How often should a fire alarm be tested in commercial premises?

The Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 [FSO], in article 13 subsection 1, requires that where necessary (whether due to the features of the premises, the activity undertaken there, any hazard present or any other relevant circumstances) in order to ensure the safety of relevant persons, it is a legal requirement that the responsible person must ensure that the premises are, to the extent that it is appropriate, equipped with appropriate fire detectors and alarms. In subsection three, it states that the persons nominated to implement these measures, and to maintain them, must be a competent person. However, a responsible person (or person appointed by the responsible person) can carry out testing of the fire alarm system after being trained to do so correctly.

What are the different types of fire alarm systems?

There are a two main types of fire alarm systems available. These are manual and automatic.

The manual fire alarm system requires a person to activate the fire alarm by a manual call point (outstation), which will register on the fire alarm panel (master station). The outstations are required to be located on escape routes and fire exits, with additional outstations in higher risk areas such as plant rooms, commercial kitchens and laundries.

An automatic fire alarm system is activated automatically by either smoke or heat detection and will also have the ability for a user to manually raise the alarm by an outstation, which again will register on the master station.

Fire alarm systems in commercial or business premises are available as two variants, conventional or addressable. Firstly, a conventional fire alarm system will see a detected fire (whether by automatic fire detection systems or the activation of a fire alarm manual call point)  registered on the fire alarm control panel as  in one of the identified zones, such as the ground floor, warehouse or plant room, depending on how the system was designed and installed. The second type is an addressable fire alarm system, where a detected fire (whether by automatic fire detection systems or the activation of a fire alarm manual call point) is registered on the fire alarm control panel as a specific location or address within a zone, such as via an automatic smoke detector in the ground floor boiler room, or a fire alarm manual call point by the ground floor rear fire exit.

The type of fire alarm system required in your premises should be identified within the current fire risk assessment.

What is the frequency for testing my fire alarm system?

The relevant British Standard with regards to the testing of a fire alarm system is BS 5839-1: 2019 Fire detection and fire alarm systems for buildings . In section 25.2  it states that all fire alarm systems in commercial premises need to be tested weekly to ensure that there has not been any major failure, and that the fire alarm system is in working order. To do this, firstly a list of all  outstations within the premises must be created, as each one should be tested in a rotational order, ensuring that all locations are tested regularly. In smaller premises, it is acceptable to test just one location each week - so for example within a premises where there are a small number of  outstations, these could all be tested over a two month period in rotational order. In larger premises, it may be more appropriate to test two or three outstations each week, to ensure all devices are tested over the same length of time.

Do I need to be trained to test fire alarms?

BS 5839-1: 2019 section 25.1 states that the testing of a fire alarm does not require any specialist knowledge, and can normally be carried out quite easily. However, it may be appropriate for a competent person to provide initial instruction in the testing of a fire alarm system for this to carried out diligently. The FSO, in part 1 subsection 3, defines the responsible person “in relation to a workplace” as “the employer, if the workplace is to any extent under his control, or in relation to any other premises, the person who has control of the premises (as occupier or otherwise) in connection with the carrying on by him of a trade, business or other undertaking (for profit or not); or the owner, where the person in control of the premises does not have control in connection with the carrying on by that person of a trade, business or other undertaking”.

Who should test the fire alarm system?

BS 5839-1: 2019 section 25.1 also states that the testing of a fire alarm can normally be carried out by the occupier of the premises. This could be the responsible person, as defined in the FSO, or someone designated by the responsible person, such as a property manager. However, both will need simple instructions in how to do so.

How should the testing of the fire alarm system be carried out?

When carrying out the fire alarm test, the following recommendations are applicable:

a) In premises in which the location of the master station is such that the audible fault warning signal could go unnoticed for longer than 24 hours, a special check should be carried out each day to confirm that either the equipment indicates normal operation, or that any fault indication is receiving necessary attention. This inspection need not be recorded. For example, this could be a large site where the main master station is located in a security building at the entrance of the site.

b) Every week, an outstation  should be operated. It should be confirmed that the call is correctly received at the master station,  and that a short test conversation is clear and intelligible at both master station and outstation. This is done by activating the  manual call point, which activates the alarm via the  control panel. Once suitably heard, the reset key can be inserted into the call point to reset the device, and the fire alarm can be silenced and reset via the control panel.

c) A different outstation should be used at the time of every weekly test, so that all in the building are tested in rotation.

It is important to note that if the fire alarm is linked to an alarm receiving centre (ARC) that the ARC is contacted immediately before and immediately after the weekly fire test, to ensure unwanted alarms are avoided and that the fire alarm signals are received appropriately.

How should the fire alarm testing be recorded?

The result of the weekly test and the identity of the outstation used should be formally recorded. Ideally, this would be recorded in a fire logbook every week and retained for any future inspection by the local fire and rescue service or any other recognised third party. Any faults or deficiencies identified should be referred to a competent person for investigation and rectification. The FSO defines a competent person as follows:

“A person is to be regarded as competent for the purposes of this article where he has sufficient training and experience or knowledge and other qualities to enable him properly to assist in undertaking the preventive and protective measures. Such competent persons would be suitably trained and qualified fire alarm maintenance contractors, ideally with some form of identifiable 3
 Party accreditation.

In accordance to BS 5839-1: 2019, it is essential that the fire alarm system is subject to periodic inspection and servicing, so that any unrevealed faults are identified and addressed to restore the integrity of the  system. This periodic inspection and testing should be carried out by a competent person with specialist knowledge of fire detection and alarm systems, and with sufficient information regarding the system and adequate access to replacement parts and components. Competence of a fire alarm servicing company or organisation can be assured by the use of companies registered with organisations providing third party certification or accreditation, such as British Approvals For Fire Equipment (BAFE). The nature of the work that should be carried out annually includes the following:

  • a manual switch test of every fire alarm manual call point

  • a functional test of every automatic fire detection device, including automatic smoke detectors, smoke alarms, automatic heat detectors, optical beam detectors, aspirating systems and other similar devices

Although the requirement for this work is to be done annually, the works detailed may be carried out over the course of two or more service visits during a 12 month period.

It would also be necessary for the competent person to identify any deficiencies, such as an inadequate amount of fire alarm manual call points, low audibility of  fire alarms in areas and a lack of detection relating to the category of fire alarm installed, as well as  any wiring or signal faults identified. It would additionally be necessary to identify any changes in use, layout and construction of the building that may impact on the effectiveness of the system. Any recorded false alarms or faults in the fire logbook should also be investigated and where possible, rectified to completion.

A certificate of conformity and suitability should be issued following any periodic inspection and servicing.

Please be aware that considerable efforts have been made to ensure the accuracy of the information contained within this article at the time of publication, however any legislative (or other) changes that come into effect after this may render the information out of date until it is reviewed and updated as part of the FPA’s content review cycle.