American Alarms Blog

Design Starts With Knowing Occupancy Type

by Adam Jacobs 9/21/2022

Whenever I sit down to design a fire alarm system, the first thing I have to remember is...what type of occupancy is this?  Some buildings are easy, like hotels.  Some mixed-use buildings can be very challenging to even know WHAT type of occupancy the building will be.  If I have complete architectural drawings (that's a big IF) sometimes there are enough clues.  But sometimes it takes lots of phone calls before I know how to start the fire alarm design, or if fire alarm will even be required.  Linked below is a handy reference that compares IBC and NFPA occupancy classifications.



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Occupational Licensing - Alarm Contractors

by Adam Jacobs 9/21/2022

In the 1950's only 5% of workers in America needed a license to do their job.  Today it's estimated that 19% of all workers in the U.S. need an occupational license.  Workers who install, program, test/inspect, and service fire alarm systems are in that 19%.  For at least the last 10 years, the Iowa Department of Public Safety, State Fire Marshal's Division, has required anyone wanting to work on fire alarm systems to get a license first.  Here are the different levels (endorsements) of licensing required for fire alarm in Iowa:

#1 = Fire alarm system contractor or installer (all-inclusive, 2-7 not needed)

Allows the license holder to do anything related to fire alarm systems - install, test/inspect, service, and program.

#2 = Nurse call systems only

#3 = Security alarms only

#4 = Alarm system maintenance/inspection only

#5 = Dwelling unit alarm system only (Residential)

#6 = Alarm system component installer only

Allows license holder to hang devices, but not to program or test the system.

#7 = Alarm system assistant (must be supervised by #1 license holder)


In order to get each of these licenses, you need to be pre-certified using an approved training/testing course:

NICET II Fire Alarm Systems or ESA Certified Alarm Tech 2 = #1 State License

NICET I Fire Alarm Systems or ESA Certified Alarm Tech 1 = #2-#7 only


In addition to certification, before getting the Iowa license, we must also go through a complete criminal background check including fingerprinting.

To make sure you get a qualified alarm technician, ask to see the technician's State of Iowa license.  They should have a card with the state seal and a list of endorsements.  If their endorsements don't match what they have come to do for you, question them (or flog them) rigorously.  The state fire marshal doesn't have time to run around and check everyone's license, but you should.  Your safety and that of your co-workers, customers, and visitors are in their hands.  

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Is Your Fire Alarm System Really Communicating?

by Adam Jacobs 9/21/2022

We recently discovered, through numerous tests, that most (if not all) of the newer modem (telephony/VOIP) phone lines are NOT redundant.  So even if you have two phone numbers, if one line is down they're BOTH down.  This is how the modem works.  It's assigning two different phone numbers, but they are communicating over the same "line".  So, if you have phone service that uses a modem and you are using them for your fire alarm be sure you ask the installing technician these two questions:

Is my modem programmed to fake analog phone lines? - this is the only way that the the fire alarm panel will recognize these lines

If one "line" isn't working, do I still have a backup "line" so that my fire alarm panel can communicate an alarm?

Telephony is fine, and it can save you money, but be sure you're not sacrificing your safety. 

CenturyLink is the only telephone service provider in our area that provides true analog phone lines that ALWAYS work with fire alarm communicators.  This isn't a plug for CentruyLink, is simply a fact that we've revealed through years of experience.


Research your telephone service.  You DON'T want your fire protection to be "phony".

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How do you hide the fire alarm and still meet the codes?

by Adam Jacobs 9/21/2022

Where do you go when the owner and architect want one thing, but the fire codes require something else?  Well, Concealite has built a business around just that!  American Alarms is your local distributor for Concealite products that have helped architects and code officials find a reasonable compromise for years.  Imagine walking into a room where NONE of the fire alarm notification devices, emergency lighting, electrical wall outlets, security motion detectors, and even occupancy sensors are concealed in the wall.  Never before has it been this easy to design a space with a clean seamless look, but still meet all the electrical and life safety code requirements.  Most devices can be painted or wallpapered to match any wall/ceiling.  See the GIF and link below for more info on these incredible products.


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Did the low bid really save you money?

by Adam Jacobs 9/21/2022

I can't even count how many times I've heard customers complain (after the fact) about all the costs that come from NOT having a fire alarm system installed correctly and professionally.  Here are some of those ADDED costs that show up down the road, long after the final punch-list is complete:

- Programming changes - $130 to $180/hour X 2 hours min = avg $300 per trip

- Service calls for issues that show up and none of the sub-contractors will claim = $300 min. per call

- False alarms caused by short circuits, incorrect programming, or other mistakes = second trip $200, increases from there

- Cost of being on the fire department's sh-- list = ?

- Upset tenants/residents from false alarms and service calls/testing = ?

- Extra work (maybe overtime) for maintenance workers/property managers = $50-$100/month avg.

- Parts that fail because they were not properly installed or properly surge-protected = easily 10% of total initial system cost/year


Now, you may think...most of this would be covered under my warranty.  Well, maybe you should read your fire alarm warranty.  We provide our warranty to any customer that asks, but not many ask.  Here are some things that aren't usually covered under a fire alarm warranty:

- Surge damage (including lightning)

- Other natural hazards

- Damage from people, animals, insects, etc.

- Water/ice/snow on outside horn/strobes or pull stations that eventually gets inside the device (very common in Iowa)

- Issue related to phone lines or internet connections (also very common)


Please make sure you work with a fire alarm contractor that know what they are doing.  From the site survey, to the estimate, to the installation, to the programming, to the monitoring, to the service after the sale, it ALL matters.  There's also a COST to all of these pieces.

Be safe.


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Hotel/Motel Fire Safety

by Adam Jacobs 9/21/2022

Summer is a time when families travel more.  There are some basic tips for fire safety, that will give you peace of mind when you travel.  Here is a brochure from the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) on hotel and motel fire safety.  Travel safely this Summer!


HotelMotelSafety_brochure.pdf (195.68 kb)

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Iowa Green Streets - CO detection

by Adam Jacobs 9/21/2022

In Iowa Green Streets Criteria version 4.0, Section 7-16 specifies that "One hard-wired carbon monoxide (CO) detector shall be installed for each sleeping area, minimum one per floor."  This section is labeled Combustion Equipment (includes space and water-heating equipment).  Under "Intent", this section mentions the difference between direct vent and power vented equipment.  With either type of equipment, a minimum of one detector per floor is mandatory to meet the criteria of Iowa Green Streets.  In contrast, IFC 2012 requires CO detection on floors that use gas-fired appliances, floor above and floor below, as well as any floor with a garage.  CO detection is here to stay.

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Made in the USA

by Adam Jacobs 9/21/2022

We feel it's important to do our part to buy American products (it's in our name after all).  If we can't get them in the USA, we try to buy from free trade countries.  Below are some of the companies and products we buy from regularly that are located in the USA.

Gentex Corp - fire alarm notification devices (Michigan)

Chase Security - wire guards for fire alarm and security devices (Illinois)

STI - pull station covers, specialty buttons, enclosures (Michigan)

TekTone - apartment intercom, nurse call (North Carolina)

GRI - security contacts (Nebraska)

Rath/Microtech - area of refuge call systems, emergency phones (Wisconsin)

Air Products and Controls - relays and controls (Michigan)

Altronix - power supplies, power controls (New York)

Potter and Evax - power supplies, fire alarm devices (Missouri)

Amseco - security parts (Missouri)

Cartell - vehicle detection (Pennsylvania)

Concealite - motorized device enclosures (South Dakota)

Ditek - surge protection for fire alarm, security, and CCTV (Florida)

Jeron - intercom, nurse call (Illinois)

Keltron - communicators, monitoring solutions (Massachusetts)

Napco - alarm communicators, fire alarm and security panels (New York)

SDi - fire alarm testing equipment (New Jersey)

Thermotech - specialty heat detectors (Utah)


We encourage you to buy American whenever you can, too!


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Central Station jargon

by Adam Jacobs 9/21/2022

Occasionally we find ourselves talking to a customer about their alarm monitoring and using the jargon that only we understand in the industry.  I have to catch myself sometimes.  "What's an RP list," a customer asks.  Oh, I'm sorry, I mean an emergency contact list.  What's an E301 and E608?  Well, that's the central station's way of telling you that your panel had a power outage and now it's sending an abnormal test signal.  Here are answers to some of our customers' most frequent questions.

Q: I just received a call for a phone line trouble, in the middle of the night.  Do I have to take those? 

A: No.  We can tell the central station to only call on trouble signals between 8AM and 5PM.

Q: What are some of the most important signals that require my response?

A: Any ALARM, of course.  In the winter time in Iowa and other cold areas, it's also important to listen for "Low Air" supervisory signals.  If this goes unattended, it could mean frozen pipes and thousands of dollars of water damage.

Q: Do I have to sign a long-term contract for alarm monitoring?

A: Not with us.  Most other monitoring services require at least a 2-year commitment.


If you have any other monitoring or central station questions, please call us and ask.

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Fire Alarm Integrations and Special Applications

by Adam Jacobs 9/21/2022

Do you have a special application fire alarm project?  Most alarm companies can handle the simple system designs - retail store, small apartment building, small office building, etc.  But how about these integrations/applications:

Elevator primary/secondary recall

Smoke dampers

Elevator shaft smoke hatch with manual release

Explosion-proof devices

Hazardous area devices

Mass notification requirements

High-candela visual notification (hearing impaired)

Text/email secondary notification

HVAC control integration

Exhaust fan startup

Temp/water sensor integration (sprinkler monitoring)

Fire pump function monitoring

High-rise notification zoning

Smoke control panel integration

Large area/outdoor notification

Multi-building campus fiber-optic network

Access control integrations

Special hazard/agent releasing integrations


Now some of those sound like CIA mission names, but they are all part of fire alarm system design that we've encountered and designed over the years (almost 36).


When you need help with a special application, give us a call and make sure it gets designed correctly.

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