Designing a winning sports venue: Fire and life safety

Sports and entertainment arenas are more than just seats and a playing field; they are highly complex structures bringing in thousands of fans—and millions of dollars—every year. Fire, life safety, and mass notification are topics of high importance to fire protection engineers.

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer April 28, 2014


  • Jerry Atienza, EIT, Senior plumbing designer, Interface Engineering, Portland, Ore.
  • Douglas H. Evans, PE, FSFPE, Fire protection engineer, Clark County Dept. of, Development Services, Building Division, Las Vegas
  • Todd Mack, PE, Principal, DLR Group, Omaha, Neb.
  • Jeff Sawarynski, PE, LEED AP, Principal, M-E Engineers Inc., Denver, Colo.

CSE: What unique fire suppression systems have you specified or designed in a sports/entertainment arena?

Sawarynski: These venues almost always have a combination of wet, dry, and chemical suppression.

Mack: The majority of our spaces are traditionally served from wet pipe sprinkler systems. In some stadiums we have specified double interlock pre-action systems in the public address/scoreboard equipment rooms, building control room, video production/TV broadcast, and main distribution frame (MDF) rooms. At the Nebraska Athletic Performance Lab, we specified a double interlock pre-action system in the hitting cage areas to prevent accidental water discharge in the event a ball would strike a sprinkler head causing water discharge and flooding. We also specified wire-cage-type sprinkler guards for all sprinkler heads located on the lower spaces.

Atienza: Wet pipe automatic sprinkler systems for conditioned spaces and dry pipe automatic sprinkler systems for outdoor stadiums is all I have ever encountered for sporting facilities.

Evans: When the ceiling height becomes excessive, automatic sprinkler protection is less apt to provide the protection intended. Although the actual height where this becomes an issue is not well established, a reasonable value is around 50 ft. The actual height will depend on fire size, air movement, and effectiveness of the sprinkler droplets to penetrate the plume and provide the necessary cooling. For example, 18-wheeled semis are allowed to drive inside some of the multi-use facilities on the Las Vegas Strip to load and unload. Multi-story trade show booths, boat and RV shows, and some concert venues can create a sprinkler controlled fire in excess of 18 MW. As the ceiling height continues to increase (upwards of 75 ft or more), there is little to no assurance sprinklers will perform as intended, and deluge-type suppression systems have been incorporated into some of the Strip venues. Manually operated water cannons have also been used. These types of suppression systems place a larger burden on the designers and owners and must only be incorporated with extreme caution.

CSE: How have the costs and complexity of fire protection systems changed in recent years?

Evans: Automatically activated deluge systems should only be initiated upon detection of multiple fire signatures. This may include a combination of ultraviolet infrared (UV/IR) in conjunction with smoke detection. Devices that detect different fire signatures can also be considered.

CSE: What type of unique smoke control solutions have you designed in these buildings? What were the challenges/solutions?

Evans: Designing a smoke-control system that fulfills the code requirements and needs for these complex facilities is always a challenge. Ensuring the design parameters and technical analysis correlate to provide the protection intended requires knowledgeable design professionals.

Sawarynski: Smoke control systems are almost always required in arenas, and sometimes in open-air venues. The challenge is finding solutions that satisfy the intent of the codes when those very codes do not specifically speak to this building type.

CSE: Describe a recent project in which a mass notification system (MNS) or emergency communication system (ECS) was specified. Describe the challenges and solutions.

Evans: With increased occupant loads and reduced egress widths, it becomes more and more prudent to use mass notification and emergency communication systems. Coordination by facility management becomes an absolute necessity. Among other aspects, this will include CCTV and trained staff.