The Real Changes to NFPA 72



Recent articles and NFPA’s own website, advertise a lot of “significant changes” having been made to the 2016 Edition of the National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code, NFPA 72. In addition to these “significant changes,” the NFPA website states that there are also “hundreds of other changes” made throughout.

To me, I think there are merely a couple of changes in the 2016 edition that you might consider “significant.” Here’s a list some of the changes that were made, and I will leave it up to you to determine their significance.

Change No. 1: New Exceptions for MNS

The first advertised “significant change” involves a surprising new exception for listed fire alarm initiating devices used in Mass Notification Systems (MNS). I see this as a “significant change” only for the largest regional or national alarm companies who will be providing MNS simply because of the size and scope of these campus-sized systems.

For installers of mass notification systems, the existing wording states that initiating devices for MNS “shall be listed for their intended purpose” — however, the new 2016 wording now allows this: “Where no listed device exists for the detection required by the emergency response plan” …” nonlisted devices shall be permitted to be used…”. This new exception will allow networks to use a PC, or even cell phones, to initiate mass notifications; which is actually not new, but the wording allowing it is new. Keep in mind that these systems may not involve a local AHJ’s approval, but instead, be under the jurisdiction of the Department of Homeland Security or some other branch of the federal government.

The use of non-listed notification appliances in a MNS will be determined by the system designer for each portion [Acoustically Distinguishable Space (ADS)] of the facility, which cannot meet minimum voice intelligibility due to the specific acoustics of that space, its large size or its ambient noise level. If the designer has determined compliance is not practical or achievable in a specific designated ADS, they are permitted to declare these spaces “exempt” from intelligibility.

However, if the emergency response plan developed by the owner specifically requires that part of the building — including ADS — will have intelligibility at any cost, then the new code now states that they are permitted to use non-listed equipment when listed notification appliances do not pass an intelligibility test.

Keep in mind, that there still isn’t any guarantee that using separate amplifiers, connected to separate voice circuits, using non-fire listed, in-line speakers to meet voice intelligibility requirements, will be possible. In the end, the higher quality, but not-listed-for-fire-alarm-EVAC speakers, are only permitted to be used when attempting to provide intelligibility after the listed speakers did not provide intelligibility. On the other hand, the non-listed high-performance speakers cannot be used in other spaces unless that specific ADS has been determined as being incapable of meeting intelligibility requirements by using regular listed fire alarm EVAC speakers.

This new exception rule doesn’t apply to fire alarm voice evacuation systems, just to emergency MNS. As a new option to a rule which is only applicable to an optional emergency Mass Notification System, which are not being installed by the average alarm company, maybe this 2016 exception shouldn’t be so highly touted as a “significant change” after all.

Change No. 2: New Pathway Circuit

Another advertised “significant change” is the addition of a new class of circuit (pathway) indicated by the letter N. Starting with your adoption of the 2016 edition of 72, signaling line circuits shall be indicated by a class designation letter of A, B, N, or X depending on their “performance capabilities under abnormal (fault) conditions.”

Class-N will describe a circuit used by a digital network to send fire alarm data between a FACU and fire alarm notification/initiating devices or other FACUs. While this concept is not new, it now has a designation letter and a list of application restrictions.

Circuits and pathways designated as Class-N will be separate paths, supervised end-to-end for Trouble conditions such as a short, open, or a condition where the minimum data transfer rate is not possible. The redundant path is not required for any Class-N serving only a single point. See the extensive Annex material which does a good job of explaining the hows and whys of the new Class-N designation for fire alarm system circuits.

If you use a building owner’s computer network to perform code required fire alarm functions, this may be a significant change for your business.

Change No. 3: Low-Frequency Alarm Appliances

The requirement for providing a 520 Hz low frequency sound “in areas intended for sleeping and in areas that might reasonably be used for sleeping” took effect Jan. 1, 2014. The Annex reference in the 2013 edition of 72, which states that any “low frequency alarm” appliance should be listed, has been changed in the 2016 edition.

This change includes the addition of a third section that states, “The notification equipment shall be listed for producing the low frequency waveform.” I assumed that this was the case all along, since the first rule under “Equipment” in the Fundamentals Chapter covered this by saying, “Equipment constructed and installed in conformity with this Code shall be listed for the purpose for which it is used.” This would include individual notification appliances and voice EVAC equipment used for tones and announcements in sleeping areas.

NFPA is now stating that this rule requiring “notification equipment shall be listed for producing the low frequency waveform” is a “significant change” for 2016, but seems to me to be more of a clarification.

In the 2016 edition, this was changed to allow“Performance alternatives approved by the authority having jurisdiction” and dropped the “two-hour” wording. This is a “significant change” for those installing fire alarm EVAC systems in healthcare facilities and where “defend in place” or “relocation” of occupants is permitted to be used by the staff.

The change allows you to convince the local AHJ that since the project building does not have any barriers with a two-hour rating, your strategic use of a Class A, Class X, or Class N circuit, or use of a wireless communication pathway is comparable.

If the AHJ accepts your alternative, then you do not have to use one of the controversial, two-hour rated — and rather expensive  — cable or cabling systems. Since “performance alternatives” must be specifically approved by the AHJ before the start of the installation of any fire alarm system, I do not think that relying on the local code official to accept your word that what you wish to do is the same as meeting the prescriptive code will amount to a “significant change” in your fire alarm EVAC installation.

Change No. 5: Rule Change Notations

This traditional, and very useful, feature is not being provided by NFPA in the 2016 edition, for reasons not disclosed. If you want to locate all the rule changes from the 2013 edition to the 2016 edition, then you will have to do your own page-by-page comparison. Now that change is significant.

Since states/jurisdictions often take years to adopt any new ’72 Edition, it may be a while before any of these aforementioned changes take effect. I will be interested in hearing from my readers via email about your company’s experience with these, or any of the “hundreds of other” NFPA 72 changes.

Greg Kessinger is SD&I’s fire alarm and codes expert and a regular contributor. Please email him your fire & life safety questions at 

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