Health care building design model shifts for fire, life safety
As hospitals and health care facilities evolve, the fire and life safety systems within them must change
Hospital, health care insights
- Fire and life safety systems in hospitals, health care facilities and related medical buildings are changing.
- Mass timber, fire alarm systems and newer code updates are driving changes in these hospitals.
- Tanner Burke, PE, Senior Fire Protection Engineer, ACS Group, Austin, Texas
- Derek Cornell, Senior Associate, Certus Consulting Engineers, Dallas, Texas
- Beth Gorney, PE, Assistant Project Manager, Dewberry, Raleigh, North Carolina
- Sierra Spitulski, PE, LEED AP BD+C, Associate Principal/Studio Leader/Mechanical Engineer/Project Manager, P2S Inc., Long Beach, California
- Kristie Tiller, PE, LEED AP, Associate, Team Leader, Lockwood Andrews & Newnam Inc. (LAN), Dallas, Texas.
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?
Derek Cornell: There are prescriptive International Building Code requirements that can impact infection prevention systems. For example, if a fire/smoke damper is required in an isolation exhaust duct per building code, the engineer should talk with the state and local authority having jurisdiction and also with the fire department to arrive at a collective decision.
We had a project where the fire marshal told us that his guys know how to deal with fire and smoke. They aren’t trained to deal with infectious diseases. Keep the exhaust moving and we will deal with the fire and smoke.
Tanner Burke: Fire alarm systems for hospitals should be tailored to the emergency response and evacuation plan, which in some cases involves selective notification using the provisions for private mode rather than total building notification using public mode requirements. AHJs that are not familiar with this approach may reject the concept of eliminating notification appliances from certain area. It is important to provide a thorough fire alarm system narrative tied to an established “code red” plan for the facility to show how occupants will be relocated and/or evacuated. This approach avoids high-candela strobes and audible notification in areas where they may do more harm than good such as operating rooms and nurseries filled with newborns.
How have the trends in fire/life safety changed in hospitals?
Tanner Burke: The improved reliability of automatic sprinkler systems through appropriately designed systems with quick response sprinklers, as well as the rigorous inspection, testing and maintenance has allowed greater design flexibility with regard to other fire protection and life safety features. For example, recent code changes have allowed larger smoke compartments, elimination of fire/smoke dampers and relaxed fire detection requirements. Due to the burden of ongoing ITM for difficult to access equipment such as smoke dampers and the in-duct smoke detectors used to close them, we have seen a recent trend in hospital facility managers looking for ways to decommission this equipment. Taking any piece of life safety equipment out of service requires careful analysis of the reduction in safety and discussion with code officials to ensure the approach is compliant.
Derek Cornell: Each edition of the codes continues to recognize more that sprinklers put out fires. Hospitals are defend in place. IBC and NFPA committees continue to be actively coordinating to be more aligned. The adopted codes in any jurisdiction become more aligned each year, but communication with multiple AHJs is even more important as different codes are adopted.
What fire, smoke control and security features might you incorporate in these facilities that you wouldn’t see on other projects?
Tanner Burke: The codes and standards allow greater flexibility when it comes to protecting vertical openings between multiple stories in nonhealthcare facilities. For instance, two-story openings are permitted without any protection and open stairways can be protected using draft curtains with closely spaced sprinklers. For health care facilities, these vertical openings must be enclosed in shaft enclosures. Where unenclosed vertical openings are part of the design program, the project can implement large fire curtains/doors that close upon activation of the fire alarm system or a smoke control system using the exhaust method to comply with the provisions for an atrium.
Do you see any future changes/requests to the structural design of these buildings regarding fire/life safety systems?
Tanner Burke: Like many other building types, I foresee design teams proposing the use of mass timber as a structural system for future hospitals due to the potential cost savings, reduced environmental impact and favorable aesthetics. Recent code changes have included mitigation measures such as noncombustible protection, elimination of concealed spaces and secondary fire protection water supplies to allow larger mass timber structures. However, the IBC is still conservative with Group I-2 facilities which only allow buildings up to 65 feet in height for Type IV-A construction. For codes to change in favor of taller mass timber hospitals the industry will need to determine additional fire protection and life safety measures that can justify the increase.
How has the cost and complexity of fire protection systems involved with hospital/health care projects changed over the years? How did these changes impact the overall design process?
Tanner Burke: The cost and complexity for fire alarm upgrades has changed over the years. Whereas it used to be common to leave most of the infrastructure in place and only replace the head-end panel, we are seeing facility managers choose to incorporate comprehensive fire alarm upgrades into capital expenditure planning. This presents a significant cost, but it is typically justified by the improved level of safety.
What passive and active fire and life safety systems are you incorporating? What’s their impact?
Tanner Burke: Hospitals should be designed with the proper balance of passive and active fire protection and life safety systems. The IBC and NFPA 101: Life Safety Code require that each floor be divided into smoke compartments using smoke barriers to prevent the transfer of smoke. These passive separations coupled with proper zoning of the sprinkler, fire alarm and/or active smoke control systems allow a coordinated fire safety and evacuation plan. This is typically a defend-in-place strategy that involves staff relocating patients to adjacent smoke compartments. Due to the staff involvement with relocation, it is common to use private mode signaling, in which it is necessary to only notify staff in areas where occupants are not capable of self-preservation.