Ethics and Fire and Life Safety System Specifications

As professional engineers we have a code of ethics to perform only in our area of expertise based upon education and experience. Many take this seriously when designing plumbing systems, mechanical systems, and building structures.  Unfortunately frequently professional engineers do not take seriously the specification of fire sprinkler systems and the associated water supplies, fire pumps, and standpipe systems, fire suppression systems, and fire alarm systems.

Engineers must perform under a standard of professional behavior that requires adherence to the highest principles of ethical conduct. Engineers, in the fulfillment of their professional duties, shall: Hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public. Perform services only in areas of their competence.

Figure 1 – Excerpt from Engineers Code of Ethics [1]

With over forty years of designing, specifying, reviewing, and now over twenty years investigating system failures, I see a very large number of ‘scope’ type specifications for fire and life safety systems.  Professional engineers would not write these types of specifications for plumbing and mechanical systems, but those same engineers will do that for the critical fire and life safety systems that are designed to protect human lives, property, and firefighters.

I can provide numerous examples of specifications that are written by a professional engineer with no business writing them, and more importantly should not be signing or sealing those documents.


Specification Writing and Construction Observation

There seems to be a thought process that as a professional engineer you can copy an old specification and send it to the design team for bidding. The fire protection contractors will figure it out, because you didn’t; they’ll bid it the way they always do and magically it will be designed, installed, and tested by the low bid contractor with no oversight from the Engineer of Record.  That thought process continues that someone else will inspect these systems, not you; and the fire and life safety system will then be in service as you intended from the beginning. What could possibly go wrong? The contractors are the experts right? They certainly know more about fire and life safety systems than you do. Somebody else will inspect these systems. Do those inspectors know as much as you do?

If you carry errors and omissions insurance and you learn from the education they provide, you’ll know that lack of site observations (construction observation and administration) after writing specifications is a scenario that leads to problems. But if you don’t know much of anything about the fire and life safety systems yourself, how can you convince the rest of the design team that you need to perform site observations on those systems?


Three Things to Do

We’ll look at three things you as a professional engineer can and should do better.

First, regularly attend classes to improve your education on fire and life safety systems. Designing protection systems is relatively easy if you understand the basic concepts.  Specifying the appropriate design criteria is not that easy and includes several areas of research you’ve probably never done.

  • Are you trying to control or suppress a fire? Do you know the difference?
  • What is the occupancy? Occupancy isn’t the same as the Building Code or Fire Code occupancy, this is the fuel load based occupancy.
  • What is the water supply? You need a test to tell you accurately. Is it adequate and reliable? Will it supply the flow and pressure required for your decision to control or suppress based upon the occupancy and fuel load? Do you need a fire pump?
  • Do you know how to interface the fire alarm and fire sprinkler system components?
  • What are the mass notification requirements?
  • Are there any special requirements from the insurance carrier, the state, or the community?

Several professional organizations are more than willing to provide education and training.  Fire alarm and fire sprinkler contractor associations, Society of Fire Protection Engineers, and many large manufacturers (Tyco, Reliable, Viking, Kidde, and so on) will welcome you to training (most for a fee). Two hours of training a year isn’t enough though. This has to be significant and dedicated training.

Second, throw out any old specifications you have and rewrite them accurately, thoroughly, and with current equipment and requirements for your specific project.  White Papers are written and available addressing the responsibilities of engineers and designers. It is clear that as the specifying engineer you are responsible for the design; and the design cannot be correct if it is specified improperly, incompletely, or not specified at all.

Finally, change your thought process regarding design, installation, inspection, and testing of fire and life safety systems. Keep in mind:

  • Most fire protection contractors don’t have your client’s best interests in mind and could care less about your specification if it impacts their bottom line (profit).
  • Fire protection contractors make mistakes too. Very few contractors have oversight within their office for design, and fewer review their installations for compliance with their own documents or the standards.
  • Fire protection contractors have the bottom line in mind and that doesn’t always mean they will provide the proper protection. This is especially true of storage occupancy protection.
  • In general, no one entity is carefully and thoroughly reviewing contractor plans, calculations, designs, or installations.
  • Annual inspections of fire protection systems are not intended to find design and installation deficiencies. It is really important that you understand this. If a fire protection system is designed, installed, tested, and inspected and does not comply with the nationally accepted National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) NFPA 13, Standard for the Installation of Sprinkler Systems, NFPA 72, Fire Alarm Code, or whatever standard is applicable to the type of system and its design, it is still wrong. The fire code is clear that a system that is installed improperly, even if inspected and accepted but did not comply with the minimum standards, is still wrong.

From the 2015 International Fire Code [2]:

105.3.6 Compliance with code.
The issuance or granting of a permit shall not be construed to be a permit for, or an approval of, any violation of any of the provisions of this code or of any other ordinance of the jurisdiction. Permits presuming to give authority to violate or cancel the provisions of this code or other ordinances of the jurisdiction shall not be valid. The issuance of a permit based on construction documents and other data shall not prevent the fire code official from requiring the correction of errors in the construction documents and other data…

  • Here is the follow up: annual inspections, sometimes by the same contractors that make the mistakes initially, are not intended to find any design or installation errors or mistakes. You read that right: after a fire protection system is installed, the inspection, testing, and maintenance standards assume it was correct and now those annual inspections do not look for design and installation errors.

1.1.3* This standard addresses the operating condition of fire protection systems as well as impairment handling and reporting and applies to fire protection systems that have been properly installed in accordance with generally accepted practice.

A. The requirement to evaluate the adequacy of the design of the installed system is not a part of the periodic inspection, testing, and maintenance requirements of this standard.* This standard does not require the inspector to verify the adequacy of the design of the system.

Figure 2 – Excerpt from NFPA 25 [3]


System Failures

System failures are not frequent. The NFPA annually publishes statistics on failures.  The problem with those statistics is they don’t include water losses, they don’t include fire suppression systems (such as kitchen systems) failures, and they don’t investigate all of the fires that occur.  So those statistics are skewed with greater success than is actually achieved. My investigations of water losses due to freeze failures and fire losses due to kitchen hood design, kitchen exhaust design, and kitchen suppression system design are never in those NFPA publications. Many freeze failures and restaurant fire damages are exacerbated by scope-type specifications where the professional engineer has done little or nothing at all to coordinate the fire suppression systems with the mechanical systems, and certainly has not inspected or observed the final installations.


A New Way of Thinking

Fire protection system designers spend hours and years training and learning their trades.  Some become very good and are very proficient; however, everyone makes mistakes.  Unfortunately professional engineers often don’t spend even a few hours a year learning about fire protection systems, but they still specify those systems and then rely on someone else to review and inspect the systems.

Design teams and professional engineers who are cutting corners to save money by writing scope-type specifications for fire and life safety systems are doing an injustice to their clients and the people who occupy those buildings.  Those same design team members are not ethically representing their professions either.

Properly specifying fire protection systems does not fit into an architect’s small percentage of fee assigned to that discipline.  Actually providing detailed design specifications and drawings takes education, experience, and money that is an investment in the safety of those who occupy the structures and the protection of the property.

[3] National Fire Protection Association, NFPA 25, Standard for the Inspection, Testing, and Maintenance of Water-Based Systems, 2014 edition. Quincy, MA.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Scott A. Futrell, PE, FSFPE, CFPS, SET, CFEI, is a fire protection engineer with Futrell Fire Consult & Design, Inc., in Osseo, Minnesota and has over 40 years’ experience designing, specifying, and investigating fire protection systems. He is a Fellow in the Society of Fire Protection Engineers, a member of several Technical Panels for the Fire Protection Research Foundation Projects, and co-author of “Designers Guide to Automatic Sprinkler Systems.”