#122 – Pull Stations for Fire Protection Systems: A First Line of Defense

A working fire alarm pull station supports prompt evacuation and swift action from first responders

When somebody “pulls the fire alarm,” they’re usually talking about fire alarm pull stations. For more than 50 years, some form of these typically red boxes have been found on the walls of most large buildings in the United States.

In this article, we’ll cover how pull stations work, why they’re important, and what to look for when purchasing one.

How does a fire alarm pull station work?

Sometimes referred to as “pull switches,” fire alarm pull stations—often featuring a T-bar handle, as shown below—activate fire alarm systems.

Viking Fire Alarm Pull Station
Pull stations with a T-bar handle are easily recognized and activate with a single downward motion. Source: Potter

These systems can also be activated by other initiating devices, such as automatic heat and smoke detectors, but what follows is the same: indicating appliances, such as horns or strobe lights, direct occupants to leave the area. Pull stations send a signal to the control panel, and if the fire alarm is monitored, the control panel then usually sends a message to a company’s monitoring service, which transmits that message to first responders. In some cases, a signal is transmitted directly to a fire department.

Fire Alarm Control Panel
The status of pull switches and other essential components are displayed on fire alarm control panels like this one. Source: Photographed at Oklahoma State University and uploaded to Wikimedia Commons

It’s a less commonly-known fact that most pull stations don’t cause fire sprinklers to spray water. Many fire alarm systems may monitor fire sprinkler systems – and sound the alarm when sprinklers discharge – but their purpose is to alert bystanders and authorities to danger.

Pull stations are redundant—and that’s (part of) the point

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) authors guidelines used by state and local governments to write fire code. At the core of NFPA’s philosophy is redundancy – the effort to guarantee that when one life safety system fails, another takes its place.

From the 2018 edition of NFPA 101

4.5.1 Multiple Safeguards. The design of every building or structure intended for human occupancy shall be such that reliance for safety to life does not depend solely on any single safeguard. An additional safeguard(s) shall be provided for life safety in case any single safeguard is rendered ineffective.

Attacking the problem of fire safety from multiple angles makes buildings much safer. Safety features – from fire extinguishers to fire escapes – are redundant in the best possible sense of the word.

Working, fail-safe fire prevention systems have become more widespread as the frequency of fires has declined. But today’s fires, while drastically fewer in number, remain just as deadly and devastating when they occur, making these fail-safes as critical as ever.

Thomas Peele, a journalist with The Mercury News, reported on a 2018 fire in San Jose, California that injured 15 people and displaced more than 100. Peele learned that an untested and uncertified fire alarm system failed to activate when fire broke out in a second-story unit at Summerwind Apartments. Fire inspector Andrew Whyte uncovered several additional fire safety violations, including problems with exit signs, emergency lights, and other fire prevention equipment. An inspection in 2011 had found “that the alarm at Summerwind was not certified as working,” but the issue was never remedied.

Pull stations, required in nearly every building, must be nearby

Every fire alarm system can be activated in one of several ways, but according to NFPA guidelines, manual fire alarm initiation is a requirement common to almost every building requiring a fire alarm system. Automatic detection can be used in place of manual activation only when explicitly allowed.

As a general rule, all kinds of public buildings – theaters, schools, daycares, hospitals, prisons, apartments, hotels, and businesses – need at least one alarm pull switch, even when automatic detection devices are connected to the alarm system. NFPA 101: Life Safety Code, available for free at NFPA.org, spells out these requirements.

From the 2018 edition of NFPA 101* For fire alarm systems using automatic fire detection or waterflow detection devices to initiate the fire alarm system in accordance with Chapters 11 through 43, not less than one manual fire alarm box, located as required by the authority having jurisdiction, shall be provided to initiate a fire alarm signal.

When boxes are required, they must be placed near exits and along walls at a prescribed distance.

From the 2018 edition of NFPA 101 A manual fire alarm box shall be provided as follows, unless modified by another section of this Code:

(1) For new alarm system installations, the manual fire alarm box shall be located within 60 in. (1525 mm) of exit doorways.

(2) For existing alarm system installations, the manual fire alarm box either shall be provided in the natural exit access path near each required exit or within 60 in. (1525 mm) of exit doorways.* Additional manual fire alarm boxes shall be located so that, on any given floor in any part of the building, no horizontal distance on that floor exceeding 200 ft (61 m) shall need to be traversed to reach a manual fire alarm box.* Manual fire alarm boxes shall be accessible, unobstructed, and visible.

Where multiple doors are clustered together, as pictured below, an alarm box is required on each side.

From the 2018 edition of NFPA 101 Manual fire alarm boxes shall be mounted on both sides of grouped openings over 40 ft (12.2 m) in width, and within 60 in. (1525 mm) of each side of the opening.

Pull Stations Near Doors
Pictured: A grouped opening of doors at the Roy Wilkins Auditorium in Saint Paul, Minnesota; an alarm box is required on each side of the grouping. Source: Wikimedia

NFPA provides straightforward installation guidelines

NFPA 72: National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code establishes installation criteria for “initiating devices,” a term that covers everything from waterflow detectors to manual fire alarm boxes. First and foremost, only qualified installers should make changes to fire alarm systems.

From the 2016 edition of NFPA 72 Fire alarm systems and emergency communications systems installation personnel shall be qualified or shall be supervised by persons who are qualified in the installation, inspection, and testing of the systems. State or local licensure regulations shall be followed to determine qualified personnel. Personnel shall provide documentation of their qualification by one or more of the following:

(1) Registration, licensing, or certification by a state or local authority

(2) Certification by an organization acceptable to the authority having jurisdiction

(3) Manufacturer’s certification for the specific type and brand of system provided

Further guidelines ensure the visibility, accessibility, and proper function of alarm activation devices.

From the 2016 edition of NFPA 72

17.14 Manually Actuated Alarm-Initiating Devices.

17.14.1 Manually actuated alarm-initiating devices for initiating signals other than for fire alarm shall be permitted if the devices are differentiated from manual fire alarm boxes by a color other than red and labeling.

17.14.2 Combination manual fire alarm boxes and guard’s signaling stations shall be permitted.

17.14.3 Manually actuated alarm-initiating devices shall be securely mounted. 17.14.4 Manually actuated alarm-initiating devices shall be mounted on a background of contrasting color.

17.14.5 The operable part of a manually actuated alarm initiating device shall be not less than 42 in. (1.07 m) and not more than 48 in. (1.22 m) from the finished floor.

Two terms are introduced later in this section:

  • Single-action boxes require only one action to operate (i.e., a single pull on a lever)
  • Double or dual-action boxes require two actions – lift and pull.

The 2016 edition of NFPA 72 continues:

17.14.6 Manually actuated alarm-initiating devices shall be permitted to be single action or double action.

17.14.7* Listed protective covers shall be permitted to be installed over single- or double-action manually actuated alarm initiating devices.

17.14.8 Manual fire alarm boxes shall comply with through Manual fire alarm boxes shall be used only for fire alarm initiating purposes. Manual fire alarm boxes shall be installed so that they are conspicuous, unobstructed, and accessible.* Unless installed in an environment that precludes the use of red paint or red plastic, manual fire alarm boxes shall be red in color.

What features should I look for?

Listings are an indicator of a fire alarm pull station’s quality. A listing or approval from experts in product testing, such as UL, ensures that manufacturers have taken certain precautions against damage. A pull station meeting UL 38, the company’s Standard for Manual Signaling Boxes for Fire Alarm Systems, has been examined, tested, and confirmed to resist problems caused by impact, use, corrosion, weather, and other factors.

If the box features a metal body, it should be treated or coated with corrosion-resistant material. In most cases, a single-action pull station works, but a dual-action pull model – those that require two gestures to activate – may be best in areas where the alarm may be unintentionally activated by impact (or by a prankster). All boxes should feature a handle that cannot be reset, except by authorized personnel, when pulled.

Single-action pull stations from Viking Group (manufactured by Potter Electric Signal Company) exceed these standards. They’re made with corrosion-resistant cast-iron bodies that mount to a standard single gangbox – boxes sized for a single light switch or a pair of electrical sockets. These stations include a terminal block, allowing for wires to connect to alarms with no splicing required.

Viking Fire Alarm Pull Station

Viking’s boxes meet the standards of UL 38 and have listings or approvals from UL, CSFM, FM, and the New York City Department of Buildings. Locking handles prevent premature termination of the fire alarm’s signal and hex-keyed entry and a die-cast body restrict access to authorized personnel.

Viking pull stations are ready for pre-orders at QRFS. To place yours, call us at 888.361.6662.

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