Fire, Life Safety

Government facility design: Fire and life safety

Consulting engineers are working on government, state, municipal, federal, correctional and military buildings

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer July 25, 2019
On a recent project located in Key West, Florida, engineers put in place a vehicle exhaust capture system, air-powered utility hose stations and emergency shower with horn and strobe. Courtesy: CDM Smith


Jody W. Baldwin, LEED AP, CEM 

Branch Manager, Mid Atlantic Division 

Envise, a wholly owned subsidiary of Southland Industries 

Sterling, Virginia 


Christopher Carter, EIT 

Associate/Graduate Electrical Engineer 


Austin, Texas 


Mark Chrisman, PE, MS 

Vice President/Healthcare Practice Director 

Henderson Engineers 

Kansas City 


Gary Krueger, PE, LEED AP BD+C, CM 

Vice President and Executive Director 

TLC Engineering Solutions 

Cocoa, Florida 


Joshua Meinig, PE 

Senior Mechanical Engineer 

CDM Smith 

Orlando, Florida 


Brian Pak, PE, LEED AP, BEMP 

Senior Mechanical Engineer, Department Lead 


Fairfax, Virginia 

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? 

Meinig: On rehabilitation project where you physically cannot follow the code to the letter of the law due to existing conditions. I will add additional systems to help mitigate potential issues. 

CSE: How have the trends in fire/life safety changed on such projects? 

Krueger: The consideration of life safety/fire protection systems has become increasingly complex especially on large or unusual project types and we have seen an increase in the adoption of a design approach led by a registered fire protection engineer who can review and incorporate the architectural life safety with fire alarm and fire sprinkler considerations similar to the approach dictated for Department of Defense projects. 

Meinig: Life safety is in the forefront of all design projects, keeping the public and employees safe is the most important job of a design engineer. 

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

Chrisman: Many public sector facilities have fire protection and life safety features not required in private sector facilities.  

For example, a two-story office building (business occupancy) under Department of Defense criteria may be required to have a fire sprinkler system, a voice evacuation fire alarm, mass notification system and protected means of egress, while that same building in the private sector may only require protected means of egress or fire alarm system. You might encounter a requirement for a smoke control system more easily on a public sector facility as well because of the large number of codes, standards and criteria that are adopted. 

Meinig: Some military project facilities require high-expansion foam fire suppression systems. As for security in military installations, designing systems for sensitive compartmented information facilities is very challenging and requires extensive coordination among designs and contractors to ensure all systems are provide in accordance to the project’s requirements. 

On a recent project located in Key West, Florida, engineers put in place a vehicle exhaust capture system, air-powered utility hose stations and emergency shower with horn and strobe. Courtesy: CDM Smith

CSE: Describe unique security and access control systems you have specified in such facilities. 

Chrisman: On General Services Administration projects, we have seen a wide range of security and access control systems depending on the varying tenants within the building. Spaces involving higher security, like U.S. Marshals or Department of Homeland Security, present challenges depending on the existing building’s active and passive fire safety features and the location of the spaces within.  

While we can often make the varying levels of security/access control work within a building, half the challenge is often discussions during design to identify what hardware is required where and documenting how it is compliant. 

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

Meinig: Yes, in a changing world, new threats always arise. For government buildings, the Department of Defense Minimum Antiterrorism Standards for Buildings must be examined to see if it applies to the project. 

Chrisman: The types of materials being used for the structural support of the building is continuing to change and be challenged. Recently, there’s been a huge push in the private sector to build large, wood structures with mass timber. There are environmental and financial considerations for using wood, but there are also ongoing discussions with the AEC industry and AHJs for how to address adequate fire protection/life safety within the building, as well as how to respond in the event of a fire. It’s likely this will continue in the future and will impact public sector projects in some way. 

CSE: How has the cost and complexity of fire protection systems involved with government, state, municipal, federal, correctional and military projects changed over the years? How did these changes impact the overall design process? 

Meinig: With an increase in network rooms, server rooms and data centers clean agent fire suppression systems are increasing. 

Chrisman: For Department of Defense projects specifically, there have been significant changes to the fire sprinkler pressure and flow requirements in the past 10 to 15 years. These have impacted many renovations and, depending on the age of the building and original building sprinkler system design, have required fire pumps and/or water storage tanks, which can impact the project duration and construction cost. However, in some instances it has been the reverse, where the building was designed for more restrictive criteria and the renovation had no impact on schedule or cost. 

Consulting-Specifying Engineer