Examining higher education facilities: Fire and life safety

As technology advances in every field, the college and university students being prepped for future careers in those fields need the tech they’re learning with to keep up. That presents unique challenges for the engineers working on such structures—specifying advanced systems that satisfy the unique needs of each institution. Here, professionals with experience in the area offer advice on how to tackle such facilities and receivetop marks in regard to fire and life safety.

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer October 25, 2018


Kent Locke, PE, NCEES, Associate Principal/Branch Manager, Bailey Edward, Fox River Grove, Ill.

Blake Smith, PE LEED AP, Project Manager, RMF Engineering, Raleigh, N.C.

Jason Sylvain, PE, Partner National Higher Education Practice Leader, AKF Group LLC, New York City

Matthew Wiechart, PE, CxA, LEED AP, CEM, Principal/Senior Mechanical Engineer, TLC Engineering for Architecture Inc., Orlando, Fla.

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?

Sylvain: Some of the challenges we encounter in higher education projects are the limited windows of time available for construction. As more colleges and universities are running programs year-round, there is less time available when buildings are not being used. Occupied buildings are subject to potentially disruptive construction. The most commonly used solution is project phasing over multiple years, which can complicate the effectiveness of the fire protection and fire alarm systems we’re often tasked with implementing.

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

Smith: Facility owners and their insurance carriers should be consulted as to whether there are any impacts to coverage and premiums based on the fire-suppression system design. For example, most commercial kitchens are fairly straightforward with grease exhaust hoods being equipped with ANSUL systems, but hoods that serve solid-fuel-burning equipment, such as smokers, may need another approach. While not required, hood manufacturers may have domestic water-connection options to clean creosote buildup that could ignite. Design engineers will also need to consult with owners and insurance on whether a backup wet-sprinkler connection is required for solid-fuel-burning equipment.

Sylvain: Often, the goal with higher-ed design is to “studentproof” our work. We consider using Class A fire alarm circuits in more dormitory/apartment applications, as they will allow systems to continue to operate should an open-circuit condition be created.

CSE: Describe unique security and access-control systems you have specified in colleges and universities?

Wiechart: Security designs tend to be more passive control than active control to allow for the greatest amount of security while also keeping campuses inviting and active.

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?

Sylvain: As with many other systems, the cost and complexity have increased, more so on the fire alarm side where technology has evolved rapidly. The systems also are being designed to give more flexibility during non-fire emergencies. Some features we’ve implemented recently include backup command center locations should the primary location not be tenable for any number of reasons (fire, active shooter, etc.). We’ve also seen an increase in systems for first responder radio coverage, especially in high-rise buildings. NFPA 3000-2018: Standard for an Active Shooter/Hostile Event Response (ASHER) Program hasn’t been requested on any projects yet, as it is still in its infancy, but I expect it will become more integrated going forward.

CSE: Active-shooter and hostile-event incidents are increasing concerns. Have they been reflected in your designs for such projects? How have you incorporated NFPA 3000?

Locke: The colleges and universities have developed plans incorporating wireless security/surveillance devices, which we integrate with the new or remodeled structures to provide a continuous system.

Wiechart: Mass notification systems and building lockdowns are part of the design process, but full incorporation of NFPA 3000 has not been required. Yet.