Designing sports arenas, theaters,and other specialty structures: Fire/life safety

Specialty facilities like sports stadiums and theaters have to do more than host the entertainment these days—they’re full of technological bells and whistles and high client expectations when it comes to fire/life safety.

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer August 30, 2018


  • Edward Clements, PE, LEED AP BD+C, Vice President-Mechanical Engineering, HGA Architects and Engineers, Alexandria, Va.
  • David Conrad, PE, Vice President, Peter Basso Associates Inc., Troy, Mich.
  • George B. Holzbach III, PE, Associate Director of Mechanical Engineering, Setty & Associates, Fairfax, Va.
  • Kevin Lewis, PE, LEED AP BD+C, Senior Vice President, Venue Practice Director Henderson Engineers Inc., Overland Park, Kan.
  • Michael Rogers, PE, LEED AP, Senior Principal, Smith Seckman Reid Inc., Nashville, Tenn.
  • Michael Troyer, PMP, RCDD, CTS, LEED AP, Principal/Senior Technologies Designer Interface Engineering, Portland, Ore.
  • Corey Wallace, PE, SET, Principal Engineer, Southland Industries, Las Vegas

CSE: Concerns about terrorism, active shooters, or other similar events continue to be an important topic. How do such worries manifest in your sports arenas, theaters, or other specialty project work?

Lewis: Security is the No. 1 topic when we sit down with owners to start talking through a new venue or renovation. As large assembly areas, venues pose soft targets for attack. We are using several technologies and strategies to combat this trend. Examples include active camera surveillance, active shooter technology, facial recognition, social media scanning, and chemical sensing at air intakes. We continually invest more in our technology group to make sure we continue to lead the field in terms of security and how we can make venues safer for everyone.

Holzbach: We have seen that aspect creep into some of our designs. Biometric security has addressed this to some degree. Mass notification systems have also become more popular. An increase in the number of security cameras has taken hold as well.

CSE: 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?

Wallace: Smoke control and the effectiveness of fire suppression. Fire modeling assists in overcoming the challenges, as well as involving the local code enforcement early in design.

Holzbach: Large structures that have high ceilings, multiple levels, mezzanine/interstitial spaces, large obstructions, and extremely large structural members tend to pose a challenge for evaluating a fully comprehensive fire protection/fire alarm system. Three-dimensional modeling software, as well as proactive discussions with code officials, greatly improve the design team’s ability to evaluate each area of the facility and develop a holistic, efficient design that will provide a compliant and safe building.

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

Holzbach: It varies greatly depending on the geometry of the structure and the layout within. For enclosed arenas, there are certain obstacles such as beam pockets and zoning coordination.

Wallace: Fire modeling assists in showing how a space will remain tenable in a fire event with much less exhaust, and a less robust smoke control system is then required.

Lewis: The biggest feature we see on venue projects is the smoke control system and integration into other systems, such as the public-address and fire alarm systems. You don’t want to evacuate an arena bowl on a false alarm, so there are several layers of systems that work together to make sure common sense prevails in any situation. With that said, if there is an emergency, we want to make sure the systems in place provide enough safety so that every person in the venue can get out, so that the incoming firefighting team has the right technology in place to safely assess and respond to the situation.

Clements: Stages require smoke control systems (either passive hatches or mechanical smoke control) to account for the possibility that a theatrical set could catch fire. There have been numerous documented cases over the years of stage effects starting fires, and codes have updated to mitigate those risks. Not smoke, but theatrical fog effects also are unique to these types of buildings. Production directors use fog for dramatic effect on stage, but they need it to be cleared from the field of view quickly once the effect is no longer desired. Incorporating this and coordinating theatrical fog exhaust systems with the building fire alarm systems is a unique aspect of theater design.

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

Holzbach: Biometrics is one example. Entrance/exit security technologies that allow for certain individuals (players, administrative personnel) to view building entrances, exits, and parking lots (to check on the security of automobiles) allow for efficient arrivals through gates/entrances, etc.

CSE: Do you see any future changes/requests to the structural design of specialty buildings with regard to fire/life safety systems?

Holzbach: We’re seeing the requirements of a more seamless integration between life safety systems and "entertainment" systems, or modes in specialty buildings that involve multiple uses of public space. For example, we’re having to integrate and coordinate systems that move back and forth between the pyrotechnics associated with a sporting event or musical concert and that of a life safety system’s role in a fire or smoke event. Complex protocols have to be created, and the controls of all associated systems have to be coordinated, to ensure proper and safe operation at all applicable times.

CSE: How have the cost and complexity of fire protection systems involved with such structures changed over the years? How did these changes impact the overall design process?

Wallace: Fire sprinkler contractors must be included much earlier and be part of the design team, not just the construction team. Enhanced fire suppression can provide an alternative to solving some of the problems created by a complex building design.

Holzbach: More recent changes to NFPA 13 and NFPA 14 as well as the IBC have had an impact on fire protection system requirements. Some tend to offer potential cost savings due to new analysis and research conducted in the industry, while others tend to require expanding the overall system to areas of a building that previously would not require sprinkler, alarm, or hose coverage.