Planning That Saves Lives
- By William Connors
- February 1st, 2008
The United States
Fire Administration (USFA) reported an estimated annual average of 14,700 fires
occurred on school properties in the United States between the years
2003 to 2005.
Any fire that occurs on school grounds
presents an extremely dangerous situation for faculty and students. School
officials need to evaluate their school’s current fire protection systems to
determine if changes are necessary. This process may seem tedious and
complicated, but it can actually be conveniently done when the school undergoes
a renovation, no matter how minor or serious the project.
The information below illustrates the
basic implementation process of a fire protection system during a school
renovation. I hope that the material will not only be educational, but also
encourages officials to consider incorporating such a system during their
school’s next renovation.
Project Overview & Budgeting
Once you have
decided to incorporate fire protection during your school’s renovation, you
should determine a budget. Local fire safety codes will specify the minimum
requirements for your system — but moral considerations will play a role in
determining the ultimate capabilities of the fire protection. Cost shouldn’t be
a huge factor, as the peace of mind gained from having a state-of-the-art
system is worth the capital investment.
The cost is
usually determined by the type of facility being renovated (for example,
classroom vs. cafeteria or assembly space), size, geographic location, type of
system being implemented, and project schedule. A general estimate is that the
system cost will range from $3.00 to $6.00 per sq. ft. of the building area.
In terms of scheduling, a minimum of
six months to a year is typically required to complete the design, and then
another six months to a year for implementation. Renovations almost always take
place during school vacations, since even something as simple as replacing a
sprinkler system requires dismantling ceilings and drilling through walls.
There are four different components of
a fire protection system. Depending on each individual project, renovation may
include any or all of the elements.
The Fire Alarm components include
electronic devices such as the smoke detectors, alarms, strobe lights, public
address systems, door controls, and hold-open devices.
Fire Suppression includes the
mechanical aspects of the systems, such as sprinklers, piping, and hose valves.
This aspect includes the devices that
manage the flow of people out of a building to a safe area. Current life safety
code (NFPA101) increases stair width and requires photoluminescent strips to
outline the egress paths in fire stairs. The strips have proven extremely
effective in New York City,
where they have been required since 2006 for high-rise buildings.
This refers to the building’s structure
and includes any materials that would contain a fire and protect the school
from heat damage. For example, if the school’s walls are constructed of
concrete or other fire rated material, a fire that starts in a classroom can be
contained (at least for a while) by closing the classroom door.
As you plan your renovation project,
always keep in mind that the potential for unexpected problems is enormous. To
avoid this as best as possible, the facility needs to be surveyed to determine
the full scope of the project. For example, opening up the ceiling may reveal
that the existing pipes are corroded or that there is not enough space in the
ceiling to support the new system. Another common problem when expanding existing
systems is that the existing fire alarm or public address systems may be too
outdated to be compatible with a new system’s technology.
It may also be a good idea to
incorporate life safety “commissioning” into the project plan. Commissioning is
the systematic process of verifying that a building’s systems are designed,
installed, and tested to perform according to the design intent and operational
needs. Commissioning is especially important in a renovation project where old
and new systems are being joined together. The commissioning process will
ensure that the systems will operate together as designed when you need to rely
on them. Moreover, if the old system was not commissioned after the original
installation, this is a good opportunity to test it.
How to Choose an Engineering Firm
Your renovation project will require
the design services of a fire protection engineer and code consultant.
Depending on the local requirements, one consultant may provide both services.
There are many qualified firms with skilled professionals; how do you choose
the right one for your project?
The primary consideration is to check a
firm’s licensing. The consultant that you select needs to be licensed to
practice engineering in the state where the project is located. You may verify
the information with the state’s licensing board, which can also divulge if
there are complaints against a prospective firm.
Practical experience is also important.
A firm without any experience working on schools may have a steep learning
curve during the renovation. In contrast, a firm with practical experience will
anticipate challenges, help the project run more efficiently, and have an
understanding of the dynamics of egress and people movement in schools. Also,
there is an important distinction between designing for colleges and
universities than K-12 schools because the younger students will react
differently than adults.
Also, keep in mind that the science of
fire protection design has changed extensively over the years. Unfortunately,
many of those changes have been a result of tragedies, such as the Our Lady of
Angels fire in Chicago
in 1958, in which 92 children and three nuns died after being trapped in the
school. The fire protection engineer you select needs to be knowledgeable with
the current codes and all of the changes that have resulted from events like
Sprinkler codes vary by state and even
by local jurisdiction. Twenty years ago, the national sprinkler codes were 30
pages. Today the codes are very detailed and average about 1,000 pages for the
sprinkler systems alone! Because of the complexities and the rapid evolution of
the codes, the firm you select needs to have a command of the most current
Once you have hired a design firm, the
project team will have to understand the overall project goals and the school’s
existing systems. It will need to visit the building to survey the existing
systems to review not only the fire protection system, but also the structural,
electrical, and plumbing design to determine the building’s existing
capabilities. Your design firm will prepare your contract documentation and
help you select a contractor. They will also work with the contractor to build
It is important for school officials to
stay involved. Long after the design and construction are completed, these
officials will be responsible for using the system. Their participation
throughout the design process will help them become familiar with utilizing the
system. Administrators should involve themselves in such processes as selecting
where intercoms and fire panels are located and what materials are used.
Planning Life Safety
The final step of the design process is
to develop a Life Safety Plan. The fire protection engineer will collaborate
with you and the local fire department in preparing your plan. The life safety
plan will include key information and procedures to follow in case of an
emergency, such as:
- emergency contact list — a list of people who will be
contacted in case of a fire;
- schematic diagrams — floor layouts and site plan, including
locations for egress and assembly areas;
- audit of building resources — brief list for first
responders (e.g. fire alarm with P/A);
- responsibilities of staff;
- persons requiring assistance;
- fire drill procedures;
- occupant procedure signage — pictures of emergency procedure
- control of fire hazards — fire safety and prevention
measures and isolation and identification of hazardous materials;
- maintenance requirements of the building fire and life
- procedures to shutdown fire equipment in case of accidental
discharge or alarm; and
- out-of-service signage and documents posted during building
The life safety plan should be kept at
the fire command center. Your local fire department can tell you or your
engineer what information or other resources they will need at the fire command
center and guide you in locating the center to suit their requirements. Copies
of the plan should be distributed to all persons who are part of the emergency
Regardless of how comprehensive a life
safety plan is, human behavior is unpredictable in an emergency situation. The
best way to prepare staff and students is to discuss emergency plans openly and
practice them regularly.
Connors, PE, CFPS, LEED AP, principal of WB Engineers | Consultants, is a
licensed professional engineer and a licensed professional fire protection
engineer. He is also a National Fire Protection Association Certified Fire
Protection Specialist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.