risk Assessment is just part of the story – there are a fair few topics that you’ll have to consider and address, including:

…The level of automatic detection required, i.e. L1, L2, L3, L4 or L5.

…The technological complexity that you need.

…Whether you would prefer a system that is wired or wireless.

There are 8 levels of automatic detection that are commonly used with fire alarms, 2 technological options, and then 3 choices between a wired, wireless or hybrid system.

Automatic Detection: L1, L2, L3, L4 or L5

This isn’t your choice – it’s what’s required.

The level of detection refers to the number of smoke/heat detectors you need based on the type of building you have.

For instance, an L1 – used within a care home, for example – needs a smoke detector in every room, which a room being defined as a space that’s over 1m², which can be a big cupboard!

An L3 system, which is often used in office blocks and is among the most commonly used systems, provides fire detection within escape routes and any rooms that are directly affected by the escape route.

Here’s a video to explain what each ‘L’ type means:

Technological Options: Addressable or Non-addressable (Conventional)

This is predominantly your choice and you should think carefully about what you’d prefer. Your Risk Assessor or Fire Alarm Designer, however, may believe one system is more suitable for your building over another.

The technological option refers to whether you need/want a non-addressable system (these used to be called conventional systems) or an addressable system. This depends largely on the size of your building and the number of zones it has. 

For example, a non-addressable system may flag up that Zone 3 (out of 8 zones, for instance) has lit up. From your Zone Chart you may then see that Zone 3 covers ‘X’ area with three office rooms within it. You’ll therefore know the fire is within that vicinity, but you couldn’t pinpoint exactly where. An addressable system, conversely, will be able to tell you the precise location of where the fire is, as each device is assigned a particular location, such as ‘Boardroom’ or ‘Room 3’.

Here’s a video which explains the difference between addressable and non-addressable (conventional) fire alarms in more detail:

How it’s Fitted: Wired, Wireless or Hybrid

Completely your choice – this one largely comes down to cost and aesthetic.

Finally, you’ll need to decide what you’d prefer in terms of a wired, wireless or hybrid system. If your decision is to have a non-addressable option, this part will already be set out for you as you cannot currently have anything other than wired for a non-addressable system. However, if you choose an addressable system, you may choose between wired, wireless and hybrid.

So, as you can see, a fair bit of thought beyond the Fire Risk Assessment is required.

Does your building pose enough risks to warrant a detector in each room? Are there rooms, for instance a server room, which needs some extra protection?

Is your building big enough that you’d want to know precisely where a fire has broken out, or can you manage with knowing just the Zone, for example the floor or section of the building?

Do you care about aesthetics and would you mind wires around your building, or would you prefer wireless devices that can be easily moved?

Begin with the end in mind. 

Here’s another video to explain the difference between these types of fire alarm installations:

Fire alarm installations can be costly, so it’s important to know what you want and what you’ll be getting for what you’re prepared to pay for before you go ahead.

Unfortunately it’s not as easy as ‘click and collect’. But once you know the facts and follow the below steps, you’ll be safe in the knowledge that you’ve got a system that’ll keep you safe and legal.

Step 1: Get clarity on the design level that your fire risk assessor has requested.

Your fire risk assessor should be a trusted professional, so you’ll know whatever they’ve stipulated in their report is for good reason. However, more Fire Risk Assessments will tell you what level of cover you need, but not why

It’s best to be clear about why they’ve assigned the life safety system they have so that the fire alarm companies you’ve approached know exactly why they’re working to that specification. The difference between two systems can be as little as one detector, which the fire risk assessor can say is definitely needed or just advised. This difference will impact the price, so it’s important to know.

Step 2: Check the level of coverage with your insurer.

It’s important to clear the level of fire protection you’ll be installing with your insurance company, as it’s them you’ll be approaching if a fire does break out and damage is caused as a result to your building. Plus, in some occurrences, this can bring your costs down as you’ve met or exceeded their requirements for adequate fire detection and protection.

Step 3: Choose what suits you and your premises best, i.e. wired or wireless.

Typically, wireless systems are more expensive as the equipment is more costly, but if you’re looking for a speedy installation and the unsightliness of wires running all over the place, then this is going to be the option for you. If, however, the sight of wires doesn’t alarm you and you are seeking out more affordable options, then the wired option is for you.

A hybrid system, combines the wired zone features of non-addressable fire alarms with the addressable loops of addressable fire alarms. In short, you are able to use wireless sensors and devices into what is essentially deemed a wired system. This might be used in a situation where the majority of areas have no limitations for installing wiring but some areas are particularly restrictive and it would, therefore, be beneficial to have wireless devices in that area. You basically get the best of both worlds, and it should still be cheaper than the completely wireless system.

Step 4: Get accurate drawings prepared.

This is very important and will make a real difference in the potential of additional costs.

Rough or rushed drawings will often miss voids and external entrances to boiler rooms and basements. These discoveries can add up as additional costs once the fire alarm installation has begun and it’ll be hard to say no or turn back. You’ll need plans of your building to get these drawings of the design made up.

Give yourself the opportunity to see the full picture and scale of the work needed to avoid any unwanted, costly surprises.

You’ll want to use a company that’s BAFE SP203 for this (see also Step 8).

Step 5: Listen to people who work in and run your building.

Ask the people you work with for their input and what they want from their fire alarm. This is important for various reasons…

Perhaps your director is planning to move to a bigger premises so just wants something for the short-term, or maybe they’re planning on redecorating so they’d like a system where devices can be easily moved.

You’ll need to discuss budget and whilst you might be tasked with getting the best system for the cheapest price, you still need to explain to them (once you understand yourself) what they’re actually getting for that price and if they’re happy with it. Because if it’s installed and it’s not what they were looking for, you might find yourself in a pickle!

If you have a facilities manager or caretaker, it’s definitely worth speaking to them as they’ll be the one looking after the system and, most likely, they’ll be the ones to call us if they need help or advice.

They may have particular specifications in mind, so they should be made aware if they haven’t been already!

Step 6: Speak to other stakeholders.

These could be the building users, the landlord, the neighbours or anyone with a vested interest in your building. A fire alarm system is an investment for your building, so everyone involved should know your intentions and understand how it will affect them.

Step 7: Speak to the local fire brigade about your plans.

This is optional, but definitely advised. Ask for input from the local fire brigade about what they want to get from this system. For instance, you need to understand and establish which entrance they would prefer to use if they were to attend a fire within your building, as this is where your fire alarm panel is going to be located.

They may also have thoughts on automatic connection, i.e. fire alarm monitoring which calls designated persons and/or the Fire and Rescue Service if the alarm is activated. Remember, a fire alarm sounds to notify people within and around the building that there’s a fire…but if there’s no one to hear it, the fire will continue to spread.

Step 8: Make sure that your designer and installer is BAFE SP203 registered.

You might have already guessed that a fire alarm system is a vital investment and not something you can just rock up and chuck in.

BAFE stands for ‘British Approvals for Fire Equipment’ and it’s the independent registration body for third-party certified fire alarm companies. You can’t get the BAFE stamp without being independently audited and regularly assessed by a UKAS Accredited Certification Body.

Choosing a BAFE SP203 approved company that is certified for designing, installing, maintaining and commissioning fire alarms means you’ll have peace of mind that you have acted with due diligence to source a competent specialist, and that you’ve trusted experts who know what they’re doing to implement your life safety system.

And Breathe…

Congratulations for making it this far! You clearly care a lot about your building’s fire safety strategy.

As you’ll see from the ‘brief’ list above, there are many reasons you can end up with varying prices for your fire alarm installation. This can make for a tough job when comparing quotes, but at least now you know why.

As long as you’ve done your research and ask for explanations on what you don’t understand, know what you’re getting for what you’re prepared to pay for, and trust competent BAFE approved specialists to do the installation and carry out ongoing maintenance, you can stay safe in the knowledge that you’ve done your part to protect your building and its inhabitants in the event of a fire.

Take it from us Experts…

This is such an important decision and can be an expensive error if the wrong system is chosen.

I’ve seen thousands of pounds wasted on safety systems just because there wasn’t enough clarity at the beginning.

Fire alarms typically last for 10 years, whilst a well-installed wired infrastructure can – at least, in parts, last up to 40 odd years.

We are here to help you. If you are at all unsure about any aspect of buying a fire alarm system then just fill in the enquiry form or pick up the phone and we’ll give you unbiased, honest advice.

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