Fire alarm systems for schools

By Manuelita E. David, Schirmer Engineering, an Aon Global Co., Concord, Calif. September 1, 2009

View the full story, including all images and figures, in our monthly digital edition Children are our future, so when it comes to their safety, parents, guardians, and adults have a duty to protect them. However, there are times when parents cannot be there to protect their children, such as when they are in school. Once children are on school property, their safety and well-being become the responsibility of the school personnel and administrators.

In reality, the safety and well-being of the children occurs long before they even step foot on a school campus. The preliminary stage for safety in schools starts when architectural plans are developed for the school and its buildings. These plans are reviewed by the state, county, or city building officials to ensure the buildings are being built per applicable code requirements.

Authorities having jurisdiction (AHJ), code officials, field inspectors, and school districts have the responsibility to ensure each building is built and maintained properly. Although construction of buildings is an important safety factor, building systems—such as security systems, fire sprinkler, and fire alarm systems—are equally important when it comes to protecting children and adults. Without a fire alarm system, most schools cannot be opened or occupied.

This article provides information to fire alarm designers, code officials, and school personnel about the basic requirements for school fire alarm systems, as well as the various design approaches for complying with the applicable codes and meeting the different fire safety needs of schools.

What the codes say

The International Building Code (IBC) and International Fire Code (IFC) provide minimum requirements for fire alarm systems, which consist of manual fire alarm boxes throughout the school. California adopts even more stringent codes, such as automatic detection throughout the buildings, which means detection devices are located in every room or space, including areas above the ceiling where there is no automatic sprinkler protection.

In addition to state codes, the local city codes may enforce additional requirements. To complicate the issue further, new codes are continuously being developed and existing codes are often modified when something occurs that the original code did not address. For instance, a fire at an elementary school in 1997 forever changed the fire alarm and automatic sprinkler requirements in California. While no lives were lost, the entire wing of the elementary school burned to the ground. As a result, the California State Legislature adopted a law requiring all automatic fire sprinklers and fire alarm systems in K-12 public schools be connected to an approved supervising station.

Schools in California with new campuses or modernization projects with construction budgets more than $200,000 are required to have both automatic sprinklers and fire alarm systems that are connected to a supervising station. Gone are the days when a neighbor or a passerby calls the fire department if they hear the water gong or fire horns activated at the school. Now, any fire alarm or sprinkler activation requires an automatic transmission to a remote supervising station.

The use of beam smoke detectors in school auditoriums is not only cost-effective, but also is more effective than using spot smoke detectors.

Considerations beyond code

Although the building and fire codes dictate the minimum requirements for fire alarm systems in schools, designers also have to be cognizant that a fire alarm system design may have to be modified based upon the school. Child development centers or pre-schools and elementary schools occupied by young children may be designed with the minimum requirements for a fire alarm system with no additional criteria.

However, middle or high schools, which are occupied by teenagers, may have to be designed differently. Fire alarm devices such as smoke detectors, manual fire alarm boxes, and notification devices, which are clearly visible and accessible to students, are more susceptible to vandalism at higher-grade-level schools.

To prevent vandalism, the design may resemble that of a prison, with vandal-proof covers on notification devices and manual fire alarm boxes. Fire alarm designers and school districts must consider these important design criteria in order to maintain an operational fire alarm system. (See sidebar, “Stopping school vandals,” page 30.)

Resolving nuisance alarms

The possibility of nuisance alarms is another consideration when designing fire alarm systems in schools. On more than one occasion, mischievous students have activated manual fire alarm boxes located in school hallways, which resulted in the evacuation of the entire school. Because this has become an increasing concern for many schools, the IBC and IFC have eliminated the requirement of manual fire alarm boxes in fully sprinklered buildings and have reduced the number of required manual fire alarm boxes in unsprinklered buildings if certain conditions are met, including increased detection.

Although the IBC and IFC have eliminated the requirement of manual fire alarm boxes, in California at least one manual fire alarm box is required at an administrative office, which is normally occupied.

This has greatly reduced or eliminated nuisance alarms from manual fire alarm boxes.

In California, in order to compensate for the reduction of manual fire alarm boxes for a manual system, the requirement for automatic detection has increased to complete coverage. To meet this requirement, additional design considerations need to be contemplated.

In many schools, students smoking in restrooms have activated smoke detectors on a regular basis. Although the smoke detector is doing what it is supposed to do, the incident is considered a nuisance alarm. In response to this particular nuisance alarm, some school districts have requested a code variance from the AHJ to allow the use of heat detectors in lieu of smoke detectors in student restrooms, especially in middle and high schools.

This California school adheres to stringent codes, such as automatic detection throughout the buildings, which means detection devices are located in every room or space, including areas above the ceiling where there is no automatic sprinkler protection.

Detection design

Other design considerations include the implementation of beam smoke detectors in lieu of spot smoke detectors in buildings with high-bay ceilings such as auditoriums and multipurpose rooms. The use of beam smoke detectors in these areas is not only cost-effective, but more effective than spot smoke detectors.

With high-bay ceilings, especially ceilings higher than 10 ft, smoke detectors are placed with reduced spacing, so more detectors are required as the height of the ceiling increases. As a result, the number of spot-type smoke detectors required increases, as do installation and equipment costs.

Using beam smoke detectors in these types of areas is not only cost-effective, it is more practical because beam smoke detectors are more effective in this situation. Just as for other types of detectors, there are installation guidelines for beam smoke detectors. For example, structural and ceiling obstructions like beams, trusses, lighting fixtures, ductwork, banners, and signs need to be reviewed before considering installation of beam smoke detectors.

One pair of beam smoke detectors can provide coverage for approximately 19,000 sq ft; the same area would require more than a dozen spot-type smoke detectors as they only provide coverage for up to 900 sq ft. The beam smoke detectors in high-bay ceilings also may reduce problems for maintenance because there are fewer devices and they are mounted on the walls, which are more accessible. Accessing spot-type smoke detectors located on high-bay ceilings requires special equipment. Using beam smoke detectors can significantly reduce maintenance costs.

By training district O&M personnel on one manufacturer’s panel instead of multiple manufacturers’ panels, staff can become more knowledgeable with the systems and may allow districts to not only field-train but also factory-train their employees.

Procurement practices and design

Another design consideration is for school districts to select one fire alarm manufacturer for their schools. Initial reaction would be that by using proprietary equipment, school districts would be jeopardizing themselves financially. In reality, using proprietary equipment can reduce the cost of new fire alarm systems for school districts, if it is negotiated upfront and correctly.

Most school districts have more than one school. In some states, a school district may comprise 100 schools or more, ranging from preschools to large high schools. If a school district works with only manufacturer, then that manufacturer is usually willing to negotiate a significant discount for all equipment, knowing it is guaranteed sales and service contracts for 10 or more years. Both the school district and the fire alarm manufacturer win in this scenario because the district gets the best negotiated price and the fire alarm manufacturer wins the business.

Having a single manufacturer also helps with fire alarm system maintenance, since there are only one or two model numbers for smoke detectors, heat detectors, manual fire alarm boxes, and notification devices in the entire district. With multiple vendors, on the other hand, keeping a constant supply of spare parts can become problematic for field maintenance because O&M staff would have to have every single type of device and model used in the district.

Another benefit of a single manufacturer is that district personnel have to be trained on only one manufacturer’s panel instead of multiple manufacturers’ panels. This allows them to become more knowledgeable with the systems and could allow districts to not only field-train but also factory-train their employees. Although this may not produce an immediate visible cost savings, there is a definite cost savings over the lifecycle of the equipment.

Modernization issues

Modernization projects are occurring constantly on school campuses. Sometimes the fire alarm system is overlooked during these projects because it is perceived as simply relocating existing fire alarm devices or adding new devices. Unfortunately, relocating or adding fire alarm devices in a modernization project entails reconfiguring of wires and circuit loads. If fire alarm circuits are overloaded, the fire alarm system will not operate properly.

Additionally, many modernization projects occur during the summer and are fast-tracked. Because of these time constraints, modernization projects are often viewed as separate fire alarm projects rather than a single campus fire alarm system. The project team’s knowledge of fire alarm systems therefore becomes critical for such projects.

In some cases, although only a portion of a school is being modernized, the entire fire alarm system may need to be replaced because components are unavailable or the school has outgrown the existing fire alarm system. It is imperative that the services of a designer with extensive fire alarm knowledge be retained who can examine the configuration of the existing campus fire alarm system. This designer can determine the existing wiring and device circuitry, understand the existing device loads, and determine whether to reuse or add on to the existing circuits or provide new wire, circuits, devices, and panels. The result of this involvement is more cost-effective and saves valuable construction time.


Fire alarm systems in schools, like other buildings, generally are not mandated to be updated or replaced to meet current code requirements unless the system is no longer operational or if buildings are being modernized. Although codes are developed to improve safety, these modified codes also have increased the cost of building and installing systems.

These cost restraints, coupled with current economic conditions, are the primary reasons that many school districts simply have not been able to budget for new or upgraded fire alarm systems. While school administrators would like to upgrade or replace obsolete fire alarm systems, often funding is not available to do so. Sadly, this fact could result in a school having an obsolete and possibly non-operational fire alarm system, which is unacceptable when the protection of our children is at stake.

A school fire alarm system does not need to have all the latest bells and whistles; however, it does need to meet the applicable code requirements. Most importantly, it needs to be able to keep our children safe from fire while they are in school. Construction, egress systems, and suppression systems are also an important part of fire safety for schools.

Unfortunately, statistics indicate that most school fires are started while school is in session, meaning the occupants are responsible for most school fires. Staff training and fire drills are as essential in educating our children about fires as fire alarm systems are in detecting fires and keeping our children and our future safe.

Author Information

David is a project manager at Schirmer Engineering. She has extensive experience designing clock, security, and card access systems, and integrating fire alarm, security, and smoke control systems. She is NICET Level IV certified in fire alarm systems, and is an active member of NFPA 72 committees as a principal for Fundamentals of Fire Alarm Systems and alternate for Single & Multiple Station Alarms & Household Fire Alarm Systems. David is also an associate member of the Society of Fire Protection Engineers.

Stopping school vandals

School vandalism has increased over the years. When walking the halls of a middle school or high school, vandalism such as graffiti and property damage is visible everywhere, despite the efforts of school administrators to keep it under control.

A school’s fire alarm system is not immune when it comes to vandalism. On occasion, students have blocked the key slot for resetting manual fire alarm boxes, or pulled off the pull handle. In gymnasiums, locker rooms, or outdoor exercise areas, students have used baseball bats and other sports equipment to bash notification devices, strobes, and horns. These devices also have been spray-painted with graffiti. Replacing these fire alarm devices on a regular basis can become costly for school districts.

In an attempt to reduce damage to these devices, vandal-proof covers or guards are being used in schools. Protective plastic covers with a built-in horn have been installed over manual fire alarm boxes to eliminate not only vandalism, but also nuisance alarms. When the cover is lifted, an audible alarm sounds, which usually inhibits the activation of the manual fire alarm box. Clear plastic or wire guards are provided for the notification devices, so they are protected from immediate damage. Although this may not completely eliminate vandalism to the fire alarm system, it is a factor in keeping the fire alarm system operational.