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Fire Protection System Design Standards for Higher Education Applications

By Carson Cook, PE
February 21, 2018

Engineering design standards play an important role in the design and construction of building mechanical, electrical and plumbing (MEP) systems. Many academic institutions publish design standards that cover a range of criteria, including preferred manufacturers and performance criteria. Such standards however often focus heavily upon MEP systems with limited or no requirements for fire protection systems. The absence or lack of developed fire protection design standards can be attributed to their lack of day to day operation or simply the fact that many colleges and universities defer to the requirements of the applicable National Fire Protection Associated (NFPA) design standards. While there is no issue with designing to code-minimum, well established guidelines for the design and installation of fire protection systems offer the same value as for other “non-emergency” MEP systems, such as increased system longevity, ease of maintenance and design consistency.

Unlike the commercial industry, academic buildings are seldom sold and therefore the design of MEP systems typically takes into consideration a 50 year building lifespan. While designing fire protection systems to the minimum requirements of the applicable NFPA standards satisfies code compliance, there are benefits to incorporating features above and beyond code which can expand the longevity of the fire protection systems. One example is mandating minimum schedule 40 black steel piping be utilized for all new water-based fire protection systems; while the thicker wall-thickness piping carries a higher day one cost, over the life span of the building the risk of pipe leaks is reduced.

Another important benefit that fire protection design standards can provide is minimizing the NFPA required inspection, testing and maintenance effort. Many institutions employ dedicated repair and maintenance staff in lieu of sub-contracting electrical and fire protection contractors. Standardizing areas of system design such as fire alarm control unit indication and sprinkler test valve locations translates to a higher level of system familiarity and staff confidence of system trouble shooting, maintenance, and repair. Additionally, establishing a list of allowable fire protection system product manufacturers facilitates a management of spare parts inventory which is critical in minimizing system downtime during emergency repairs.

Related to routine fire protection system maintenance, establishing impairment protocols for fire protection systems can also offer a great benefit to the institution by limiting the duration that buildings are left in an “unprotected” state during system impairments. Unlike MEP systems, the impairment of fire protection systems requires coordination, review, permitting, and approval by the local authority having jurisdiction (AHJ). Based upon the level of system impairment and duration some authorities may require temporary protection or manned fire watches in buildings that are occupied during demolition/construction activities. By working closely with the local AHJ and implementing well defined “red tag” procedures for fire protection systems the costs and time associated with impairments can be greatly reduced.

The success of an academic institution’s emergency response protocols relies heavily on the consistency of the emergency responder service features. Standardizing fire protection system interfaces for emergency responders, such as exterior audible and visual notification appliances (i.e. sprinkler waterflow bells, rotating beacons), fire alarm annunciator locations /arrangements, and main fire protection system isolation valve locations, can all contribute to an expedited initial response and investigation during a fire / emergency event. For example, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has recently standardized provisions for distinct exterior visual notification appliances with different colored lenses at the building’s fire department response point.  The different colors can be used to differentiate between a fire alarm signal and hazardous materials emergency signal. This type of system annunciation provides early indication to emergency responders as to the type of emergency situation, such that personnel can initiate appropriate Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) prior to entering the building.

Detailed fire protection engineering design standards can provide a variety of benefits to a multi-building academic campus. From a capital savings perspective they can assist with prolonging the life expectancy of systems and reducing overall maintenance costs. By standardizing engineering performance criteria and impairment protocols a level of design consistency is established that will assist in limiting business continuity interruption and improving emergency response and preparedness procedures. In a world where life safety is paramount well-developed standards can contribute immensely to the overall level of fire protection for academic institutions.