The Grand Design: BEC Rises to the Challenge for the Wilshire Grand Fire Alarm System

Credit: Shutterstock / Kapi Ng

The Wilshire Grand Center in Los Angeles stands at 1,100 feet and has 73 floors above grade with 900 hotel rooms, 16 floors of office space, meeting rooms, ballrooms with supporting kitchens, restaurants and lounges. It also has five levels of underground parking.

Installing a fire alarm system in the tallest building west of the Mississippi River is no easy task. However, Rick Taylor and his team from Building Electronic Controls Inc. (BEC), Glendora, Calif., were up to the task.

In 1995, BEC was formed as a specialty electrical contractor and an Edwards engineered systems distributor. Today, it provides fire detection systems for commercial buildings, and it is a leading fire, life safety, security and network infrastructure company in the greater Los Angeles area. The Wilshire Grand is BEC’s largest single property.

Owner Korean Airlines and architect AC Martin wanted to break the tradition in Los Angeles for flat-top buildings, even though an emergency helicopter landing pad is required to obtain Los Angeles Fire Department (LAFD) approval. While the Wilshire Grand has a tactical landing pad, it does not define the shape feature of the top of the building. To build the building without the approved emergency landing pad, the owner and the architect submitted a comprehensive modification request to the LAFD, creating special conditions that affected the life-safety system.

AC Martin agreed to provide an enhanced design approach, including full-area smoke detector coverage and a designated firefighter’s emergency elevator with a dedicated camera-viewing system in each lobby.

The building met all of the LAFD requirements. The company designed, furnished and installed the fire alarm, emergency voice evacuation and smoke control systems. All three systems integrated into one Edwards EST3 platform.

BEC worked as a subcontractor to San Jose, Calif.-based Rosendin Electric, which furnished all raceways. BEC installed the wire, making all terminations and performing all programming.

At the time of the temporary certificate of occupancy (TCO), the integrated life safety system had more than 9,000 active addressable points with 3,500 smoke detectors to support the smoke control system, automatic sprinkler system monitoring, manual pull stations, and firefighters’ two-way communication, plus other emergency systems monitoring.

The integrated life safety system has more than 9,000 active addressable points with 3,500 smoke detectors to support emergency systems monitoring. Courtesy of BEC
The integrated life safety system has more than 9,000 active addressable points with 3,500 smoke detectors to support emergency systems monitoring. Courtesy of BEC

By the end of construction, the building had more than 5,000 area smoke detectors with several large areas protected by aspirating-type smoke detection (ASD) systems. ASD systems, rather than linear projected beam-type smoke detectors, fully protect large, high, open atrium areas. Elevator shafts that required smoke detection, and did not have access at the top of the shafts, have small single-unit ASD systems. Because no elevator machine room or shafts have automatic sprinkler protection, the fire alarm system design did not include elevator shunt trip operations.

A collaborative design effort between BEC and mechanical contractor ACCO created the smoke control system. They based this design on a rational analysis prepared by Exponent.

The smoke-control system has a unique design that provides five separate systems with different design objectives. The restaurant, lounge and club areas serving the top five floors, which share an open atrium, use one design. The hotel floors and office levels each have separate designs. Levels 1–7 share a common open atrium with an exhaust system. Finally, the five parking levels have a defined air change design separated into two zones by rolldown doors at mid-level.

One common element of the smoke control system design incorporates the main pressurized stairs that span the total height of the building.

In addition to a smoke-control graphical display (SCGP), the LAFD and the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety (LADBS) required the installation of a unique, separate mechanical test panel (MTP) with per-zone activation switches and LED indicators. This panel displays every individual element of the smoke control system with individual manual activation switches to assist in initial testing, automatic weekly testing, annual inspections, and fire department control operations during a fire in the building. Designers were challenged to fit all of this information into individual SCGP and MTP panels given the height of the building and the large number of fans and dampers. BEC designed these panels in collaboration with H.R. Kirkland.

BEC and H.R. Kirkland designed separate mechanical test panels with zone activation switches and LED indicators to meet L.A. Department of Building and Safety requirements. Courtesy of BEC
BEC and H.R. Kirkland designed separate mechanical test panels with zone activation switches and LED indicators to meet L.A. Department of Building and Safety requirements. Courtesy of BEC

The LAFD required a dedicated firefighter’s emergency elevator to support delivery of personnel and emergency equipment. To provide a visual indication of the actual conditions at each elevator lobby landing, BEC installed a dedicated camera system. The camera system has its own components and vertical riser and does not share wiring space with other security systems in the building nor use the network pathway. The LAFD required this system to meet the same survivability requirements as the life safety system. Supervision of power supply failure and individual camera failure annunciates through the life safety system.

Based on the rational analysis report by Exponent, ACCO, which installed the smoke control system, determined the mechanical equipment design requirements and the sequence of operation matrix. BEC designed the electrical smoke control system to monitor and control this equipment in accordance with California Building Code (CBC) Section 909, plus special requirements required by LAFD and LADBS Mechanical.

There are many other challenges with the design and installation of smoke control systems, especially in Los Angeles, because LAFD and LADBS have unique requirements for monitoring and testing fault conditions and for special programming sequences to establish complex “what-if” sequences and priorities.

Doors used for makeup air in the atrium exhaust systems always present a challenge to monitor and control properly. Add to this the challenge of creating a controlled environment and testing when the building remains under construction, plus the need to test the entire system twice (once on normal power and again on emergency power) all before the TCO deadline.

The project deadline required completion of work in time for a grand opening event scheduled for June 22, 2017. However, prior to this, Taylor and BEC knew they would play a key factor in meeting the TCO schedule and knew that, prior schedules aside, they would have to focus on many issues and factors in the last few months of construction to succeed.

For BEC, it meant having multiple teams consisting of two crews of four working on the project consistently, with one full-time programmer. In the last three months, there were five crews of four with two full-time programmers.

Each crew had to focus on every one of the following specialty elements at the same time: construction teams to finish installation, inspection teams to pretest, inspection teams working with AHJ inspections, smoke control specialists to work with mechanical contractor and system designer, programmers available 24/7, and project management to attend city and GC construction meetings.

“A building this large does not complete construction in a vertical path,” Taylor said. “Many areas of the building are under construction at one time. Multiple fire alarm crews must work independently but, at the end of the day, must be coordinated into the single system for programming. Toward the end of the project, an updated fire alarm program download can take up to two hours. Vertical transportation for a 76-story building can be a huge bottleneck and time-waster. Time management becomes critical as all your efforts are compressed toward a finite TCO date. Installation, programing, pretesting, third-party testing, and AHJ testing must all find time slots within a single, 24-hour typical day.”

Taylor and his BEC crews proved they were up to the challenges.

Interesting Installation Facts

  • 28 fire alarm control panels nodes networked to form one system
  • 130 remote power supplies
  • 320 batteries providing 24-hour standby even without the generator
  • 3,000-plus speakers and strobes to notify occupants
  • 476 manual pull stations
  • 5,000-plus smoke detectors
  • 2,000-plus relays to control fans, dampers and doors
  • 2,000-plus addressable monitor modules to monitor sprinkler and smoke control equipment
  • 510 firemen’s phone jacks, which enable firemen to communicate without radios
  • 130-plus miles of fire alarm wire
About the Author

Wayne D. Moore

Fire/Life Safety Columnist

Wayne D. Moore, a licensed fire protection engineer, frequent speaker and expert in the life safety field, is a principal member and past chair of NFPA 72, Chapter 24. He is a vice president with Jensen Hughes at the Warwick, R.I., office and can be...

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