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

K-12 schools are among the most important projects engineers can tackle. Fire and life safety—including mass notification systems, fire suppression, and emergency communication systems—are discussed.

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer March 30, 2016


Tony Cocea, PE, Principal, DLR Group, Los Angeles

Michael Do, CEM, CxA, AX TCP, Director of Engineering Sciences and Commissioning, Setty, Fairfax, Va.

James Dolan, PE, CEM, CPMP, LEED AP, Principal in Charge of Energy Engineering Services, OLA Consulting Engineers, Hawthorne, N.Y.

Mark Fisher, PE, LEED AP, Principal, AlfaTech Consulting Engineers, San Jose, Calif.

Douglas R. Hundley Jr., PE, CGD, LEED AP, CxA, Mechanical Engineer, CMTA Consulting Engineers, Louisville, Ky.

Peter McClive, PE, LEED AP, Senior Vice President, CannonDesign, Grand Island, N.Y.

CSE: What unique fire suppression systems have you specified in K-12 buildings?

Hundley: Fire suppression in K-12 has traditionally been wet-type systems meeting NFPA 13. On one project, the school site did not have a local utility water main. To sprinkle the building, we designed an underground storage system, with fire-pump house, to provide the code-required coverage. The storage tanks were filled by using rainwater harvesting from the building roof.

CSE: Describe any unusual detection, suppression, and notification systems you’ve specified in K-12 projects. What drove the design?

Cocea: In a recent K-12 building, the restrooms in a concession building had hard ceilings that were attached to the roof joist with a 1.25-in. gap. There was an access panel for the electrical devices that made the space accessible. NFPA 72 Section 907. requires heat detectors in combustible spaces where sprinklers or smoke detectors are not installed. Instead of providing several heat detectors on every joist pocket, we used a linear heat detector, which is a cost-effective solution. The linear heat detector is a two-wire cable; when heat is introduced, the insulation will melt and the two wires will short out. This will activate the fire alarm system.

CSE: Describe unique security and access control systems you have specified in K-12 projects.

Hundley: Most new security projects are now including converged video-management and access-control systems. These new systems provide analytics in a package that hasn’t been available in the past. The video cameras actually work double duty, providing motion or intrusion detection as well as recording video of the events that triggered them. These result in push notifications to the staff in real time.

Fisher: Card readers and video-surveillance cameras are becoming more prevalent as more districts are recognizing the importance of increased security on campus.

CSE: Outline compartmentation in a K-12 building. What was unique to this design?

Fisher: Most of California’s schools are a combination of many small buildings, which makes them inherently compartmentalized. We typically do not see larger structures in California K-12 campuses that would require compartmentalization.

CSE: What unique smoke-control systems have you designed in a K-12 building? Outline the building structure and the smoke-control solutions.

Hundley: Smoke-control systems in K-12 schools primarily consist of the code-required smoke-control shutdown for a certain size of air moving equipment. We have not used a smoke-evacuation system in a K-12 facility.

CSE: Have requests surrounding security systems changed in recent years due to school shootings?

Hundley: Safety has always been a priority for campuses, large and small, but security concerns and requirements have increased. Today’s threats come in many forms, and we have tools that are not only for monitoring but are actually proactive with analytics. These new electronic safety and security practices use technology to assist educators.

Fisher: Code blue (blue lights in classrooms indicating a "lockdown"), evacuation systems, two-way communication systems, card readers, and video-surveillance cameras are becoming more prevalent as more districts are recognizing the importance of increased security on campus.