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Commissioning Life-Safety Systems

Nov. 1, 2008
Roles, responsibilities, and phases of this critical-path event

The process of commissioning a life-safety system is very similar to that of commissioning a HVAC system; however, the stakes—essentially, death vs. discomfort—are a lot higher. This article describes the process of commissioning life-safety systems and explains the roles and responsibilities of the individuals involved.


Roles and responsibilities related to the construction-phase commissioning of a life-safety system are very similar to those of an HVAC system, with a few non-negotiable differences.

Prime contractor. The prime contractor's role is one of not only constructing the envelope, but coordinating and scheduling. It is imperative that the prime contractor know not only how to get from Point A to Point Z, but when.

A prime contractor should:

  • Provide detailed and up-to-date project schedules.

  • Employ a mechanical, electrical, and plumbing coordinator, avoiding reliance on subcontractors coordinating and sequencing themselves.

  • Promote speedy resolution of issues among subcontractors.

  • Manage and communicate to the owner the consequences (i.e., delays) of mid-construction design changes.

Subcontractor. The subcontractor's role primarily is one of constructing/installing the system(s) he or she is contracted to construct/install and aiding commissioning.

A subcontractor should:

  • Provide input for the prime contractor's project schedule.

  • Avoid defensive posturing, responding positively to commissioning issues.

  • Not depend on word of mouth, journeying to a job site for a visual inspection.

  • Provide any proprietary equipment required to verify functionality.

Designer. The designer's role is one of responding to questions and design-related issues in the field. In doing so, the designer must be swift and thorough to avoid the perception of being responsible for any missed completion dates.

It is important to note that the 2006 International Building Code (Section 909.18.8.3) requires engineers of record to sign, seal, and date final commissioning (or special-inspection) reports, confirming that, based on test results, design intent has been achieved.

Owner. The owner's role primarily is one of remaining calm amid the storm of construction. In many jurisdictions, the owner is required to hire the commissioning provider (CxP), which eliminates any real or perceived conflicts of interest.

Commissioning provider. A CxP is part coach, part taskmaster, part expert, part judge, and part mediator. It is important to establish at the outset of commissioning that the CxP has no authority to enforce compliance and no responsibility with respect to design, design modification, construction completion, resolution of deficiencies, warranty, or acceptance by the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ). However, implementation of the CxP's suggestions should be seen as increasing the likelihood of success.

In a team environment, identifying and communicating deficiencies and issues in a factual, professional, blameless, and, at times, accommodating manner is critical. Taking into account ego and pride of workmanship and assuming that each team member is doing his or her best fosters an environment in which team members accept deficiencies and issues without immediately taking a defensive posture.


Design/construction-documentation review. One of the most important parts of the commissioning process, design/construction-documentation review is the first opportunity to identify issues that could impact the acceptance-testing schedule and essential to developing functional-testing scenarios. It entails:

  • Verification that fire-protection-sprinkler zones match smoke-barrier boundaries.

  • Verification that all required fire/smoke dampers are shown on mechanical drawings.

  • Verification that control drawings are fully developed.

  • Verification that the fire-alarm contractor provided all initiation, input, and output devices and coordinated with the temperature-controls contractor.

  • Verification that equipment utilized for smoke-control purposes is in compliance with codes and local amendments.

  • Verification that the firefighter's smoke-control panel is in compliance with codes and local amendments.

  • Development of methods to test pressure differentials in very large passive zones.

  • Development of functional-testing scenarios.

Prefunctional testing. Prefunctional testing runs concurrently with construction and allows the CxP to better understand the project, bond with subcontractors, and nip problems in the bud.

Functional testing. Life-safety-system commissioning is a critical-path event, meaning a building cannot open until it is complete. On the Las Vegas Strip, it is of intense priority, as the monetary value of a typical building being open can be $10 million a day.

In many, if not most, construction environments, a CxP cannot afford to wait for construction to be completed to begin functionally testing life-safety systems. Thus, testing must be phased in. The larger the project, the more critical this is. Phasing functional testing generally means portions of a system are tested while others are incomplete. For example, a smoke damper is functionally tested for operation and status feedback without the entire smoke zone being programmed. The secret is to construct testing scenarios to build on one another so that performance confidence is established as testing proceeds from component-level testing to subsystem-, system-, and all-systems-level testing.

Commissioning completion. During the commissioning-completion phase, a final report is submitted to the AHJ. After the report is reviewed and approved by the AHJ, acceptance testing is performed. The CxP is responsible for organizing the testing teams. This includes providing listings of personnel, copies of test scenarios, sets of plans, radios, and ladders; communicating expectations; and having repair teams on standby.


Life safety is a critical component of buildings. With good reason, there is a healthy fear of the liability associated with testing life-safety systems. Systematic verification and documentation of the functionality of life-safety systems, however, reduces liability for everyone involved and leads to safer indoor environments.

Mark A. Leafstedt, PE, CCP, CxA, is chief executive officer/president of TestMarcx Commissioning Solutions (, a firm specializing in independent, third-party testing and commissioning of mechanical, electrical, climate-control, security, and smoke-control systems.