How to design K-12 schools: Fire, life safety systems

With increasingly complex systems and technology coming into play, work on modern K-12 projects is anything but elementary

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer March 31, 2020


Doug Everhart, Henderson Engineers

As a vice president and K-12 practice director, Everhart leads a team of education experts. With more than a decade of experience, his specialty involves designing innovative learning environments for students and teachers that use the spaces.

Anna Gradishar, Arup

As an Associate Fire Protection Engineer, Gradishar combines her fire protection and first responder backgrounds to offer expertise to owners, facility managers, tenants and design teams. She has developed comprehensive fire protection and life safety approaches for numerous building types and occupancies.

Keith Hammelman, CannonDesign

In his role as senior vice president, Hammelman focuses on the design and construction of pre-K-12 facilities, serving as the lead mechanical engineer for the firm’s central region. His sustainable project approach goes beyond the best mechanical system to the systemwide integration throughout an entire building.

David Lowrey, Boulder Fire Rescue

Lowrey has served with Boulder Fire Rescue for more than 20 years. He oversees the Community Risk Reduction Division, including code enforcement, building construction, life safety education and fire investigations.

Robert N. Roop, Peter Basso Associates

As principal and market leader for the company’s PBA’s K-12 Schools Group, Roop has spent more than half of his 32-year career exclusively designing educational facilities. He acts as the firm’s primary mechanical engineering technical resource for K-12 school projects.

Engiell Tomaj, Stantec

Tomaj first joined the company in 2012, first as associate, then promoted to principal and Business Center Discipline Leader. He holds an electrical engineering degree as well as an MBA.

Michael L. Younts, Dewberry

Serving as electrical engineer, Younts has been with the firm for more than 13 years. His expertise includes LEED projects, educational facilities and other areas.

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?

Lowrey: With the increase in threats from different situations (active harmer, fire, weather), the notification to the occupants is more complicated and challenging to meet. There are fire alarms, and lockdown and weather signals that all should be distinctly different from one another. Each signal requires a different response from the occupants and some threats may have different actions for different notifications. With today’s emergency communication systems, I don’t believe the technology is the challenge. The challenge is the training and education of each signal and what to do in those situations.

Gradishar: K-12 schools have occupant loading scenarios that vary greatly throughout a typical day. Beyond the normal daytime function, these buildings have spaces that are frequently used after normal hours for community functions, such as the gymnasium and performance art spaces. This can lead to varied occupant loads and user needs for a single space, where if using the worst case loads and needs for the entire building at once, can lead to overdesigned systems adding unnecessary cost to a project.

For the Whittle School in Washington, D.C., via the alternate means and methods process, we defined the potential normal hours and after-hours scenarios and demonstrated that the egress and plumbing facilities met the code requirements for each of these operating conditions.

CSE: How have the trends in fire/life safety changed in K-12 school projects?

Younts: The focus on increased communication capabilities is the most prevalent trend I’ve seen recently in life safety. Schools need to be equipped with systems that allow for clear communication during emergency situations (both natural and man-made) such as fire, severe weather and active shooter scenarios. Code changes have led to the incorporation of voice annunciation into the fire alarm system. This change has allowed the fire alarm system to serve a much broader purpose in emergency response. The fire alarm system can now be used for the broadcast of live or custom messages in response to other emergencies.

Also, emergency responder radio coverage systems have also been incorporated into schools. These systems boost radio coverage inside these large buildings that traditionally have had poor coverage due to the size and construction of the facilities. Clear communication is of vital importance for the safety of both the occupants and the emergency responders.

Lowrey: I feel like I’m becoming a little repetitive here but the need to design and accommodate the different threats faced by our schools has changed the design of the fire/life safety systems. The threat of an active harmer situation is perhaps more likely than the threat of a fire in today’s world. That’s not actually true, however the consequence from an active harmer incident is much greater than the threat of fire. The way we build our new schools — construction, fire sprinklers, fire alarms — provides for earlier notification, limits the spread of the fire and often extinguishes the fire before emergency personal arrival. Although fire still occurs in our schools the size and consequence are small compared to an active harmer incident. Planning, design and building for an active harmer situation is just as important as the design we do for fire.

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

Lowrey: I think we’re starting to see more ECS being proposed and often installed in schools. Not all, but more have come in and asked about ECS for their school to meet the signaling for the different threats that they face.

Gradishar: Careful review of the security goals as they interface with the life safety goals is unique to K-12 projects. For instance, where a security goal may be to keep visitors of the school outside of certain areas during normal school hours, the same areas may be required egress paths and therefore require free egress during normal school hours. The special locking arrangements as permitted by the local building code require careful review as many are not permitted for educational occupancies, and when they are, require careful coordination with the building fire suppression, fire alarm and emergency electrical systems.