PA/VA: Regulations, standards and the law

PA/VA is absolutely critical to public safety, but the huge differences in regulations and standards across EMEA has caused huge amounts of confusion. Steve Montgomery looks at what can be done to meet the law.

In a world in which safety is of paramount importance, the ability to evacuate a building in the event of a fire or other security concern is essential.  One of the most effective methods is through the use of voice alarm systems to guide inhabitants.  However there is such a wide range of rules, regulations, standards and codes covering the building industry procedures and the equipment used, that the selection, design and installation of voice alarm systems in buildings can be extremely complicated.  Variation in regulation and standards vary from country to country within the EU can cause additional confusion.  Under EU rules, equipment cannot be invalid in different member states, although sometimes this does happen.  

Because of that confusion, some installed systems may not necessarily be up to the task of providing evacuation instructions that are reliable, loud enough and intelligible, either because the regulations are not relevant for a particular building or complex, or because the equipment used is inappropriate or badly installed.

“People who make a living from installing voice alarm systems, and charge high prices in doing so, are relied upon by clients to advise on and deliver systems that meet pertaining legislation and are fit for purpose: that of providing adequate evacuation instructions in an emergency,” says Roland Hemming, consultant at RH Consulting. However he believes that there is a general lack of knowledge that is endemic across the industry and includes manufacturers, consultants and installers.  “They either don’t understand the subject or they use standards as a way of spreading fear to help sell their products or just cite many standards as if that makes things safer.  There are countless examples of manufacturers using ‘compliance’ and certificates to make it feel like their product is safer but they are not aware if their products are being deployed in a compliant manner.  In the EU they are still liable.  Furthermore manufacturers may announce details of product testing standards without understanding the relationship these standards have with national and international codes of practice.”


Peter Mapp, an independent audio consultant also believes there is a discrepancy between what should be installed, and what actually is: “The biggest problem is that way that we deal with contracts.  Price is usually the determining factor, not quality.  Equally installers get squeezed by the construction chain.  Even though we have standards that should be adhered to, many installations still do not meet them.”

Within the European Community there is legislation that enforces the use of products in the construction industry that meet certain standards.  This is the Construction Products Regulation (CPR) which lays down harmonised rules for the sale of construction products in the EU.  This is basically a rule that any construction product sold in the EU must carry a declaration of performance covering its performance and ensuring consistency of manufacture.  To abide by the CPR, fire detection and fire alarm equipment must normally be tested, and certified to, a suite of harmonised standards defined by industry standard EN54. There are three parts of EN54 which cover different types of equipment including EN54-16 for voice alarm control and indicating equipment, EN54-4 covering power supplies and EN54-24 for loudspeakers.

Whilst the EN54 standard controls the quality of production and performance of devices, it does not relate in any way to their suitability to meet the actual requirements of an installation.  A mechanism is therefore required that firmly defines the design, installation, commissioning and maintenance of voice alarm systems using EN54-certified devices.

That mechanism is the Code of Practice (COP).  Individual countries in the EU have specific COPs that must be met in order to comply with local building regulations.  In the UK, for example the relevant code of practice for fire detection and alarms is BS5839-8, whilst in France it is NFS61-936/ECSAV. 

Nick Baldwin, sales & marketing director of Baldwin Boxall explains how it operates: “The British Standard BS5839-8 is a code of practice that defines how a system should be installed, configured and maintained in order to meet the legal requirements and obligations of the site-owner.  It covers a wide range of areas including power supplies, cabling and system backup to installation and testing, to ensure that the system is suitable.  All our Voice Alarm products are designed to meet both EN54 and BS5839-8.”


In some instances there may be no suitable EN54-certified devices that can deliver the necessary sound pressure level or functionality to meet the requirements which means that the system designer will need to investigate an alternative solution.  Sascha Riedling, business analyst and controller at ic-audio mentions another shortcoming: “Depending on the acoustic conditions in the project and other requirements such as high-quality music reproduction, it is not always sufficient from this point of view only to meet the legal minimum requirements. This understanding should be the decisive guideline in all stages of the planning, the acoustic simulation, through the appropriate product selection, to the details of commissioning and documentation of the system.  Good acoustics is more than just following laws and regulations.”

The code of practice therefore allows the use of substitute items that may not be specifically manufactured for use in fire detection and alarm systems.   The most important aspect of every voice alarm system is that it provides working and effective communication at all times.  In some cases, for example sports stadiums with high levels of crowd noise, EN54-certified loudspeakers may not have the sufficient sound pressure output to produce clearly audible and intelligible announcements.  In this case, a more powerful PA loudspeaker may be more suitable and can be used.  Any deviation from the code of practice and substitution of EN54-certifeid products with alternatives must be documented.  

Torsten Kranz, TOA, outlines the situation in Germany: “In Germany fire experts must check each voice alarm system as a part of current construction legislation.  The installers should follow EU requirements laid out by the CPR (Construction Product regulation no. 305/2011) and check that installed equipment is certified to the appropriate EN 54 standard.  At the moment there is no standard for active loudspeakers, but this will be addressed by a new one: VDE 0833-4-2.”

Understanding and applying suitable equipment correctly requires a deep understanding of building regulations and standards, as Kranz explains: “Fortunately installation companies in Germany usually have well educated staff because most professionals here must have completed education which is set by several specialist associations.  The courses leading to qualification last around 2 to 3 years. There is also support from the ZVEI industry association that provides legal and standardisation information and guidance on forthcoming standards.

“Equipment manufacturers are also in a good position to offer guidance on correct installation procedures.  We help our customers, who are mainly installers and consultants to understand the requirements and plan voice alarm systems.  Manufacturers of VA systems have to be up to date with the latest regulations and standards and informing and teaching customers gives benefit to both the customer and the manufacturer.

Riedling highlights an additional aspect: “The perspective of a manufacturer is certainly an important one.  They have a great deal of experience and it makes sense to use this experience as a resource.  But manufacturers are only a part of the market.  Of course, they try to influence the design of standards and regulations and in some cases their influence prevails.  This is essential in the development of regulations and standards; since different perspectives have to be heard and acknowledged.”

Whilst this is an effective and worthwhile exercise in ensuring safe and reliable system installation, and also serves to boost confidence in individual manufacturers, Hemming does not believe this is a common situation.  “Many manufacturers have a poor history in communicating details of standards to integrators and consultants.  It is left to them to learn about the necessary procedures themselves.”  However this, he says, is not happening to an adequate level: “The lack of knowledge from installers and consultants is startling.  I have rarely seen voice alarm documentation from a consultant that is correct and complies with the CPR and the EU Blue Guide.  Some say they try to make their systems ‘as compliant as possible’ without understanding the legal implications of what that really means.”   

Mapp also makes a similar observation: “Much of my work on larger, corporate projects is policing the offer and installation, rather than working cooperatively with the installer to get the best for the client, or battling with the architects to provide an acoustically suitable environment or allow speakers to be located where they are needed.  Although there are exceptions of course.”

Voice alarm and evacuation systems are critical to public safety and it is essential that all parties involved in the manufacture, specification and installation of these systems understand and abide by the relevant industry procedures.  However it is also clear that the regulations are somewhat lacking and need to be modernised and tightened.  Particularly as new techniques and technologies emerge and the potential to crate single combined alarm and public address systems emerge.  

There is legislation that is meant to provide a means for all voice alarm products to be used across Europe. This is meant to dovetail with national codes of practice, but the EN 54 product standards have caused enormous confusion for installers and consultants.

Riedling summarises the situation: “The main regulations and standards lag far behind current market needs and technical possibilities. Therefore, they need to undergo a change in the medium term. There is certainly still a lot of catching up to do in terms of voice alarm, since from a purely technical perspective good solutions are possible without having to make compromises in terms of safety and reliability.  In the future there will be even more potential for the industry to deliver workable systems that provide benefit to site operators and visitors. One of the major themes for the next few years is network audio:  we see network connectivity of nearly all areas of life as the central topic of the coming years.”