How Commercial Fire Alarm Systems Work and How You Can Best Manage Yours

By Andrew Erickson

April 22, 2023

Fire is one of the most devastating hazards that can occur in commercial buildings. While fire prevention is always the goal, it's important to have a reliable fire alarm system in place to alert occupants and emergency responders in the event of a fire.

Business owners have a responsibility (both ethical and legal) to protect their employees, customers, and property from the devastating effects of a fire. Commercial fire alarm systems are a crucial component of any fire protection plan. They provide early warning to help prevent injury, death, and property damage.

Let's examine how commercial fire alarm systems work and the role they play in keeping buildings safe.

Why do you need fire alarms for your building(s)?

The purpose of commercial fire alarm systems is to alert occupants of a building and emergency responders in the event of a fire. The systems work by monitoring the building for signs of a fire. This can include smoke or heat. You system will then initiate a response to evacuate the building and notify authorities.

Commercial fire alarm systems are regulated by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 72, the National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code. This code establishes the minimum requirements for the design, installation, testing, and maintenance of fire alarm systems in commercial buildings.

What are the key components of a commercial fire alarm system?

Fire alarm systems consist of various components that work together to detect and alert occupants of a fire. Let's take a closer look at each of these components:

  1. Smoke Detectors are the most common type of fire detector used in commercial buildings. They use photoelectric or ionization technology to detect smoke particles in the air. Once smoke is detected, the detector sends a signal to your building's FACP (see below), which then triggers the alarms and alerts the building occupants.
  2. Heat Detectors are less common than smoke detectors. They are used in areas where smoke detectors may not be suitable, such as in kitchens or areas with high levels of dust or steam. Heat detectors can detect rapid temperature changes or a predetermined threshold of heat (ex. 135 degrees F on some models) and send a signal to the FACP (see below).
  3. Pull Stations, also known as "manual pull stations", are devices that allow occupants to manually activate the fire alarm system. Pull stations are usually located near building exits and are designed to be easily accessible in the event of an emergency. Prior to the invention of "automatic initiating devices" like smoke and heat detectors, manual pull handles were the most common way for a system to be told by a human's hand about the existence of a fire.
  4. Fire Alarm Control Panels (FACP) are boxes that form the on-site brains of the fire alarm system. Each FACP receives signals from various detectors and initiates the appropriate response, such as sounding alarms and contacting emergency responders. The FACP also performs various system tests and provides diagnostic information to technicians. This is the first stop for first responders
  5. Notification Appliances include devices such as horns, strobes, and speakers that alert occupants of a fire. These appliances are typically placed throughout the building and can be activated by the FACP or manually through pull stations.
  6. Monitoring and Communication Devices are used to alert emergency responders of a fire. These devices can automatically contact a monitoring company or a local fire department, providing critical information such as the building's location and the type of fire detected.

Commercial fire alarm systems work by continuously monitoring the building for signs of fire. When smoke or heat is detected, the system triggers alarms and alerts occupants to evacuate the building. The FACP also sends a signal to monitoring and communication devices, alerting emergency responders to the fire.

You can monitor for other emergencies using the same underlying monitoring technology

In addition to detecting fires, fire alarm systems can also provide additional safety features such as carbon monoxide detection, emergency lighting, and voice evacuation messages. These features can help occupants navigate the building during an emergency and provide critical information about the nature of the emergency.

Commercial fire alarm systems can also be integrated with a security system to provide enhanced protection. This can include features such as access control and video surveillance, providing business owners with a comprehensive security solution.

A quality installation is something worth paying for

There are some things you can do yourself, but installing a fire alarm system probably isn't one of them. Aside from the obvious technical know-how required to do the job well, there are certifications required for code compliance that only professional contractors/installers have.

A professional installation from a quality provider also prevents system problems down the road.

False alarms can be a common issue with commercial fire alarm systems. This can result in unnecessary evacuations, wasted resources, and potentially expensive fines.

To prevent false alarms and other chaotic malfunctions, it's essential to ensure that the system is installed correctly and regularly maintained by a qualified professional.

Maintenance is as important as your initial installation

It's important to note that while fire alarm systems are essential in commercial buildings, they require regular testing and maintenance to ensure they are functioning properly. NFPA 72 requires regular testing and inspection of fire alarm systems to ensure they meet safety standards and are ready to respond in the event of a fire.

How will you monitor your fire alarms as they occur?

In most buildings or campuses of a significant scale, you're also required by the NFPA 72 fire code to follow standards for establishing a monitoring center.

A monitoring center is a "war room" of some kind that will automatically contact emergency responders in the event of a fire. This provides critical information about the building's location and the type of fire detected to accelerate the emergency response and keep everyone safe.

Your two primary choices for a monitoring center are:

  1. Run a proprietary monitoring server in-house. This allows you to collect your own alarms with staff who understand precisely when and where alarms are occurring. This option is best for those with at least several buildings (or a large skyscraper) who can justify a 24-hour monitoring center within their organization.
  2. Pay for a third-party central station. This option is common for smaller operations where it's simply not feasible to run your own monitoring facility 24 hours a day. You pay recurring fees that never stop and give up the advantages of an in-house staff who understands your properties, but you do avoid the upfront purchase and staff expense required to do it yourself.

Just tell Digitize what you're trying to accomplish with commercial fire alarms

At Digitize, we're experts in this industry. We're a manufacturer of proprietary in-house monitoring systems you can use to monitor your fire alarms. As a result of that work, we relate to all aspects of fire alarms on a regular basis.

Whether or not you need Digitize alarm equipment, we're happy to give you a few minutes of time on a call with an engineer to discuss your project. This can give you critical guidance at an early stage that will slash hours from your project timeline.

Call Digitize at 1-800-523-7232 or email

Andrew Erickson

Andrew Erickson

Andrew Erickson is an Application Engineer at DPS Telecom, a manufacturer of semi-custom remote alarm monitoring systems based in Fresno, California. Andrew brings more than 17 years of experience building site monitoring solutions, developing intuitive user interfaces and documentation, and...Read More