Safe Passage Out
- By Ellen Kollie
- October 1st, 2010
When it opened this fall, the $25-million, 125,000-square-foot Meadowdale High School in Dayton, Ohio, included a 100-kw generator; more than 100 fire extinguishers; more than 500 sprinkler heads and two miles of sprinkler pipe; more than 60 exit signs; three smoke relief hatches in the Auditeria; emergency egress lighting; exterior doors numbered and fire doors labeled as fire doors; two handicap areas of refuge in stairwells; three command centers equipped with fire alarm enunciator panels, full size plan of the entire building, area of refuge communication and knox boxes; emergency egress lighting; and a private fire department access road. Really.
All of the above-mentioned life safety measures are designed to ensure safe passage out of the school in case of an emergency. Sure, school administrators know about life safety, such as how to operate a command center and how to conduct a fire drill. And, of course, school facility managers know about life safety, such as how often to check the generator.
But there’s more, much more, to know about school life safety. Here, some experts share three safety areas about which they believe school administrators, especially, should know.
First: Code Is King
“The fire marshal required more on this project than he has on others,” recalls John Carr, AIA, NCARB, chief construction officer for Dayton Public Schools, about the Meadowdale project. “For example, I did not want keys to be used anywhere on the school because keys can be reproduced, even when they’re labeled to not be reproduced, and then 45 computers walk off.”
So the school was designed to accommodate swipe cards instead of keys, except in one area. The fire marshal insisted on knox boxes at each of the five entrances. Knox boxes are designed to be opened only by the fire department, and each contains a key to unlock the school’s doors. “I said they could use an old-fashioned key in case of emergency,” Carr quips, referring to an axe, “but we went with the boxes.”
What Carr experienced was a case of the fire marshal following code, which rules the decision-making process. In fact, the requirements for life safety equipment in schools are predominantly based on each state’s building codes. “Many states simply adopt the National Electric Code, Life Safety Code and International Building Code,” says Franklin Brown, of the Ohio School Facilities Commission in Columbus. “And those can be very confusing to the uninitiated.”
Ken Burnett, construction manager with the Wyoming School Facilities Commission in Cheyenne, agrees, adding that, sometimes, it seems as though every jurisdiction has different regulations. The reality is that, when a jurisdiction adopts a national standard, like the International Building Code, it has the ability to adopt it as is or make it more stringent. A jurisdiction cannot choose to make the code less stringent. For example, if the requirement is for annual sprinkler system inspections, it can be changed to semi-annual, but it cannot be changed to bi-annual. “So the important thing,” he says, “is to make sure the school administrators understand the regulations adopted by their jurisdictions so they can comply with them.”
Similarly, on individual projects, school administrators can choose to go above and beyond code when it’s important to the school district. For example, California code says classrooms designed for less than 50 occupants only need one form of egress, which is the door into and out of the classroom. Classrooms designed for more than 50 occupants require two forms of egress.
At South Region High School #15 in San Pedro, which is scheduled to be operational in September 2012, Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) administrators insisted on two forms of egress for every classroom, thus opting to go above and beyond California code. The second exit is in the form of an emergency access window. “For LAUSD administrators,” says Jill Cheng, AIA, LEED-AP, a senior associate with Los Angeles-based CO Architects, “this safety issue is important based on past history.” The 125,000-square-foot school has a construction cost of $65 million.
Regardless the choice to meet or exceed code, Brown says the primary focus of any building code is solely to protect human life. And Burnett agrees. “In the past 10 to 15 years,” he observes, “the emphasis in code has changed. Currently, the codes are concerned with the building occupants more than the building itself.
“There will be people who will adamantly disagree with me,” Burnett continues. “But, when you look at the requirements for system installations and limitations, it becomes clear. For example, fire sprinklers are sized to put out a certain number of gallons of water per minute for a limited number of hours. It didn’t used to be that way. It used to be a certain number of gallons of water per minute with no time limitation.”
Similarly, Burnett points out, it used to be that sprinkler heads had to respond to a fire within 90 seconds. Now code requires the same sprinkler heads and smoke detectors to respond within 10 seconds. “When you’re talking about how quickly fire can envelop a room, the difference between 90 seconds and 10 seconds is huge,” he notes.
Second: Professionals Are Critical
When it comes to meeting code, count on the professionals for direction. “I always want the fire and police departments to sit in schematic design with us and be part of the process instead of part of the problem,” Carr says bluntly. “They’re more apt to work with you when you involve them in the process early. If a problem develops after the building is designed, it becomes expensive to change, so it’s worthwhile to make sure design and installation is done correctly from the beginning.”
Burnett agrees: “The people who ensure that schools are built properly and the people given the responsibility of maintaining those schools, including the fire department; designer, architect and engineers, and school maintenance staff, are all professionals.” Because they take their jobs seriously and do them well, there is a level of safety you can expect and demand of a school.
Maintaining that level of safety by maintaining the systems is dependent upon the professionalism, knowledge and follow through of the school administrators. “Administrators need to know that there are codes governing life safety systems, but not necessarily have a complete understanding of the design code requirements,” explains Robert Hughes, an electrical designer and senior associate with Fanning Howey, a planning and design firm with nine regional offices throughout the United States. “However, being knowledgeable of codes pertaining to maintenance is crucial.”
Third: The Right Equipment Is Essential
As already discussed, the purpose of life safety equipment is to ensure safe egress in case of an emergency. The opposite complement is that school life safety equipment is not intended to create an environment to escape to in an emergency. “That’s faulty thinking,” says Brown, “because, in order to make a school safe from a building code perspective, for occupants to be in it means all electrical systems have to up and running, which would require a generator the size of a tractor trailer.”
It’s also ideal for administrators involved in life safety equipment purchasing decisions to ensure the chosen equipment is manufactured by a reputable company. Hand-in-hand with this is researching the ongoing maintenance that equipment requires. In addition, there are specific considerations related to each product. “For example,” says Hughes, “exit signs must be durable enough to withstand the outdoor climate and should be equipped with extended life lamps, such as LEDs, to save on maintenance costs.”
What do administrators need to know about the life safety equipment in their schools to ensure safe passage out in case of an emergency? That code dictates what is included, you can count on the expertise of your consultants — yourself included — and that success is dependent upon choosing the right products. “All in all,” sums Brown, “the code tries to do as much as possible to protect the safety of the building occupants without spending huge amounts of money.”