As evidenced in more and more clients' requests for proposals (RFPs) these days, there is a growing trend in the industry requiring individuals who design and commission fire alarm systems to be NICET certified in fire protection engineering technology. Often, this means the designer must achieve a minimum certification level. In the past, this typically translated into a NICET Level II certification. However, more recently, many RFPs are calling for NICET Level III certification — or even Level IV in some instances.

What exactly is NICET certification, and what are the benefits for engineering firms that routinely engage in the design of fire alarm systems to encourage their employees to achieve it? Let's take a closer look.

Inside NICET

The National Institute for Certification in Engineering Technologies (NICET), founded in 1961, is a nationally recognized, non-profit division of the National Society of Professional Engineers based in Alexandria, Va., whose stated mission is to “provide an independent evaluation of technical knowledge and experience, through certification,” for individuals “working in the fields of engineering.”

The Institute provides detailed certification information on its Web site (www.nicet.org) regarding multi-discipline certification programs for individuals working in the fields of architectural design as well as civil, structural, mechanical, industrial, and electrical engineering. NICET certification programs are structured to promote a greater degree of technical knowledge and competence in the workforce, with the goal of ultimately providing more highly qualified designers and professional engineers within the engineering community.

The various certification programs follow the same general format, which consists of a combination of written examinations, documented work experience relevant to the specific testing category, and a major project in the area of certification. NICET also recognizes the importance of continuing education and professional development, requiring certified individuals to earn a minimum of 90 “continuing professional development” credits over each three-year certification period, in each area of certification, in order to maintain accreditation.

Measuring up

Individual certification programs consist of several testing levels, which coincide with the number of years experience required to test at that specific level. Testing levels are made up of several work elements divided into the categories of “general” (topics of general knowledge relating to the overall certification program), “core” (topics of technical knowledge relating, in general, to the work element itself), and “special” (topics of detailed technical knowledge specifically related to the work element).

A person testing at a given level is permitted to choose work elements from any of the three categories, allowing him, in essence, to determine the exact structure and content of his own examination. There are usually more “general” and “special” work elements offered at each level than actually need to be passed in order to achieve that particular level. However, all “core” work elements in any given level must be passed to reach certification in that specific level.

The certification process for fire alarm systems, as divided into four separate and distinct levels of knowledge and experience, educates an individual in both the use and interpretation of the various codes and standards necessary for successful system design.

NICET Level I — and a large portion of NICET Level II — work elements begin to instruct the participant in how to use the codes and standards to answer relatively simple questions. These might range from choosing the appropriate fire alarm device to be used in a given situation to the location and spacing of devices based upon ceiling height or the requirements of a central station.

The work elements in NICET Level III, however, are more challenging and begin to introduce methods for successful interpretation of the codes and standards. Often, these questions will deal with listed “exceptions” to certain code requirements that were identified in the earlier levels. A specific code requirement with several listed “exceptions” is referenced as being applicable to a given design situation, and the participant is asked to determine which “exception,” if any, is appropriate, and why.

NICET Level IV work elements often deal with situations that are addressed by more than one code or standard. At this level, the participant is expected to compare the requirements of each individual source to determine which is most relevant to the given application. Some of these exercises require a person to identify common elements between codes and to provide an interpretation to a given situation based upon those similarities.

Each certification category has its own program detail manual, which lists all of the associated work elements for each individual level. Specific information is given regarding examination topics, possible questions, and testing expectations for each work element, along with the appropriate codes, standards, and textbooks to be referenced prior to testing. The timed examinations are open-book, and individuals are allowed and encouraged to bring any applicable references into the testing area for use during the exam. The questions found in these open-book NICET certification examinations represent actual system design applications.

Each level builds upon the previous one, gradually increasing in difficulty. In preparing for examinations, an individual often finds that certain very basic and fundamental sections of key codes, such as NFPA 72 (National Fire Alarm Code) and NFPA 101 (Life Safety Code) are referenced repeatedly.

Benefits of getting onboard

The advantage in pursuing NICET certification in fire alarm systems is learning not only which code or standard applies to a given situation, but also knowing the specific section of that code or standard — and being able to quickly locate and interpret the necessary information. The work element descriptions for certification in fire protection engineering technology for fire alarm systems reference more than 30 different codes, standards, and textbooks — some of which are several hundred pages long. As an organization, NICET has identified the greatest challenge confronting any designer: the need to be able to sift through the tremendous amount of available information and to find the most appropriate resource in an efficient manner.

As technology progresses and the industry becomes more complex, the benefits of participation in NICET certification will have increasing value, both for designers and professional engineers. More and more life safety projects, especially those involving state and federal funding, are requiring an independent code review. A certificate of code compliance must be issued prior to the release of bid documents.

These types of requirements are seen with increasing frequency and are the source for the tremendous growth in NICET participation and certification over the last decade. In fact, the number of individuals attaining NICET Level III and Level IV certification has notably increased (Fig. 1 on page 39 and Fig. 2 above).

Many federal, state, and local authorities have recognized the importance of NICET certification as a means for designers and professional engineers to become more technically proficient. More stringent NICET certification requirements have been added for projects involving the design and commissioning of fire alarm systems.

NICET certification is one more tool that allows the designer to move from a performance-based design to detailed design of fire detection systems. This allows the designer the ability to offer multiple levels of fire detection design to meet each client's expectations. It provides a designer with the knowledge and skills needed to progress from broad, performance-based plans, to detailed, project specific, code-compliant fire detection system design.

Shaver received his NICET Level IV certification in November 2004 and is an electrical designer with Stanley Consultants in Muscatine, Iowa.