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Up to the standards: technically speaking

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Fire alarms play a key role in preventing fires. The original standard, published more than three decades ago, has experienced a few changes, but remains the essential code to follow for fire detection systems.


Originally published in 1980, BS 5839-1 Fire detection and fire alarm systems for buildings. Code of practice for design, installation, commissioning and maintenance of systems in non-domestic premises, has become one of most important standards for fire detection in the United Kingdom. The evolution of the standard is evident in how its title has changed.

The original version was entitled simply, “fire detection and alarm systems in buildings. Code of practice for installation and servicing”. Design considerations first appeared in the second edition (1988) with the commissioning of such systems included in the next iteration (first published in 2002 and then subsequently amended twice between 2002 and 2008).

The title of the 2013 edition made the distinction that the standard was for non-domestic premises – a distinction that’s remained unchanged in the 2017 version – with domestic premises covered by BS 5839-6:2013.

Through the contributions of organisations such as the British Fire Consortium, Certsure, the Fire Industry Association, the Fire and Security Association, the Fire Protection Association, the National Landlords’ Association, the National Fire Chiefs Council (formerly CFOA); and the National Security Inspectorate – as well as many individual experts – BS 5839-1 is globally respected and vital for its industry.

Maintenance is critical for ensuring the long-term reliability of the installed fire detection and fire alarm systems. Photograph: iStock/rclassenlayouts

BS 5839-1 explained

But what is BS 5839-1? Why did it need to be revised and what changes were made? Most importantly, why should the industry pay attention to this document over the dozens that already exist?

BS 5839-1:2017 is a code of practice, and therefore, consists of guidance and recommendations. As the Foreword makes very clear, “[BS 5839-1:2017] should not be quoted as if it was a specification and care should be taken to ensure that any claims of compliance are not misleading. As a result, all users claiming compliance with this British Standard are expected to be able to justify any course of action that deviates from its recommendations.”

BS 5839-1 is subdivided into several sections, each one dealing with specific aspects of the design and installation of the fire detection and fire alarm system.

The seven sections are:

General – gives the scope of the document, normative references and terms and definitions. This section also explains why a fire detection and fire alarm system may be needed and the type of systems available. It provides several categories of systems, which can be used by designers to suit specific cases. It defines the exchange of information that is needed between the parties involved and stipulates when and how variations to recommendations may be adopted when the main recommendations cannot be complied with

Design considerations – re-groups all items which need to be considered during the system design stage. This includes relating system categories and areas protected and assessing the subdivision of a system in detection zones and alarm zones. More specifically, design considerations address specific issues leading to the selection of the correct type of fire detection and audible and visual alarms as well as the specific type of control and indicating equipment and power supply equipment which should be used. It also makes recommendations on network systems and radio-linked systems

Limitation of false alarms and unwanted fire alarm signals – recognises that false alarms can seriously prejudice the safety of occupants by reducing their trust in any future alarms and that unwanted fire alarm signals can waste precious resources in the fire and rescue service. Responsibilities for the limitation of such false alarms and unwanted fire alarm signals are clearly established and tools are given for use by those responsible to achieve the recommended limitation

Installation – establishes the responsibilities of the installer and recommends best practices and workmanship as well as giving recommendations for the inspection and testing of the system wiring

Commissioning and handover – specifies the process involving thorough testing of the installed system to ensure that it operates correctly in accordance with the recommendations of this standard and with the specification. It specifies documentation and records which must be made available before the system hand-over to the purchaser for acceptance

Maintenance – a critical and essential activity for ensuring the long-term reliability of the installed fire detection and fire alarm system. This section specifies the test and verification process to be carried out by the user or routine testing by a third-party inspection and servicing organization. It also gives guidance and recommendations for dealing with modifications with the system

User’s responsibilities – specifies the need for the user to appoint a single, named member of the premises management to supervise all matters pertaining to the fire detection and fire alarm system, including the maintenance of records in a logbook.

One normative and six informative annexes are included, each providing supplementary information to support several aspects covered by the code. The annexes cover: choice of appropriate category of fire detection and fire alarm system; typical noise levels in building; control and transmission equipment for tactile alarm devices provided for people with impaired hearing systems; schematic for design against false alarms; model format for system logbook; model certificates; method for calculating standby battery capacity (normative).

BS 5839-1 doesn’t exist in isolation. Its recommendations are effective because they build upon the guidance of other, associated standards. The first step in any revision is to understand what has changed elsewhere and, when a standard has been withdrawn, to ensure the references are updated where appropriate.

References to EN 54-29 point detectors using a combination of smoke and heat sensors and EN 54-30 point detectors using a combination of carbon monoxide and heat sensors were included for the first time. However, as these European Standards have not yet been accepted for harmonisation and citation in the Official Journal of the European Union (OJEU), references to BS ISO 7240-8 and BS ISO 7240-15 have been maintained as being still relevant.

The revised BS 5839-1:2017 offers new and improved definitions of terms. The definition of critical signal path has been improved to include transmission equipment for routing signals to alarm receiving centres, and the definition of false alarm has been changed to refer to ‘environmental false alarms’.

Unwanted fire signal (UFAS) has been added as a new definition of has been added. This new definition enables the recommendations of BS 5839-1:2017 to take into account the effect of UFAS on the fire and rescue service.

BS 5839-1 will be of use to anyone involved in the commissioning, installation, design and planning of fire alarm and detection systems. Many organizations consider the recommendations given in BS 5839-1 mandatory and thus essential for contractors to follow during any work. Furthermore, the revised document takes into account changes to relevant parts of the EN 54 series, providing guidance on how implement the recommendations for use in the UK.

BS 5839-1 has been used on high profile construction projects across the Middle East and Asia including Dubai; New Delhi, India; and Hong Kong. It is a British Standard with a global reach.

BS 5839-1:2017 available here

Chris Smith-Wong is programme manager for Built Environment
Bernard Laluvein is Chair of the committee for BS 5839-1 at the British Standards Institution

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