Fire Safety Systems

Schools, especially K-12 facilities, have unique safety issues because of the young occupants. One of the most important aspects of a school is its fire safety system. In order to achieve a fully integrated and safely operating fire system for school facilities, staff training and an emergency preparedness plan must be implemented in addition to standard fire protection measures such as structural fire protection, architectural construction, sprinkler and standpipe systems, fire alarm, and smoke control systems.

Fire Safety Systems

Fire safety systems are actually composed of several other systems that must work together during a fire emergency. Passive systems such as firewalls, fire stopping, and structural fireproofing can maintain structural integrity and delay the spread of fire. To illustrate the importance of this, an unprotected lightweight truss roof can fail in less than 10 minutes when exposed to fire. Factoring in response times, this gives the fire department less than two minutes to attack the fire and prevent a structural collapse.

A sprinkler system will slow or stop the growth of a fire and limit damage and smoke production as long as the system is operating properly. The most common source of sprinkler failure is a closed valve. In addition, a smoke control system can provide another level of protection by maintaining safe egress paths. The most important aspect of all these systems is that they provide the time needed for the occupants to evacuate. A good architectural design with proper egress components can help speed up the evacuation process.

In Case of Emergency: Fire Safety in Schools

Getting all occupants out of the building is the primary goal during any fire operation. Panic or chaos during a school fire emergency can have catastrophic results despite the best alarm and suppression system. To avoid this outcome, fire drills are the best way to prepare students and staff as to how they should react and proceed in the event of a fire. Other common sense actions school officials can take in order to safeguard students from a fire include the following.

    • Do not prop open fire doors — open doors allow the products of combustion to spread more rapidly. This can have a compound effect by slowing egress and increasing the size of the affected area.

    • Limit the use of flammable wall coverings — student projects, artwork, or banners that are hung on the walls can significantly increase the growth rate of a fire.

    • Do not block egress paths — even a seemingly small intrusion into a corridor can increase exit time.

These three actions will provide safer egress paths, and longer allowable egress times.

Every fire safety system should also include an emergency preparedness plan that documents important information on procedures for responding to an emergency, such as fires, earthquakes, terrorism, and school violence incidents. Because the safety of the students is of the utmost importance, this plan is essential. In addition, schools can also serve as emergency shelters, so it is recommended that there is plan for town-wide crisis situations as well. The document should follow the National Incident Management System (NIMS) and should outline standard operating procedures and guidelines, provide for fire drills, include a list of key contacts with addresses and nighttime phone numbers, and establish a chain of command and appropriate officers. The document may contain maps or plans of egress routes and locate safe havens.

Narratives of building operating systems with detailed procedures should also be included. Such a narrative might read:“during a fire event in zone 1, smoke fan SEF-1 and air handler AHU-2 shall operate to maintain a positive pressure around zone 1. Fire department overrides are located adjacent to the fire alarm control panel in the main entrance.” This type of description is easy to understand and can aid fire personnel during pre-incident planning. A drawing showing the location of the zone and associated equipment and a sequence of operation should be included as well.

The ultimate goal is to contain the fire and smoke long enough to evacuate the students and staff and for the fire department to begin to combat the fire. A primary means of containment is the closing of any doors and other openings that could allow the fire to spread. Additional containment will be provided by automatic smoke and fire dampers and sprinkler or other suppression systems. Finally, the fire must be extinguished, either by trained staff with manual fire extinguishers, or by the fire department.

Large fire events may also require larger scale evacuations, operation of smoke control systems, and a coordinated effort between the fire department and the school personnel that maintain and operate the building systems. An emergency preparedness plan and fully functioning fire safety system are the keys to ensuring a smooth and adequate response to a fire.

Maintenance is Key

Good maintenance is also very important in providing a safe building. Keeping corridors clear and fire doors working may seem mundane, but this is actually required maintenance for the egress portion of the fire safety system.

Fire alarm and suppression systems must be inspected regularly. NFPA 25“Standard for the Inspection, Testing and Maintenance of Water-Based Fire Protection Systems” outlines the minimum required maintenance schedule for sprinkler systems and should be a part of any facility manager’s library. As noted before, the primary cause of sprinkler failure is a closed valve, but there are other situations that can prevent a sprinkler system from operating properly. For example, a storage area that was not originally designed for storage may not have appropriate sprinkler coverage that can provide enough water to control the fire. An open ceiling tile can prevent the heat and smoke from collecting at the ceiling, delaying or even preventing the operation of a sprinkler head.

The staff should receive adequate training to understand the primary goals of the emergency preparedness plan and what their individual roles are when the plan is implemented. They should have an understanding of how the major pieces of the system function together and the importance of good housekeeping such as noticing when ceiling tiles are not in place or materials are stored improperly. Systems such as sprinkler and fire alarm systems may require a greater level of expertise. In such instances a maintenance contract with a licensed, experienced contractor to test and maintain the actual system components is highly recommended.

How to Choose the Right Design Team

There are several important factors administrators should consider when selecting a design firm to develop a fire safety system for their school. First, facility managers should select a team with experience in school facility design as it is important that the team not only be aware of specific prescriptive code requirements, but should also have the capability of providing performance-based design solutions that could save money and ultimately work better than a prescriptive-based design.

The design team as it pertains to fire safety consists of, at various levels, an architect, site/civil engineer, M/E/P/FP firm, structural engineer, construction contractors, school officials, and local building and fire inspectors working together collaboratively. Because a true fire safety system is not just a fire alarm or sprinkler system but an integration of all active and passive fire control features as well as response procedures, the design requires the combined expertise of all of these parties.

Well-functioning fire safety systems are essential to a school’s daily operations. Due to the nature of the occupants and potential hazards particular to school facilities, a specialized fire protection plan for the facility that can be executed by the staff is critical. Selecting a design team with experience in school design, along with choosing an appropriate system and developing a comprehensive emergency preparedness plan, will better ensure that schools are ready in case of fire and other emergencies.

Jeffrey White, P.E., is a founding partner of Danvers, MA-based Cronis, Liston, Nangle & White, LLP (, which provides top-quality electrical, mechanical, and life-safety engineering services to the construction and architectural industry, with a focus on commercial properties, industrial buildings, educational facilities, hospitals and laboratories, and government projects. Mr. White can be reached at [email protected]