The fight for fire standards

September 2013 Fire & Safety

When considering the state of the fire market, we would be remiss in ignoring the issue of standards. As in other areas of the security market, standards for fire prevention, detection and suppression solutions are easily available, but not everyone adheres to them, whether due to ignorance or the desire to make more money by taking short cuts.

Hi-Tech Security Solutions asked two people with long-term experience in the fire industry to assist us in understanding the applicable standards and the realities of their application in the South African fire market. We spoke to Keith Norgate of the Fire Systems Inspection Bureau (FSIB) and Mike Smiles from Masc Solutions and asked them for insight into the standards saga.

Starting off, we wanted to know where South Africa is in terms of fire regulations and compliance. Are there sufficient regulations in place to ensure the safety of people in homes and businesses? Are people aware of the regulations that apply to them and do they make the effort to comply?

Norgate says there “are regulations in place, but the fixed fire systems industry suffers from non-policing of these standards and designers bend the rules for the cheapest solution. The standards are not watertight and some designers look for the leaks and use these to their advantage in providing the cheap solution on a whim rather than with good reasoning.

“If you asked them, they would not be able to provide calculations or good engineering logic to prove their reasoning. This leads to systems that are non-compliant, don’t work and are sometimes dangerous. There is a misunderstanding between the SABS standards organisation and the national regulator as to the means of imposing these standards onto the industry with respect to what can be applied in law and what cannot. This is a big hole that needs to be plugged before standards can be successfully applied in this country.”

South Africa has adopted the EN standards for fire systems (detection, voice evacuation and fire suppression), specifically SANS 10139, SANS 7240 and SANS 14520-1 and these documents provide clearly defined requirements for fire systems in buildings, says Smiles. The National Building Code, SANS 10400 - Code of Practice for the Application of the National Building Regulations, Clause TT31 states the following with respect to Fire Detection and Alarm Systems:

“Any building containing an occupancy classified

(a) E2 or E3, irrespective of height or floor area;

(b) F1, with a floor area of more than 500 m ; or

(c) H1 or H2, with a height of more than 8 m;

shall be equipped with a fire detection system and an emergency evacuation communication system complying with SANS 0139.

All occupied areas within any building which exceeds 30 m in height or contains any storey exceeding 5 000 m2 in floor area, other than a building contemplated in sub-rule TT31.1, shall be equipped with a fire detection and manually activated fire alarm system and an emergency evacuation communication system complying with SANS 0139.

Any building classified A1, A2, C1, C2 or F1 shall have a manually activated audible alarm system in accordance with SANS 0139.”

However, Smiles asks: “Why, therefore do the vast majority of fire consultants continue to ignore the need to obtain and publish the Building Category within their project specifications? This practice results in many buildings being erected without the correct level of fire detection and alarm systems.”

Smiles provided Hi-Tech Security Solutions with a document, ‘Guide to Building Fire Categories’, which can be downloaded at

How cheap is life?

But what is the industry doing to ensure fire evaluations and consulting is done according to standards and regulations? Does the customer have to take responsibility for standards and hope for the best when hiring companies specialising in fire?

“The customer has the opportunity of selecting a dedicated fire consultant, a electrical/mechanical consultant, an independent, or a design and supply service direct with the contractor,” explains Norgate. “This choice is often lightly considered and based on price, leading to poorly designed and installed systems. The cheapest solution generally abounds in this industry with little thought to the true nature of why they install fire systems in the first place: life safety and property preservation. The client is often happy that he has a sprinkler head or smoke detector on the ceiling with no care if, or how, it works.”

Third-party inspections are an accepted method to ensure that correctly design and installed systems are provided to the end-user with ongoing inspections to ensure the systems remain working after initial certification. “This has been available for the sprinkler industry for water sprinklers from ASIB for over 20 years,” Norgate adds. “More recently FSIB provides a similar service for fire detection and gas suppression systems. These services are by independent persons with no allegiance to contractors, products suppliers or designers and provide assessments against the set South African standards to ensure compliance.

“This is the end-user’s guarantee that they have got value for money and have a well designed, well installed and correctly commissioned system. This is again an extra cost often ignored to achieve a cheap solution.”

Smiles adds that the FDIA has worked tirelessly to try and convince consultants to desist from using obsolete specifications that include information no longer relevant and often product specific, but rather refer to the Building Category and specify compliance with the applicable SANS standard 10139.

“The customer is generally lacking in knowledge of specialised services such as fire detection, alarms etc., and relies heavily on the recommendation of their appointed consultant who, in many cases, is an electrical or mechanical engineer with limited knowledge of the standards or how these should be interpreted in relation to the building category. A greater concern is the proliferation of Rational Fire Design consultants that generate business by offering the end-user substantial savings relating to building fire services and then proceed to specify systems that are often non-compliant.”

Another cause for concern is the lack of skills and resources within the various municipal planning offices and fire inspection departments. Smiles says it is essential that the employees of these departments obtain a working knowledge of the standards and how these should be applied.

What skills are required

Moving slightly away from the standards issue, Hi-Tech Security Solutions also asked what skills and certifications customers should look for when hiring fire consultants/evaluators/service providers/etc. In other words, how can you be sure your service provider has the necessary qualifications to do a professional job and has knowledge of the appropriate standards?

“There is very little in terms of evaluation methods for designers/ consultants,” says Norgate. “The purchaser should scrutinise the credentials of the person/company he appoints and his track record of experience in the relevant industry he operates in.

“Being registered with the Engineering Council of South Africa (ECSA) is not the sole cri-teria as the fire industry is splintered in many areas of expertise from electrical, electronic, mechanical, etc. A specialist in water sprinklers is generally not an expert on fire detection and so forth. It is important that the person employed has specialised knowledge in the service he provides.”

However, Norgate does note that things are improving with SAQCC Fire now providing listings of fire detection and gas suppression designers from assessment criteria and issuing cards for these persons. This provides a level of skills assessment.

“The tendency in Europe is for the principle agent (on behalf of the client) or the client themselves to approach specialised fire system installation companies to offer turnkey fire solutions using the applicable standard as the basis for the design, supply and installation of such systems and then appointing a qualified and specialised fire consultant to ensure the installed system is fully compliant,” explains Smiles. “In general, equipment that has not been certified by a recognised fire system inspection organisation will be rejected as non-compliant.”

In South Africa, SAQCC Fire (The South African Qualification & Certification Committee for the Fire Industry) has set up the SAQCC-Fire Detection and Gas Suppression Committee under a directive given to the organisation by the Department of Labour. This directive will see the organisation establish and implement procedures for the qualification and certification of service technicians and authorised persons, thus creating an environment that will ensure safety, quality of work and high standards of excellence in the fire detection and gas suppression industry.

The use of companies that have SAQCC fire registered and certified employees will go a long way to ensure the systems offered are designed, installed and maintained to the correct standard.

Top tips

So what are end-users supposed to do? Should there ever be a fire inspection by a qualified person, it’s the company that bears the responsibility for sub-standard work and it will also potentially be liable for loss of life in a worst-case scenario. Hi-Tech Security Solutions asked Smiles and Norgate to offer a few tips on what customers can do to ensure their premises are compliant with fire regulations and also ready to protect life and assets in case of an emergency.

The first tip from Norgate is to ensure you appoint a designer who can prove his knowledge and expertise for the specific task i.e. sprinklers. Ask for training certificates, registration with fire organisations and previous experience in the precise area of expertise. A CCTV company is not generally skilled in fire detection. An ECSA registered person is not always skilled in gas suppression.

Secondly, he advises you choose an installer that is a specialist in the area he operates in. “Do not choose the butcher to operate on your dog.” Check the installer is listed with one of the specialist associations, such as ASIB, FDIA, or FSIB.

Thirdly, insist on a third-party inspection and clearance/compliance certification. The independent third-party certification is the only clearly defined method of ensuring all facets of the project have been successfully conducted.

Smiles offers the following advice:

* Take the trouble to establish the fire category of the premises using the guidelines included in SANS 10400.

* Obtain a basic understanding of SANS 10139, Part 1 in particular, as a working knowledge of this document will empower the user to determine what the general fire requirements are for their building.

* Utilise the services of consultants and fire systems companies who have a proven and documented track record in the design and implementation of fire systems.

* Select equipment that has been designed, manufactured and certified to a recognised international fire standard.

* Ensure all equipment offered is capable of full compliance with the requisites of the relevant section of the SANS 10139 standards and do not accept any compromise on this requirement.


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