written by
Emily Landes

With 2021 quickly approaching, there’s no time to waste in getting your building under compliance with new fire alarm requirements.

After a spate of devastating apartment fires hit the city in 2016, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed legislation to seriously strengthen safety in multifamily properties. Most of these requirements went into effect shortly thereafter, but a provision requiring a manual fire alarm system that would be more likely to wake sleeping residents was pushed out to 2021.

Properties classified as R-2 (non-transient residential buildings with more than 2-units) that are required to have a fire alarm system  are impacted by the alarm legislation, which Captain Ken Cofflin of the San Francisco Fire Department explained was vitally important to increasing residents’ chances of survival in the event of a fire. “Regrettably, many occupants of buildings where people were trapped by a fire state that they never heard the fire alarm,” he said. “The new fire alarm upgrade will ensure that all sleeping occupants are notified immediately while increasing their chance of evacuating their building on fire.”

The new alarms are more effective not just because they are louder, but because they use low-frequency horns or speakers that are more likely to wake a sleeping person. These lower frequencies actually require more energy to make them sound and unfortunately most existing fire alarm systems are not designed to handle the additional power required.

Therefore, the alarm upgrade is not a simple procedure and may require more time and resources than owners realize. “It will take some time to get through this process and owners should not wait any longer to begin,” Cofflin explained.

The department has been reaching out to owners since the 2016 legislation went into effect, with several rounds of letters, an updated website (sf-fire.org) and community meetings with owners and management companies. Owners completing more than $50,000 worth of work (not including seismic safety) on their buildings and those who already had malfunctioning systems have put in the new alarms, but the vast majority of affected owners still need to do the required work, Cofflin said.

“As the deadline nears, many alarm companies will be overwhelmed with business, installation cost will increase and wait times could be months,” he said.

Let the Bidding Begin
Those on the front lines of alarm installation echoed concerns that time is running out. Yat-Cheong Au is with AEC Alarms and said owners should make moves now in order to get the work done before the deadline. “There are just too many buildings subject to this new ordinance and not enough contractors to do the work,” he explained. “It is a simple supply and demand equation with demand exceeding supply.”

Not only will contractors be in short supply, but the Department of Building Inspection will also be overwhelmed with requests for the permits often required to do the work, explained Jeff Gregory, fire alarm manager at Battalion One Fire Protection. “The sooner a building can get into the queue and have a permit issued, the faster the work can be completed, inspected, and signed off,” he said.

But before permits can be pulled, owners must decide on a contractor. Coffin advised owners to get multiple bids, which may vary greatly depending on what equipment is included, what type of system (hardwired or wireless) is to be installed, and other factors. It may be best to start with your current service provider, and then branch out after receiving their bid, offered Au.

Au and Gregory both recommended asking all potential installers a few key questions: Is the contractor licensed to perform the work? Will they be pulling the project permits? How familiar are they with installing these types of systems and the SFFD requirements?

Gregory suggested owners also ask potential bidders to first perform a site survey to make sure a new system is even necessary. To meet the new requirements, a system test with access to all units and bedrooms and sound levels recorded for the record are necessary. But if the currently installed fire alarm system produces 75 decibels “at the pillow” in all sleeping areas, at any frequency, then the system does not need to be upgraded to the low frequency sounder requirement.

Many owners do not know about the required survey, said Gregory, who pegged it as one of the main misconceptions about the legislation. “Most figure that if they already have a system, they are fine,” he said. “Most do not realize that their system must be tested, and sound levels recorded with calibrated sound meters to make sure they meet the requirements of the new ordinance.”

Au says some of the owners he talks to don’t understand that they will need CAD drawings of their buildings systems to begin the likely lengthy permitting process. “Getting a drafter to ‘draw’ the building will take time as well, impacting the delivery and completion of the project,” he said.

Tick, Tick, Tick
Clearly, it is essential to get the process started now to have the upgrade completed by 2021. Yet Au says many owners still don’t understand when the requirements go into effect and others are taking a “wait and see” approach in the hopes that the deadline gets extended—a dangerous and potentially pricey game to be sure.

Cofflin said there will be no grace period and that violations and notices to abate will be issued immediately in cases of noncompliance. Au recommends that owners speak with their insurance companies to understand the risk factors if they do not complete the work in time. “Being out of compliance can become an even greater liability than the cost of the fire alarm upgrade itself,” he explained.

Even if the project is done before 2021, Au imagines prices going higher the closer that deadline gets due to increased demand on the same limited number of contractors. And Gregory points out that materials costs are likely to edge higher in the coming months as well. “Pricing has gone up about 25 percent on materials in the last year due to the trade war and will most likely increase more as more tariffs are imposed,” he said. “The sooner the project is started and completed, the less it will cost.”

And the sooner owners can breathe easier knowing both that they are in compliance with the new rules and that they have taken an important step in putting potentially lifesaving elements in their buildings. “Many buildings unfortunately still do not have a system that would reasonably wake a sleeping occupant in the event of a fire,” Cofflin explained. “This lack of in-unit occupant notification reduces the chances that persons will be able to evacuate the building before the fire traps them inside their unit. The earlier people are notified of an emergency, the better the chances of escape and survival.”

Emily Landes is a freelance writer and the former editor of SF Apartment Magazine.