Code Challenges for Care Centers: Meeting the concerns for senior facilities

Published On
Jun 15, 2022

Renovation and retrofit projects always present unusual challenges, especially for senior care spaces. Remember that all healthcare projects are governed by NFPA 101, Life Safety Code (LSC), in addition to the building code in force at the time.

Given the aging American population, more work will develop in this area. Before starting the estimating process, think about what challenges you might face and how to address them in a code-compliant way.

One of the first rules is never to “value engineer” a healthcare project. The second is to identify any conflicts between the building code and the LSC so they can be addressed early in the process.

Most senior care facilities will house ambulatory occupants, but their ability to rapidly evacuate a building may be minimal. This means that early detection and notification is more important than what you might find, for example, in an apartment design.

In many cases, appropriate facility arrangement, adequately trained staff and development of operating and maintenance procedures provide the occupants’ fire protection. These features and procedures are generally composed of the following as outlined in LSC Section 20.1.1.3.2:

“(1) Design, construction, and compartmentation

“(2) Provision for detection, alarm, and extinguishment

“(3) Fire prevention and planning, training, and drilling programs for the isolation of fire, transfer of occupants to areas of refuge, or evacuation of the building.”

The code requires that all ambulatory healthcare facilities are provided with fire alarm systems. But none of the codes mention how to design a fire alarm system. There are different approaches to a design—some more cost-effective than others. I recommend first laying out the manual fire alarm boxes, and LSC Chapter 9 lists the following requirements for installation:

“9.6.2.3 A manual fire alarm box shall be provided as follows, unless modified by another section of this code:

“(1) For new alarm system installations, the manual fire alarm box shall be located within 60 in. (1,525 mm) of exit doorways.

“(2) For existing alarm system installations, the manual fire alarm box either shall be provided in the natural exit access path near each required exit or within 60 in. (1,525 mm) of exit doorways.

9.6.2.4 Manual fire alarm boxes shall be mounted on both sides of grouped openings over 40 ft. (12.2 m) in width, and within 60 in. (1,525 mm) of each side of the opening.

9.6.2.5* Additional manual fire alarm boxes shall be located so that, on any given floor in any part of the building, no horizontal distance on that floor exceeding 200 ft. (61 m) shall need to be traversed to reach a manual fire alarm box.

9.6.2.6* For fire alarm systems using automatic fire detection or waterflow detection devices to initiate the fire alarm system in accordance with Chapters 11 through 43 [of the LSC], not less than one manual fire alarm box, located as required by the authority having jurisdiction, shall be provided to initiate a fire alarm signal.

9.6.2.7* Manual fire alarm boxes shall be accessible, unobstructed, and visible.”

Another guideline is to keep the number of duct-type smoke detectors to an absolute minimum in the design. They are more costly than an area-type smoke detector and much more expensive for the owner to maintain.

Other LSC sections require a total (complete) coverage smoke detection system, but even when this is not a requirement, at least estimate its cost compared to the number of duct-type smoke detectors needed for smoke damper closures. Complete coverage with area smoke detectors require automatic smoke detection in all occupiable areas in environments suitable for proper smoke detector operation.

With an aging population, occupant notification must be provided automatically, without delay, according to the LSC, when operating any fire alarm initiating device. Additionally, emergency responder notification must be arranged to transmit the alarm automatically though any of the following fire alarm systems acceptable to the authority having jurisdiction, and must be in accordance with NFPA 72: an auxiliary, central station, proprietary supervising station or remote supervising station fire alarm system.

For any renovation or retrofit project in a senior care facility, be aware of the fire alarm system impairment procedures as outlined in NFPA 72, National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code.

The new low-frequency signaling requirements will apply to all sleeping areas of ambulatory senior care housing. This project’s difficulty depends on understanding code requirements and best practices. Working smarter will benefit your bottom line and enable you to meet challenges.

About the Author

Wayne D. Moore

Fire/Life Safety Columnist

Wayne D. Moore, a licensed fire protection engineer, frequent speaker, writer and expert in the life safety field, has been a principal member and chair of NFPA 72, Chapter 24, as well as a former principal member of NFPA 909 and NFPA 914. He is the...

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