Fire Alarm Systems: What Your Business Needs to Know

No matter the scale of your business—whether it’s a single retail store or a sprawling industrial campus—every organization needs a fire alarm system. These integral fire and life safety systems are essential for helping to protect lives and property in commercial buildings. 

This comprehensive guide will answer all your questions about fire alarm systems. We'll provide an overview of the different components, explore the different types of systems, discuss cost considerations, and review regulatory requirements. 

With this knowledge, business owners and property managers can make informed decisions and choose the fire alarm system that best suits their needs and budget.

In this guide, you will learn:

  • Top benefits of installation 
  • Key components 
  • Main types of systems
  • Factors to consider for system selection 
  • Cost considerations
  • Inspection, Testing, and Maintenance (ITM) requirements
Fire Alarm Systems: What Your Business Needs to Know

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What is a Fire Alarm System?

A commercial fire alarm system is a collection of devices designed to detect and alert building occupants of a potential fire. Fire alarms comprise several components, including initiating devices, notification appliances, and control panels. 

These interconnected devices work together to identify smoke or heat and will sound an audio or visual alert to ensure occupants receive ample time for evacuation. Commercial systems are often connected to a central station monitoring service to enable rapid first responder deployment in an emergency.

The benefits of commercial fire alarm installation include the following:

  1. Increased safety of personnel and customers - Enables early detection of fire or smoke hazards, allowing occupants to evacuate quickly and avoid hazardous conditions.
  2. Meet regulatory compliance - Installing a compliant system is necessary for businesses to operate legally. 
  3. Reduced risk of damage - Early detection means less time for a fire to spread, which can help reduce property damage caused by a fire.
  4. Reduced insurance rates - Insurance companies may offer reduced insurance rates as an incentive to businesses that install these systems due to the increased level of safety they provide.
  5. Peace of mind - Knowing your facility complies with local regulations and has increased safety measures in place gives everyone peace of mind.

What Are the Components of a Fire Alarm System? 

Modern fire alarms have various components that must work harmoniously to detect, alert and control fire effectively. Let’s take a closer look at the individual components.

Fire Alarm Control Panel (FACU) - The heart of the system, the FACU is responsible for receiving and processing signals from fire alarm devices such as smoke detectors and manual pull stations.

Fire Detectors - These initiating devices detect smoke particles, heat, or both, depending on the type of detector used. The main types of fire detectors include:

  • Heat detectors
  • Carbon monoxide detectors
  • Ionization smoke detectors
  • Photoelectric detectors
  • Combined ionization and photoelectric 

Manual Pull Stations - Located at strategic points around the building, these wall-mounted stations allow personnel to manually trigger an alarm in case of emergency.

Annunciators - Visual panels that display information about alarms and activities within the system, allowing personnel to take remedial action quickly and efficiently.

Power Supply Units (PSUs) - Responsible for providing primary and backup power to all fire alarm system components to ensure continuous operation. 

Notification Appliances - Visual/auditory devices such as horns, strobes, or speakers that notify occupants of system activation.

Emergency Control Function Interfaces (ECFI) - Connects the fire alarm to other critical building systems such as elevators, fire doors, access control, and HVAC to provide an additional layer of security. ECFI can be programmed to perform specific actions when an alarm is triggered. For example, it can close fire doors, activate sprinklers, and shut off HVAC systems to prevent circulating smoke. 

Emergency Voice Alarm Communications Systems (EVACS) - An advanced communication system that provides verbal commands and specific instructions for evacuation during an emergency. EVACS are commonly used in entertainment venues, high-rises, hospitals, and other densely-populated facilities where exiting a building is more difficult.

What are the Main Types of Commercial Fire Alarm Systems?

All commercial fire alarm systems can be divided into two main categories: automatic and manual. Automatic fire alarms use sensors to detect smoke or heat, and when a certain threshold is met, they will trigger an audible signal and visible warning lights to alert those in the building. Manual fire alarms require an occupant to physically pull a lever to activate the system. 

Knowing these two basic categories will help you narrow in on the system type that best suits your needs. To help you make an educated choice, let’s compare the two most common types of commercial fire alarms. 

Conventional Fire Alarms

A conventional fire alarm uses analog technology, and the components are individually hardwired to the control panel. This system divides the building into smaller detection zones, each connected to multiple detectors. When a fire is detected, the control panel will indicate the general area of the trigger zone. However, since multiple detectors exist in each zone, the system cannot identify the precise location of the fire, unlike other more advanced systems.


  • Reliable 
  • Affordable
  • Simple to use 

Most Suitable for Smaller Facilities, Including:

Main Takeaway: Select a conventional system if your business needs a cost-effective solution for protecting a small coverage area. 


Addressable Fire Alarms 

An addressable fire alarm uses digital technology to communicate detailed information – a step up from conventional systems in terms of functionality. Each component has an electronic address or serial number assigned to it so that malfunctions can be identified quickly and precisely. 

This type of system can pinpoint the exact location of a fire within a building which can help reduce emergency service response time. With an addressable system, businesses can also set manual and automatic alarms in specific locations throughout the building. Remember that these systems are typically more expensive than conventional systems due to their complexity.


  • Scalable 
  • Customizable 
  • Less likely to trigger costly false alarms

Most Suitable for Larger Buildings, Including:

Main Takeaway: Select an addressable system if your business needs a scalable solution for protecting larger areas and typically needs to know the exact location of a fire incident. 



How To Choose the Right Fire Alarm for Your Building

Choosing a fire alarm for your building is a critical business decision. Before purchasing, conduct some research, analyze your building, and consider your needs carefully. Here are a few factors to consider and questions to ask to guide you through the purchasing process. 

1. Building Size and Layout 

  • How many levels or floors does it have? 
  • How large is each level in terms of square footage?
  • What areas are occupied?
  • Is your building in a remote area or a high-trafficked site?
  • Do you need coverage for multiple buildings within the same area? 

2. Industry

  • What type of services do you offer?
  • Are you protecting people, property, or both?
  • What are the fire hazards present within the facility?
  • Does your company deal with any hazardous materials? 
  • Do you have any unique needs that pertain to your industry?   
  • Are there any local codes or regulations that need to be considered? 

3. Functionality 

  • Does your facility require 24/7 monitoring?
  • What specific features does your system need to have? 
  • Can the system support integrations with other technology?  
  • Do you need a system that can communicate more detailed information?
  • Can the system perform additional safety functions, such as activating fire suppression or recalling elevators?

Expert Advice

Addressable fire alarms are an ideal choice for larger buildings and facilities as they offer higher customization, scalability, and accuracy in detecting potential fires. Conventional systems may be a better option for smaller buildings as they are often more cost-effective and easier to install than addressable systems. If you require further guidance, consult a fire alarm specialist.

How Much Does a Commercial Fire Alarm System Cost?

Investing in a high-quality fire alarm with the latest technology will help protect your staff, customers, and property from potential disasters. The peace of mind and potential savings in property damage will easily offset the high upfront costs over time.

You’ll need to understand pricing considerations to find the best system for your needs and budgetary requirements. The cost of a commercial fire alarm system will depend on several factors, including:

  • System type 
  • Number of components needed  
  • Building size and age
  • Building classification 
  • Industry codes 
  • Installation complexity 
  • Ongoing maintenance
  • Monitoring services 

Generally, the cost of a commercial fire alarm system can range anywhere from a few hundred to several thousand dollars, depending on the size and complexity of the system you need. Reach out to your local Impact Fire branch if you require further budgeting guidance.

Should You Integrate Your Fire Alarm with Other Technology?

Integrating fire alarms with other technology may be code-mandated in some scenarios. In other cases, integration is entirely voluntary and optional. Most fire alarms can integrate with various fire protection and building systems, but the most common integration involves business security systems. 

Here are a few examples of the most common building systems interfaced with fire alarms. 

What are the Benefits of Integrated Fire Alarm Systems?

Many forward-thinking businesses implement integrated solutions to protect their people, property, and premises more effectively. Others businesses are gravitating toward an integrated approach for convenience and cost-effectiveness.

Here are a few more key benefits of an integrated fire alarm system:

  • Simplifies system management 
  • Reduces the risk of false alarms
  • Improves response time in an emergency
  • Reduces maintenance and inspection costs
  • Increases system reliability and performance
  • Highly flexible, scalable, and customizable to meet individual needs 
  • Enhances safety and protection against theft, intrusion, and other crimes

Does Your Facility Require Fire Alarm Monitoring?

NFPA, IFC, and IBC fire codes require many commercial and industrial facilities to install monitored fire alarm systems.

In a fire-related emergency, a monitored fire alarm will use standard phone lines (POTS Lines), internet protocol (IP), or cellular transmission to transmit signals to a central station. Once the signal is received, qualified operators will quickly assess the cause, alert first responders, and provide any additional information they need for a timely response, including your location and building layout.  

If your facility requires fire alarm monitoring, partnering with a UL-Listed central station is critical. An experienced UL-listed monitoring company is committed to high service and security, including quick response times and reliable technical support. A monitoring company without UL certification likely lacks the desired level of care, expertise, and reliability you need to keep people, property, and assets safe.

What are the Fire Alarm Inspection, Testing, and Maintenance Requirements?

Building owners and property managers must conduct periodic fire alarm inspections, testing, and maintenance (ITM) to ensure regulatory compliance and system functionality. NFPA 72 outlines the ITM requirements for fire alarm systems, including initiating devices and notification appliances. 

While ITM schedules vary based on system type, the general guidelines established by NFPA state that fire alarms must be thoroughly inspected and tested at the following intervals:

  • Weekly
  • Monthly
  • Quarterly
  • Semi-annually
  • Annually
  • Every five years
  • Every ten years 

PRO TIP: Most fire and life safety professionals recommend visual inspections every month and function tests at least quarterly.  

Remember, ITM requirements for fire alarms vary depending on your local authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) and the type of system you have. It’s best to contact your local Impact Fire branch for fire code compliance consultation in your area. 

Let’s take a closer look at the ITM requirements for fire alarm systems.

Visual Inspections

A fire alarm inspection is a visual assessment that verifies that the system and its related components appear to be operating optimally, in the proper location, and free of physical damage. Your employees can conduct visual inspections in-house if they have been adequately trained in fire safety. Your in-house staff is permitted to perform visual inspections at the following intervals:

  • Weekly
  • Monthly
  • Quarterly 

Here are some of the most common visual inspections:

  • Inspect CO2 detectors and batteries 
  • Ensure all fire alarm components are clearly labeled and in an easily accessible location.
  • Check for missing parts, such as wires pulled out of sockets or smoke detectors not securely attached to the wall.
  • Examine the control panel and related equipment to ensure it's free from dust, dirt, corrosion, and any other signs of wear and tear

Functional Tests

Functional testing is an in-depth examination of the fire alarm system’s operation and performance. During functional tests, technicians will simulate real-world conditions to uncover malfunctions and ensure all components work as intended. Once the test is complete, a detailed report outlines system deficiencies, including recommendations for code compliance. 

While trained employees can conduct visual inspections in-house, more rigorous functional tests require an experienced fire and security company like Impact Fire. A certified technician must perform the following functional tests:

  • Semi-annual
  • Annual
  • Five-year
  • Ten-year 

According to NFPA 72, most fire alarm components require annual testing. However, there are a few that require semi-annual testing. Here are some of the fire alarm components that should be tested periodically. 

  • Control panels
  • Initiating devices
  • Remote annunciators
  • Secondary power supply 
  • Alarm notification appliances
  • Heat, smoke, and duct detectors

Preventative Maintenance 

Commercial fire alarm systems are ineffective if improperly maintained. Proactive fire alarm maintenance helps extend system longevity, prevent false alarms, and avoid unnecessary disruption to business operations. Additionally, regularly scheduled maintenance ensures that the system complies with local codes and regulations.

Fire alarm maintenance frequency is determined by several factors, including:

  • Equipment type 
  • Manufacturer guidelines 
  • Environmental conditions

Insurance companies and local authorities have their own standards of maintenance for fire alarm systems, which can sometimes be more stringent than the NFPA. Each system is unique, so it is important to consider all guidelines from the manufacturer, the NFPA, and any relevant authorities when creating a maintenance schedule. 

When partnering with a qualified fire protection company, look to see if they offer the following preventive maintenance services

  • Replacement equipment
  • Emergency repair services
  • Precise record-keeping and reporting
  • Qualified technicians with 24/7 availability to respond to your needs
  • Annual and biennial equipment maintenance following manufacturer guideline

Ready to Install a Fire Alarm System for Your Building?

Choosing the ideal commercial fire alarm system for your facility is a complex process as it depends on many factors, such as cost, building size, and features. While having a knowledge base can differentiate a passive building owner from a savvy one, tackling this complex, critical fire and life safety challenge alone is never advisable.

An experienced fire protection company will help you choose the commercial fire alarm system that best suits your needs and budgetary restrictions. Fire alarm specialists will work with you to create a plan to migrate your outdated fire alarms to newer, addressable systems often recommended by the local AHJ.

Fire Alarm System FAQs

1. What Types of Buildings Require Fire Alarms?

Here are a few types of commercial structures that require fire alarm systems: 

  • Retail properties
  • Industrial facilities
  • Assisted living communities
  • Hospitals and medical centers 
  • Schools, colleges, and universities
  • Commercial kitchens and restaurants 
  • Libraries, courthouses, and other government buildings
2. What is the Average Lifespan of a Fire Alarm System?

The average lifespan of a fire alarm system is approximately 10 to 15 years, depending on the type of system and the level of maintenance it receives. Regularly scheduled maintenance will ensure that the system operates optimally and in accordance with local regulations and standards.

3. What are the Benefits of Fire Alarm Monitoring?

In addition to meeting legal requirements, here are a few additional benefits of commercial fire alarm monitoring:

  • Increase safety
  • Reduce business disruptions
  • Receive insurance discounts
  • Improve emergency response times
  • Reduces false alarms and associated fines
4. How long does a fire alarm inspection take?

The duration of a fire alarm inspection and test will depend on the size of your facility. Inspections for smaller systems may take as little as an hour, whereas larger facilities with multiple buildings and complex systems may take up to a few days.

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