Best practices for engineering government buildings: Fire and life safety

Designing utilities, public works, airport, mass transit, transportation or other government projects is a big task. Learn how to design fire and life safety systems in government buildings.

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer April 7, 2021


  • Michelle Blake, PEng, Vice President, Industrial Buildings, Stantec, Vancouver, B.C.
  • Jeremy Cooan, PE, LEED AP BD+C, Senior Electrical Engineer, Stanley Consultants, Minneapolis
  • Michael J. Rossini, PE, Associate, Senior Electrical Engineer, Bala Consulting Engineers, Boston
  • Ciarán Smyth, PE, CEng, PMP, Vice President, WSP, New York City
  • John Gregory Williams, PE, CEng, Vice President, Harris, Oakland
  • Matthew Williamson, PE, Associate Principal, Arup, San Francisco

What are some of the unique challenges regarding fire/life safety system design that you’ve encountered for such projects? How have you overcome these challenges?

Michelle Blake: Train maintenance facilities typically have a significant number of long pits and platforms creating a unique challenge for meeting maximum exiting distances. Careful location of pit and platform stairs and removable platforms spanning the pits have been used to overcome this challenge and meet requirements.

Ciarán Smyth: Large transportation hubs will inevitably house large numbers of people who may not necessarily know the building that well (first time travelers to the building, etc.) The architect needs to plan for appropriate egress routes (e.g., exit passageways) that come with specific MEP requirements. It’s important that the requirements are worked through with the architect to ensure adequate location of access panels, etc., for services serving these spaces. As the saying goes, “Proper planning prevents poor performance.”

Michael J. Rossini: Massport has an excellent life safety team that works well with Bala’s fire protection and life safety design department to employ standards that provide the highest levels of performance for its life safety systems. Fire alarm systems at the airport are designed and constructed for the highest levels of survivability, audio intelligibility and safety minded evacuation. For instance, life safety lighting systems at Logan Airport provide a much higher level of minimum illuminance due to the capacity for occupancy and the transient nature of its spaces that could have adverse effects for travelers caught in an emergency situation. Additionally, traditional code driven spacing of audio/visual fire alarm appliances is greatly decreased (thereby increasing device density) so that clear and intelligible instructions are heard throughout each facility without system distortion from overpowered speakers.

For airport fire/life safety, describe the latest trends, codes or other drivers.

Michelle Blake: For airplane maintenance hangars, we incorporate foam deluge systems which are complex and expensive.

What fire, smoke control and security features might you incorporate in these facilities that you wouldn’t see on other projects?

Ciarán Smyth: Given the size of the LaGuardia Airport project, there are multiple active smoke control systems (zones), such that if one system is engaged, the remaining part of the terminal can continue to operate. This required significant coordination between the smoke model consultant, architect and MEP trades, specifically BMS, HVAC and fire alarm. Adequate sequences were designed for each zone complete with a specific set of smoke control actions and initiating events for each system (zone).

If the smoke control system initiation time warrants, fast-acting dampers should be specified to ensure adequate opening of dampers and eliminate the possibility of high-static fan shutdown.

Describe unique security and access control systems you have specified in such facilities.

Ciarán Smyth: Airports have multiple spaces that are not typically found in other building types. The Baggage Handling system (BHS) and its supporting rooms such as (CBRA – Checked Baggage Reconciliation Area, CBIS – Checked Baggage Inspection Area) that all need specific and secure access control. These are aligned with TAA requirements and regulations, which may be revised during the course of construction of a large project. It’s important to ensure system design is flexible to keep up with current needs.

Unique systems, such as radiological and chemical detection systems, are also used in airports at the security screening checkpoint to identify any threats before passengers traveling airside. These systems are monitored by security staff, but are also linked to the BMS to shut down air handling units, if required.

How have changes to codes, BIM and wireless devices/systems impacted fire and life safety system design for these projects?

Ciarán Smyth: The smoke control exhaust systems in LaGuardia Airport took advantage of the performance-based method in the code to determine rates of extract (cfm) for each system. This is typically much less than using the prescriptive method in the code resulting in a smaller system.