Clarifying Responsibilities when Cancelling Fire Alarm Services for Non-Payment

When a property owner refuses to pay for fire alarm service your company provides, how could it be your responsibility to secure replacement services from another vendor before cancelling the account for non-payment?

This may sound like a trick question on a business school exam, but several MSCA members have faced this problem—push back from municipal officials when they seek to discontinue fire alarm service for a chronically delinquent property owner.

To clarify this important question for our membership, the MSCA Board of Directors asked its legal counsel to review the law and the facts involved in a case recently faced by American Alarm in the City of Boston.

That legal analysis shows that neither Massachusetts State Law, nor City of Boston ordinances, requires a fire alarm services company to secure replacement fire services for a delinquent customer prior to termination.

Here is a summary based on MSCA Attorney David Fine’s review:

American Alarm recently encountered a situation with the Fire Inspector for the City of Boston wherein the City refused to issue a Cancellation Permit until American Alarm presented evidence that the property owner had procured a replacement Fire Alarm Service Contract.

We begin with the highest authority document, which is Massachusetts General Law (MGL) Chapter 148, Section 27a which states: “no person shall shut off, disconnect, obstruct, remove or destroy, or cause or permit to be shut off, disconnected, obstructed, removed or destroyed, any part of any sprinkler system, water main, hydrant or other device used for fire protection or carbon monoxide detection and alarm in any building owned, leased or occupied by such person or under his control or supervision, without first procuring a written permit so to do from the head of the fire department of the city or town wherein such building is situated, which permit such head is hereby authorized to issue subject to such terms and condition as, in his judgment, protection against fire and the preservation of the public safety may require.”

First of all, the word “person” references the building owner. Therefore, the Fire Alarm Service provider is not responsible for procuring the permit referenced.

Further, cancellation of a monitoring service does not fall under the scope of MGL 148 Sec. 27a, since the fire alarm has not been caused or permitted to have been, “shut off, disconnected, obstructed, removed, or destroyed”.

In Boston Fire Prevention Code Ordinances of 1979, Chapter 28, Section 12.03, BFD clarifies the difference between the “person” or building owner who must secure a permit from the Head of the Fire Department, and “the person to be in charge of the installation, repair, or alteration” who, “must be the holder of a Certificate of Competency for a Fire Alarm System Contractor…”

In Boston Fire Prevention Order 2011-1 Article 1 Section 20, BFD requires that the, “Fire Alarm Service Company” notify the Fire Marshal, “at least thirty (30) days prior to cancellation of a maintenance agreement for master box or central station connected systems…in writing…” (Note: this is a reasonable best practice followed by most (if not all) reputable licensed Systems Contractors.)

It goes on to state, “Cancellation of required central station monitoring will not be permitted without first obtaining a permit from the Boston Fire Department.” It does not say specifically that the Fire Alarm Service Company must pull this permit.

It continues, and requires that, “The permit application will require evidence of a written contract between the owner and the new central station monitoring company.” Some personnel at BFD misinterpreted this to mean that the Fire Alarm Service Company canceling service due to nonpayment was required to assume the role of the “person” or “owner” and submit a permit for disconnection which would include a contract with the new central station monitoring company.

After inquiring at BFD, David Fine spoke with a BFD representative in early December, 2014 who indicated as follows:

  • BFD will not be “enforcing” the incorrect interpretation that the Fire Alarm Service Company should pull a permit to discontinue monitoring due to nonpayment.
  • BFD will not be “enforcing” the incorrect interpretation that the Fire Alarm Service Company should provide a “written contract between the owner and the new central station monitoring company.”

The bottom line is that American Alarm only needed to notify the head of the fire department in writing of the planned cancellation.

Given the controlling position of Massachusetts General Law, and the commonsense test that must be applied to all local ordinances, David Fine and the MSCA board believes that this case study is instructive to all MSCA members, Systems Contractors, and Systems Technicians in Massachusetts and helps settle the inquiries received recently by MSCA members on this subject.

If you run into this problem in the future when trying to discontinue service in any city or town in Massachusetts, please reference this analysis when making your case with local officials.

Wells Sampson

Please click below for Key References/Attachments:
 ~ MGL Chapter 148, Section 27A
 ~ Boston Fire Prevention Code Ordinances of 1979 Chapter 28 Boston Fire Prevention Order 2011-1 Disconnection Permit – Redacted