Enhancing learning in K-12 schools: Fire and life safety

Students and teachers benefit from many fire and life safety engineering technologies in K-12 schools

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer March 29, 2021

Doug Everhart, PE, LEEP AP, K-12 education practice director|principal, Henderson Engineers, Lenexa, Kansas

Keith Hammelman, PE, principal, CannonDesign, Chicago

Brian A. Hummel, PE, LEED AP BD+C, mechanical engineer, senior associate, DLR Group, Phoenix

Richard Sparozic, PE, mechanical engineer, Kohler Ronan Consulting Engineers, Danbury, Conn.

Casimir Zalewski, PE, LEED AP, CPD, principal, Stantec, Berkley, Mich.

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?

Doug Everhart: Existing schools undergoing modernizations, upgrades or expansions pose a unique challenge. The fire and life safety systems typically required for new or remodeled buildings are either not present or include severe deficiencies, which oftentimes require unanticipated improvements across the entire building. Understanding limitations of existing systems and requirements for existing and new construction can better position districts to plan their future improvement projects.

Solutions oftentimes include enhanced coordination with the authority having jurisdiction and district to arrive at a solution that satisfies the AHJ while not substantially increasing the cost to the district. This coordination usually results in systems that may not meet the full prescriptive code requirements, but will meet the intent of the code and provide an increased level of safety. This is vital as students and teachers perform better in an inherently safe environment.

How have the trends in fire/life safety changed in K-12 school projects?

Casimir Zalewski: The area that has changed and continues to change the most seems to be wall rating requirements and the associated life safety dampers that are or are not required based on changes to fire/life safety.

Doug Everhart: An emergency voice/alarm communications system allows trained personnel to provide spoken instruction throughout the building. One reason for this type of system is increased communication in emergency situations. This is vital should teachers and students need to modify their response from their normal emergency preparedness plan.

In the 2012 edition of the IBC, emergency voice/alarm communications (voice evacuation) systems were introduced as a code minimum for standard sized K-12 buildings. We have encountered buildings and fire alarm systems less than 5 years old with fire alarm systems that didn’t have these voice capabilities. This situation could quickly lead to tens of thousands of dollars in extra cost that the district would otherwise not have anticipated.

Do you see any future changes/requests to the structural design of these buildings regarding fire/life safety systems?

Doug Everhart: Another recent code change introduced the requirement for distributed antenna systems, commonly referred to as first responder radio coverage or radio amplification system. This system is required when a fire department or police departments radio system does not produce a strong enough signal to penetrate the building exterior providing the required radio coverage within the building needed to conduct emergency operations. New K-12 buildings are commonly constructed of materials (precast concrete, glazed windows, metal decorative paneling) that tend to limit radio signal strength inside the building.

This new requirement is again focused on increased communications and this system is designed to be used by first responders while inside the building performing emergency functions. For first responders to use this system during an emergency, the DAS has strict requirements for installation requiring rated construction and pathways not normally required within these buildings.

One major hurdle regarding the DAS is first knowing if it is required for new buildings. The only way to know for sure is through live testing of the jurisdiction’s radios and radio systems throughout the building and measuring available signal strength. This signal strength test is obviously not able to be performed on new buildings until significant completion of construction. Because testing occurs so late in the construction process, installing a DAS (if required) can pose a serious risk to construction schedule and can quickly add costs to the project.

Understanding the structural elements of new K-12 buildings and their impacts on radio signal strength can provide a better approach to anticipate and implement this system. Understanding the potential need for a DAS in new K-12 buildings can also allow for districts and construction managers to plan their budgets and schedules to accommodate the design and installation of this system.

How has the cost and complexity of fire protection systems involved with K-12 school projects changed over the years? How did these changes impact the overall design process?

Doug Everhart: Emergency voice/alarm communication systems tend to increase quantities of required fire alarm equipment 30% to 50% above the standard horn/strobe fire alarm system.

DAS can increase costs of building materials as well as the system and wiring itself.

Casimir Zalewski: Years ago, many schools were not sprinklered or had limited sprinkler systems and contained a limited number of fire alarms. Most schools now are fully sprinklered and contain an addressable fire alarm system. The systems provide greater levels of safety for the occupants and support more flexibility in construction materials and methods.