Keeping Up With Fire And Life Safety Codes

Fire And Life Safety Codes
(Photo: Jensen Hughes)

By Joseph A. Castellano, P.E.
From the May/June 2016 Issue

One of the key goals of a successful facility management team is to provide effective life safety. These teams utilize building and fire codes to establish a minimum level of acceptable compliance to ensure life safety of the building occupants. These codes are continuously being changed and updated to reflect new technologies and trends, as well as lessons learned from historical events.

While the initial responsibility with fire and life safety code compliance lies with the design and construction teams involved in the original design, the facility management team becomes the responsible party throughout the life of a facility. While the adoption of codes varies between jurisdictions, many adopted codes include performance requirements for specific systems throughout the life of the installed systems. This particular nuance of the codes will be discussed further.

Historically, major loss of life events that have occurred inside buildings have had a direct impact on the current code requirements.

The Cocoanut Grove dinner theater located in Boston, MA had a fire on November 28, 1942 that killed 491 people. Thirty five years later, on May 28, 1977, 165 people died as a result of a fire event at the Beverly Hills Supper Club located in Kentucky. Several years later, in 1980, 85 people died at the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas, NV. All these fire losses had similar contributing factors to the large loss of life, which included the following:

  • excessive number of occupants;
  • combustibility and flammability of the interior finish;
  • obstructed and blocked exits;
  • inadequate compartmentation;
  • limited exits;
  • swing of exit doors against direction of exit travel; and
  • inadequate or nonexistent fire sprinkler protection.

Most recently, the terrorist events surrounding the destruction of the World Trade Center buildings in New York City also had a significant impact to the codes that are currently being adopted and enforced throughout the United States. Specifically, high-rise buildings (taller than 420′) have added requirements to include an additional exit stair, dedicated fireman’s lift, minimum exit stair widths, and, in some instances, the ability to use elevators as a means of egress from the building. Statistically, loss of life due to fire in assembly and business occupancies has been reduced over the past 30 or more years, based in part to the changes in building and fire codes.

Fire And Life Safety Equipment Reflects The Codes

While these and many other unfortunate fire incidents have played a role in improving the life safety of building occupants from fire, advancements in fire detection and fire suppression technology are also significant. The installation of an automatic fire sprinkler system in both new construction and renovation projects has become the standard of care, for example. Advancements in non-water based suppression agents have become the preferred means of fire suppression in building environments where water is not desirable, like a data server room. Specialized fire detection and suppression systems have been developed as well, where early warning at an incipient stage of the fire is critical to protection of occupants and property.

Fire And Life Safety Codes
NFPA 25: Standard for the Inspection, Testing, and Maintenance of Water-Based Fire Protection Systems is the baseline for performing these three actions on water-based fire protection systems, including standpipes. Installation of standpipes is addressed by NFPA 14. (Photo: Jensen Hughes)

Today’s facility management team has the distinct challenge of not only being aware of the adoption of new codes but also understanding how the changes in these codes may impact both current and future occupants. Traditionally, as a building ages, achieving code compliance as a building goes through renovation cycles becomes more costly and challenging.

For example, a 30 story high-rise office building constructed in the 1970s was built to a standard of care established by the building and fire codes of record. Renovating this building in 2016 would likely present a number of challenges regarding compliance with the current adopted codes. These compliance challenges might include structural and seismic considerations, wind loads, asbestos abatement, stair pressurization, egress and exiting issues, fireman’s lift, structural fire resistance, and fire protection.

So while the renovation may simply constitute a tenant fit out, it may have an overall impact to building wide systems that need to be updated to current code. Thus, this creates additional costs and potential schedule delays to resolve unforeseen code compliance issues.

A high-rise building constructed in 1980 that includes a 12 story atrium undergoing a significant renovation would be required, in most jurisdictions, to meet complete compliance with the current building and fire codes. The atrium, for example, would most likely need its smoke control system (which is used to manage the movement of smoke in the event of a fire) upgraded based on current code requirements. The impact of this upgrade alone would likely require the project team to conduct a Computational Fluid Dynamic (CFD) analysis that would model the movement of smoke in the atrium space and increase exhaust and make-up air in order to maintain a tenable environment along the paths of egress.

Additionally, several other changes made to the code over the 35 year span between original construction and renovation would impact other systems as well. While building renovations are essential, having a thorough understanding of the code requirements impacting life safety is also critical to a successful project.

Fire And Life Safety Codes
The main code that governs fire pump installations is the NFPA 20: Standard for the Installation of Stationary Fire Pumps for Fire Protection. The standard focuses on ensuring systems will work as intended to deliver adequate and reliable water supplies during a fire emergency. (Photo: Jensen Hughes)

Life safety systems, including fire alarm/voice communication, fire sprinkler, exit stair pressurization, atrium smoke management, emergency lighting and exit signage, fire doors, and means of egress are continuous operating systems that serve a vital purpose to the life safety of the building occupants.

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) publishes a multitude of codes and standards by which most jurisdictions adopt and enforce any number of these codes. These codes and standards not only define minimum requirements for design and installation, but also include minimum requirements for inspection, testing, and maintenance (ITM) throughout the service life of the installed systems. While this code required maintenance is often outsourced to specialty vendors, the minimum frequency is oftentimes overlooked and/or documentation of this activity is often lacking in facilities’ preventive maintenance records.

For example, NFPA 25: Standard for the Inspection, Testing, and Maintenance of Water-Based Fire Protection Systems requires weekly, monthly, quarterly, and annual inspection intervals depending on the system component installed. In most cases, proper documentation demonstrating minimum code compliance for the installed life safety systems is the responsibility of the facilities management team.

The key to a successful building life safety program is a facility management team knowledgeable of the adopted building and fire codes to understand the overall impact to ongoing and planned renovations. Also important is a comprehensive preventive maintenance program by this team that documents minimum compliance of the required ITM established by the local codes.

Fire And Life Safety CodesCastellano is a registered fire protection engineer with 30 years experience in fire protection and life safety consulting. He has been employed with Jensen Hughes for 20 years where he is a vice president, corporate real estate development. Jensen Hughes is a worldwide firm that provides specialty engineering consulting services with corporate headquarters in Baltimore, MD.

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