Examining government, state, municipal, federal, and military facilities: Fire and life safety

Government and military projects are among the toughest challenges an engineer can face. Demanding facility owners, tight budget limitations, safety concerns, and other factors all come into play. Here, engineers with experience in the field offer advice on how to succeed in regards to fire and life safety.

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer July 19, 2018


  • Roger Chang, PE, LEED Fellow, Principal, DLR Group, Washington, D.C.
  • Shem Heiple, PE, LEED AP, Associate Principal, Senior Mechanical Engineer, Interface Engineering, Portland, Ore.
  • Dalrio Lewis, PE, Project Engineer, RTM Associates, Orlando, Fla.
  • Spencer Morgenthau, CPSM, LEED AP, Director of Business Development, Southland Energy, a division of Southland Industries, Sterling, Va.

CSE: Concerns about terrorism continue to be a hot topic. How do such worries manifest in your government, state, municipal, federal, and military project work?

Heiple: Mass notification systems (MNS) have been in the Uniform Facilities Criteria used by the DoD for quite some time; however, we are seeing some more implementation in other institutions like universities and school districts as well as for GSA. The emergency voice alarm/communication systems used for fire alarm notification, designed per NFPA 72: National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code, can be leveraged to be part of the MNS and can ultimately be integrated with other communication systems. In an ideal situation, cost savings can be realized by reducing the number of duplicate system components and increasing reliability.

CSE: What are some of the unique challenges regarding fire/life safety system design that you’ve encountered for government, state, municipal, federal, and military buildings? How have you overcome these challenges?

Heiple: National Park Service buildings can often represent unique fire challenges. They are often very remote and may have limited or no infrastructure for supplying water to fire sprinklers or for provisions for adequate fire flow. In some areas with limited infrastructure, alternative approaches are often required including reviewing fire-flow requirements per NFPA 1142: Standard on Water Supplies for Suburban and Rural Fire Fighting. Also, alternative approaches to fire sprinklers might include providing more fire-resistance-rated separations for increased compartmentation. In some cases, bringing in supplies and equipment to construct water-storage tanks may be very difficult. We are currently involved with a project where anything needed for the project must either be air-lifted or packed in. Putting in a large firewater tank for fire-flow requirements is just not feasible. Alternative means and methods with unique, holistic approaches become critical to these kinds of projects. Finally, these buildings are often closed in the winter. Ensuring the systems can be shut down but then reactivated for the rest of the year can present major challenges. Whether it’s damage caused by freezing pipes or exposure of equipment and components to severe temperature extremes beyond those recommended by the manufacturer or as allowed per their listings, the impact of the ambient environment on the systems is not just a concern during occupied times but throughout the entire year.

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

Heiple: Due to code changes and/or standards, we see the increased use of emergency voice alarm communication systems (EVACS). EVACS allow the transmission of voice messaging, which has been shown to be more effective for initiating a fire evacuation instead of using just an audible alarm tone. As noted previously, these systems can be expanded and used for other emergency communication purposes as part of a mass notification system. There is an increased cost for the systems relative to tone systems, but the increased level of communication and associated safety improvements of such systems make a strong case for their use in many facilities.

CSE: What new methods or design elements are government, state, municipal, federal, and military project owners requesting to mitigate active shooter or other similar events?

Heiple: We are starting to see the codes make a substantial attempt to address these concerns. For example, the NFPA has recently created NFPA 3000: Standard for an Active Shooter/Hostile Event Response (ASHER) Program. We recently helped produce an outreach event with several educational sessions on this very topic. Attendance at the sessions consisted predominantly of school district personnel because that community has been so severely impacted by active shooter events. Education and outreach still need to make their way more deeply into the design community to help mitigate risk.