Educational construction continues to lead the non-residential market in new construction spending. According to Construction Equipment magazine, “Demographic trends—and bipartisan Congressional support for educational initiatives of all sorts—should ensure continued solid growth in educational construction work throughout the decade.”

That’s good news for contractors who specialize in life safety and security systems. Fire alarm system installations are required in new educational occupancies by both the Building Code and Life Safety Code. This fact alone will ensure future business opportunities and growth in the fire alarm systems market in educational occupancies. In addition, school fires such as the Nov. 17 fire at the Auburn (Wash.) Adventist Academy dormitory in suburban Seattle, point to a continued need for early warning fire alarm systems as well as the installation of automatic sprinklers. Recent fires that occurred at an intermediate school in Walnut Creek, Calif., and another at a Brooklyn, N.Y., high school indicated some fire safety problems coupled with security issues as well.

The security and safety of our young people is of obvious paramount importance. Using newer technology to solve the problems identified as both fire safety and security related creates the need for a clearer understanding of each school’s risks and requirements.

According to the U.S. Fire Administration, each year in the United States there are an estimated 1,300 fires in high schools, private and preparatory institutions and university dormitories. The U. S. Fire Administration also reports that most dormitory fires occur while school is in session, between September and May. It’s crucial for the contractor to ask the right questions to ensure the installation of both reliable and false-alarm-free fire alarm and security systems for school building environments.

Integrating fire and security

The first order of business when approaching a school fire safety analysis is to look at the entire safety and security needs of the school. For example, a comprehensive analysis of fire safety requirements may include understanding the number of arson-related fires that have occurred in these occupancies. Another issue may include the need for releasing security locks to allow fire department access. Contractors who install school fire and security systems must understand the scope of the work that will be involved to meet the safety and security needs of its occupants. Typically, contractors are called in to simply install fire alarm and security systems, but often do so without understanding how these systems are integrated and required to perform in conjunction with each other during normal building operation as well as in alarm situations.

Traditionally, educational buildings require as a minimum the installation of manual fire alarm boxes (pull stations) and notification appliances throughout the building in accordance with the requirements of the National Fire Alarm Code, NFPA 72. Many jurisdictions now require the installation of automatic sprinklers in educational occupancies and the Codes require monitoring of these systems with alarm signals transmitted to the fire department. Other jurisdictions require early warning devices/smoke detection in strategic areas such as egress corridors and stairwells.

If the school is not protected by an automatic sprinkler system and there is a concern about the possibility of arson, then a prudent design would include automatic heat detectors as defined in the National Fire Alarm Code. In addition, security features should be included to prevent unauthorized changes in the control of the fire alarm system. The fire alarm system automatically reports system faults and supervisory conditions and these functions should be monitored by a reliable 24-hour service. In some cases, access to the fire alarm control unit should also be monitored by the security system to ensure that these features are not disabled by an arsonist or inadvertently compromised by the school’s custodial staff.

Response time is an issue whether the alarm is from a security or a fire alarm system. Clearly it will be important to ensure that both security and fire alarm systems are installed in a manner to signal emergency personnel when immediate help is needed. This may mean using a digital alarm communicator transmitter to signal the fire department and police department or providing separate signals to a monitoring station to ensure the operator calls the proper emergency responder.

When the occupancy is a dormitory, the fire protection rules change dramatically. Added to the mix is the fact the occupants may be sleeping, smoking or cooking in their rooms. The challenges presented in a private high school or college dormitory often revolve around the issue of the occupants not wanting or appreciating the protection afforded by the installed fire alarm and security systems. The Building Codes and Life Safety Code require that all new dormitories are protected with an automatic sprinkler system with additional smoke detection provided in each dormitory bedroom. The challenge in most dormitories is to ensure that the fire alarm system provides code-compliant notification appliance audibility (and in high rise fire alarm voice communication systems, intelligibility) to ensure the occupants are awakened early enough to provide adequate escape time. In addition, there is a higher incidence of tampering and vandalism associated with fire alarm systems, so the contractor should take care to place devices and appliances in areas that would provide code-compliant operation but be less prone to these acts.

According to the U.S. Fire Administration, three students were killed in a January 2000 fire “that began in a sofa in one of the dorm’s common spaces. Nearly 60 other students were injured, five critically, in the early morning fire. Many students initially disregarded the fire alarms because of frequent false alarms in the dorm.”

Again it is the contractor’s responsibility to ensure that proper installation guidelines are followed to avoid false alarms and its consequences. They must ensure that their technicians are versed in common, installation-related causes of false alarms, so that these circumstances may be avoided from the onset.

New analog-addressable fire alarm technology allows system smoke detector installations in existing dormitory rooms to provide the audible warning necessary for the occupants as well as initial off-premises signaling to emergency response personnel. This now-typical design helps to keep buildingwide false alarms to a minimum and raises the credibility of the overall fire alarm system installation. It eliminates the problem of inappropriate response by preventing occupant-triggered false alarms from causing a complete building alarm.

State-of-the-art fire alarms also allow easier integration with similar security system technology. Once the overall integration and operation of the two systems is understood, the physical interconnection can take place. As always, NFPA 72, the National Fire Alarm Code, has requirements that affect the combination of these systems. For example, fire alarm systems are permitted to share components, equipment, circuitry and installation wiring with non-fire alarm systems. However, short circuits, open circuits or grounds in this equipment or between this equipment and the fire alarm system wiring cannot interfere with the monitoring for integrity of the fire alarm system. Neither can the non-fire alarm equipment prevent alarm, supervisory or fire safety control signal transmissions in the fire alarm equipment. In addition, to maintain the integrity of fire alarm system functions, the provision for removal, replacement, failure or maintenance procedure on any supplementary hardware, software or circuit(s) cannot impair the required operation of the fire alarm system.

In combination systems, fire alarm signals must be distinctive, clearly recognizable and take precedence over any other signal even when a non-fire alarm signal is initiated first. If the Authority Having Jurisdiction determines that the information being displayed or annunciated on a combination system is excessive and may cause confusion and a delayed response to a fire emergency, they may require that the display or annunciation of information for the fire alarm system be separate from and have priority over information for the non-fire alarm systems.

Retrofit challenges

Each educational facility requires a different approach to the installation of a fire alarm system. Installing a fire alarm system in a new elementary or high school is relatively easy because there are no occupants. The challenges come when you are presented with a retrofit of a fire alarm system installation in an existing and occupied school or dormitory. Those include: working around occupants in the space; daily (possibly hourly) cleanup; keeping corridors clear of ladders, tools and debris during class changes; managing noise caused by the installation; dealing with possible asbestos issues; scheduling the installation; and starting work in one area and being required to stop and move the work effort to another location, then going back to the first location to finish what was started earlier. Because of these circumstances, it may be advantageous to have your technicians work “off-hours” and not when classes are in session.

All of these requirements may lead to installation delays and a chance for your technicians to overlook or forget details called for in the design and specifications. When you are confronted with these kinds of issues, it is imperative that daily documentation, in the form of as-built or record drawings, be maintained to ensure your project foreman can manage the details during work effort relocations and cleanup.

Working in the educational market requires the contractor to be aware of many nuances not found in other commercial projects. In order for today’s electrical contractors to succeed in this market, they must understand the current technology available and how to apply it properly to fit the premises. Technology has advanced and will continue to move into the computer age. Contractors who can provide value-added services in the form of integrated fire systems can help the end user provide the best formula for life safety, while reducing the risk of fire and its associated costs. EC