Have you ever wondered why the attention-grabbing strobe lights are such an important part of commercial fire alarm systems? Imagine for a moment that you’re deaf, and the reasoning immediately becomes clearer. ADA compliant fire alarm systems are important for the safety of everyone in your building.

The Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP) reports that there are 29.5 million non-institutionalized, working age persons with disabilities in the United States, meaning that over 16% of all working adults in the U.S. have a disability of some kind. It’s up to safety engineers and building managers to ensure that everyone within our buildings are equally safe during an emergency situation, whether they happen to have a disability or not. Thankfully, this responsibility is made a bit easier thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

What is the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA)?

As a building owner or building manager, you should be familiar with the ADA, and read through it. You won’t find detailed measures regarding hand railings, Braille signage, or egress ramps; the ADA doesn’t contain any of that. The ADA is a law written “for the elimination of discrimination against individuals with disabilities”, and was written to protect people with a wide range of physical and cognitive impairments affecting activities such as seeing, hearing, walking, standing, speaking, reading, communicating, and working. The law requires property owners to make their own determinations regarding the accommodations their facility needs in order to ensure reasonable accommodations and equal access to persons with disabilities, whether they are a member of the general public, or an employee.

The ADA requires property owners of existing buildings to “remove architectural and communication barriers that are structural in nature” to ensure equal access to all potential occupants, despite the financial impact this may have on the property owner. Certain exceptions are allowed in cases where “an action requiring signifiant difficulty or expense” would be required to provide equal access, and factors that come into play here include financial resources, facility type, and structural practicality. What does all that mean? Essentially, you’re legally obligated, as the property owner, to make every effort towards full ADA compliance.

How Can I Know If My Building is Already ADA Compliant?

You’re probably wondering where you can find specific and detailed ADA architectural standards, and the answer is in the Americans with Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG). However, the ADAAG can’t technically be enforced in the same ways local codes are enforced, because federal laws can’t be enforced by local government entities. Fortunately, many local government entities have added ADA-compliant language to their own code, so that it’s enforceable in their jurisdictions. Furthermore, most of the requirements detailed in NFPA 72 (the National Fire Alarm Code, which is used by fire alarm designers nationwide) exceed the minimum acceptable standards called for in the ADAAG. As you can see, there’s really no reason for a new building, or a building being brought up to current code standards, not to be ADA compliant.

If you’re starting to become concerned that your building’s current safety systems might not take the ADA into account, dig a little deeper and you may be pleasantly surprised, as the ADA has been around for nearly 30 years now. There are a lot of common misconceptions about ADA requirements as well; many people incorrectly assume that the ADA requires a specific amount of fire alarm devices, but the truth is that the ADA doesn’t actually require any fire alarms! It only requires that people with disabilities have equal access to the fire alarms that are required by other codes and laws.

Another ADA myth is that it requires all areas of a building to be compliant, but actually the ADA only calls for compliance in areas that are subject to occupancy by general members of the public AND/OR areas that are subject to occupancy by persons with disabilities. In short, areas that are not accessible to the general public, and are not subject to use by the general public, aren’t required to be ADA compliant unless those areas could be used/occupied by workers with disabilities. So in a place inaccessible to the general public, like an industrial machining facility, for example, ADA compliance isn’t required unless the facility employs a person or people with a disability (which may be unlikely in such a physically demanding work environment). As stated previously, it’s up to you as the property owner to determine what accommodations your facility needs.

Rest assured there’s good news though: it’s becoming easier and easier to be ADA compliant. Presently, there are more ADA-compliant fire alarm systems available for purchase than non-compliant ones, and so many local jurisdictions have adopted ADA verbiage into their code that you’re more likely to be ADA compliant by accident these days rather than the other way around. Even for older buildings that were constructed long before the ADA was drawn up in 1990, it’s easy to include ADA requirements in your renovation plans and/or safety system upgrades.

If you’re working with a NICET-Certified engineer to design your life safety systems, all of these considerations (and more) will automatically be taken into account when we analyze and review your building, needs, and budget. Contact us today to get started, or click here to get a free quote!