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Author(s): Wayne Moore. Published on January 2, 2018.

In Compliance | NFPA 72

Understanding private mode notification for health care facilities


Imagine a hospital filled with patients in weakened conditions. Then imagine every patient room equipped with public fire alarm notification appliances. When an alarm occurred, those devices would sound in patient rooms at close to 85 decibels. High-candela strobes might begin flashing. Imagine the fear or agitation you might experience if all this was going on and you couldn’t get out of bed. Imagine ambulatory patients who, not knowing what else to do, try to leave the floor or area with no knowledge of where the alarm occurred and could be moving toward a less safe location. What about the nursery filled with newborns, or operating rooms with active surgeries taking place? It’s easy to see that the misapplication of notification appliances in a health care occupancy could be life threatening rather than life saving.

Even so, we find engineers designing fire alarm systems with notification appliances not only throughout the corridors but in every patient room. When asked why they design such inappropriate systems, they respond that if they don’t include notification appliances everywhere, the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) will not approve the installation.

This misperception stems from confusion over which type of notification to include. The 2016 edition of NFPA 72®, National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code, states that the purpose of notification appliances is to provide stimuli for initiating emergency action and provide information to users, emergency response personnel, and occupants. Two modes of signaling are allowed by the code: public mode, which is the most common, and private mode.

The definition of public mode is obvious, in that everyone in the area or building must be notified of the alarm. The code also requires that the notification appliances meet a specific sound level to be heard clearly throughout a building. To do that, the code requires sound levels of at least 15 dB above the average ambient or 5 dB above the maximum sound level having a duration of at least 60 seconds, whichever is greater, with additional special requirements for how to measure those levels.

By contrast, private mode is less well known and not well understood. Private mode provides notification, according to the code, “only to those persons directly concerned with the implementation of emergency action or procedures in the building or area protected by the fire alarm system.” Based on this definition, when using private mode signaling we are not notifying everyone in the area or in the building of the alarm. Additionally, the code allows reduced sound levels for private mode signaling with the same sound level measurement techniques.

Private mode signaling is used throughout health care occupancies such as nursing homes and hospitals, occupancies with fire alarm systems installed in accordance with NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code®, and other building codes. The notification confusion revolves around the requirements enforced in the field when private mode signaling is used. Health care occupancies have persons directly concerned with the implementation of emergency action or procedures in the building or area protected by the fire alarm system, which is why the Technical Committee on Notification Appliances developed the private mode signaling requirements. It was never the intent to notify everyone in the area or building of the alarm in a health care occupancy—the goal is to only notify staff who are trained to respond to the alarm. It makes no sense to make the notification system so loud, or visual notification so pervasive, that patients will hear and see the alarm. Occupant notification via the private operating mode is specifically permitted on fire alarm systems required by the Life Safety Code where occupants are incapable of evacuating themselves because of age, physical or mental disabilities, or physical restraint.

More education is needed regarding the application and notification intent of private mode signaling. In a private mode design, there should only be notification appliances placed in staff areas, which would include the normal staff positions and areas where staff circulate. The staff have methods of communicating with each other; again, the intent is to only notify “persons (hospital or nursing home staff) directly concerned with the implementation of emergency action or procedures in the building or area protected by the fire alarm system,” according to the code. There should never be notification appliances—audible, visual, or combination appliances—throughout a health care facility, and never in patient rooms, treatment areas, or operating/procedure rooms.

It is the fire alarm industry’s responsibility to ensure that those involved in both design and enforcement of fire alarm system installations better understand the intent and goals of private mode signaling.

WAYNE D. MOORE, P.E., FSFPE, is vice president at Hughes Associates. Top Photograph: Getty Images