Keeping It Safe

Part of a school’s appeal is based on its reputation for providing a safe, secure, and convenient environment for its staff and students. An administrator’s attention to fire and life safety systems should enhance the school’s status without arousing the concerns of parents and students. Apart from students coming to school and learning the emergency procedures and escape routes, other provisions for safety are expected and this expectation is essential to maintaining an environment that is conducive to learning.

That’s how it should be. But bringing the fire and life safety reality of K-12 facilities in line with expectations is a challenging task. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) reports that about three-quarters of the structure fires occurring in educational properties involve schools providing pre-school through high-school education. Almost one-quarter (22 percent) of these fires are intentionally set.

Further adding to the challenge, educational facilities exemplify a diverse environment requiring comprehensive detection methods. In addition to regular academic activities, a school may host extracurricular activities, such as sporting events, concerts, meetings, conferences, and other gatherings. Areas within the facility vary widely in function and architectural design. Beyond typical classrooms, schools may house laboratories, libraries, indoor pools, outdoor pools, gymnasiums, foodservice facilities, maintenance areas, and more. According to the NFPA “Educational Properties” study, the top three areas of origin for intentionally set structure fires in educational facilities are: 1) lavatories, locker rooms or coat rooms; 2) hallways or corridors; and 3) classrooms or other small assembly areas.

Because of the challenges existing within K-12 educational facilities, technology plays a pivotal role in fire and life safety. One of the most effective means of improving fire safety is to use a variety of smoke alarms, smoke detectors, automatic sprinklers, notification devices, fire extinguishers, and control panels to protect students, staff, and property. The safety equipment installed in a school should also vary according to building size, height, age and use, as well as local codes, national codes, and any authority having jurisdiction (AHJ).

Accommodating Diverse Environments

Today, the dynamic environment challenges educational facilities. A large open gymnasium may be unoccupied for hours or days and then be transformed for an event with hundreds of people, computer equipment, projectors, musical amplifiers, or other heat-generating sources.

Modern smoke detectors are designed to provide protection in such variable environments. Smoke detection systems connect various combinations of components to determine whether the safety of a physical space is being compromised. A system may include addressable and non-addressable smoke detectors to meet the requirements of the various facility spaces.

Administrators can choose addressable or conventional control panels, which are devices that monitor smoke detectors and other equipment. Addressable panels offer more capability in identifying and isolating a potential emergency quickly. Addressable detectors, i.e. detectors with address identification, will relay the exact location of the alarm to the control panel. These are easily maintained and offer advanced reporting features.

An addressable control panel receives signals that provide the precise location and status of each individual detector on the loop connected to it. Information is immediately available to indicate if a detector goes into alarm, needs to be cleaned or loses contact with the panel. It’s easier to maintain addressable systems because facility managers know where to go when a device requires attention.

Addressable systems provide early, constant, real-time monitoring of many open areas or individual rooms. They pinpoint, as accurately as possible, the source of smoke before it escalates to more advanced, damaging stages. Fully networked addressable systems enable operators to instantly assess the status of detectors dispersed throughout a school. They allow diagnosis, and in some cases even repairs, from a central location for improved system maintenance. These addressable systems are also capable of directing Emergency Response Team (ERT) personnel to trouble areas quickly, minimizing smoke contamination.

Networked addressable fire and life safety systems use one of two types of communication media. An RS-485 network uses a single pair of copper wires to connect multiple buildings’ addressable systems on one network. Fire and life safety systems can also use fiber-optic cable, which is used extensively in telecommunications and data applications, as an alternative.

The choice depends on site conditions, including whether an existing utility trench is available; the environmental conditions within an existing trench system (e.g., copper performs poorly in damp environments); and availability of spare capacity on an existing fiber-optic network, as well as the thoroughness of the school’s master plan. For example, if fiber-optic telecommunications networking is planned, planners should allow spare capacity for fire alarm and life safety systems.

Finally, there are many interface options available for remote system monitoring and control, including elaborate graphical user interfaces (GUIs) on large stationary monitors or small portable ones. Today’s fire and life safety systems offer more flexibility and rapid expandability with the integration of addressable smoke detectors.

Area Specific

Because of the diverse environments in educational facilities, fire safety considerations for each area must be planned individually. The challenge is to build these individual systems so they can communicate to one central fire and life safety system for overall protection.

If the school is multi-level, the fire and life safety approach for these areas may be quite different per level or per area. For example, the floor-to-ceiling height is typically taller in a gymnasium. Airflow plays a major role in the effectiveness of detection devices, and an exhaust/HVAC system may be more helpful in smoke control.

Alternatively, the levels may be interconnected. The design intent for a smoke control system in these areas might be to keep smoke on one floor from traveling to an adjacent floor through the floor opening. This also would be done with an exhaust approach.

For example, the kitchen will have a different plan of action than the library. One option would be the addition of a beam smoke detector to the addressable panel loop. A beam detector can monitor a large, open space with a ceiling of 20 ft. or higher, such as a gymnasium, by using an optical sight to provide an early warning signal. Beam detectors have advanced algorithms to select optimum sensitivity for a specific environment. Remote test stations can facilitate maintenance and NFPA 72 test requirements.

Some of the lower floors may also use a pressurization approach to prevent smoke from traveling to noninvolved floors. There is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to protecting the lower levels. The smoke control concepts must be developed to address the particular life safety needs for each unique school. The best case scenario is a life safety plan that examines all the fire scenarios that could occur and recommends actions to address the scenarios.

Human Response

It’s also important to note that the best detection technology is worthless unless there are trained personnel who can react to the life safety system data and respond properly to incidents. The ability to provide very early warning of a potentially hazardous event allows early evacuation of people and minimizes potential school impact.

A team that includes proper system application engineering, maintenance, and response training responsibilities needs to be incorporated into the fire and life safety plan. This team should involve the system’s designer, vendor, installer, ERT staff, and regulatory agencies. Only then can a school be assured that there are no blind spots related to successful system application, operation, and maintenance. This structure also supports a strong training strategy, which is most effective when treated as a team endeavor.

Understanding Requirements

A good start for an administrator is to understand the school’s fire and life safety requirements and determine which products can fulfill them. A diverse environment requires a cohesive plan that delivers data from individual monitoring systems to a single point where a qualified operator can respond instantly. To get there, a facility managers and administrators need to consider the total property as a suite of different spaces and install a suite of different products to protect it. Essentially, the plan, the personnel, the training, the devices, the panel, the network, and the first responders create a unique communication system customized to a particular property’s fire and life safety needs.

David George is communications director for System Sensor.