Learning how to engineer colleges, universities better: Fire and life safety

Read about emerging trends in college and university buildings, and learn about the emerging trends impacting their design

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer October 24, 2019


Travis Fletcher 


Fletcher brings more than 15 years in the construction and real estate development industries to the company. He is an active member of industry organizations such as the Urban Land Institute, Smart Cities Council and Orange County Business Council. 

Ryan Fryman 

TLC Engineering Solutions 

Fryman has managed the engineering team for numerous higher education facilities, predominantly for public universities in Florida. His range of experience extends from fitness centers to highly sophisticated laboratory buildings and housing to university administration buildings, commonly attaining LEED Gold certification or higher. 

Carl Holden 

Henderson Engineers Inc. 

As Vice President|Higher Education Practice Director, Holden works on local, national and international projects. His areas of specialty include higher education, medical education, K-12 schools and sustainability-focused projects. 

John O’Connell 

Kohler Ronan 

As senior associate, OConnells primary responsibility is managing the companys electrical department. He keeps current with industry trends such as green building design and LEED certification to educate other staff. 

David K. Piluski 

RTM Engineering 

Piluski has more than three decades of experience designing MEP systems for a broad range of new construction projects as well as renovations. His specialties include higher education, health care and restaurant/entertainment facilities. 

Bob Sherman 

Affiliated Engineers Inc. 

As principal and project manager, Sherman offers expertise in higher education research labs and health care facilities, During his tenure, he has led more than 2 million square feet of functionally complex facility projects.  

Randy C. Twedt 


Since joining the company 25 years ago, Twedt has worked on a diverse range of MEP projects. His contributions include medical projects, multiunit residences, university structures, courthouses and more. 

Jeffrey P. Wegner 


Since joining the firm in 2013, Wegner has worked on a range of projects, focusing on life sciences, biotechnology, pharmaceutical, aerospace and other high-tech projects. His expertise includes site utility master planning, alternative energy solutions, biocontainment and more. 

CSE: What are some of the unique challenges regarding fire/life safety system design that youve encountered for such projects? How have you overcome these challenges? 

OConnell: There are projects where the existing system cannot be wholly replaced and new devices must be incorporated into existing systems. Compatibility issues arise when the new devices are not compatible with the existing system even though they may be from the same manufacturer as the existing system. To resolve this, subsystems have been installed and bidirectionally trouble and alarm signals are transmitted through monitoring modules from the existing to the new system for annunciating purposes. Care must be provided to ensure the devices for each system cannot be seen simultaneously for synchronizing issues. 

FrymanAt Florida State University, we designed an indoor football practice facility. The very high ceilings required special consideration for the fire alarm system activation devices. The smoke would cool before rising to the ceiling, so we could not use ceiling smoke detectors. We needed to use beam detection at a level below the ceiling. We had the potential for dust and other materials to be in the space and cause false alarms. The solution was to use a beam detector with the capability of distinguishing between different particle sizes to know when it was seeing real smoke. However, that ability to know if it was detecting real smoke actually caused a problem with being able to test the system, since the canned smoke that the fire marshal used could not fool the detectors. The fire marshal required us to create a written testing procedure that described the process of lighting an actual fire, in three different designated places, preferably with fuel that was similar to the artificial turf that was used in the facility, to create the simulation to test the smoke detection system. The tests passed and the system was approved. 

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

OConnell: More systems are incorporating parallel mean for transmitting the alarm signal to the campus system. For example, hard wiring is the primary system with antennas on the building transmitting to receivers on the campus safety building as the backup method. 

CSE: What firesmoke control and security features might you incorporate in these facilities that you wouldnt see on other projects? 

Fryman: With active shooter situations becoming a serious threat on campuses, a campuswide mass notification system, including a security lock-down of all exterior doors, is being incorporated into the campus fire and security systems. These systems have to override other campus systems for access controls and even audiovisual systems. For example, in the Wellness Center on the University of North Floridas campus, if any fire alarm or mass notification announcements occur, the music system playing in the facility must be shut down by overriding relays. Also, the turnstile access control system shuts down and allows free movement through the path if the fire alarm general evacuation is activated. 

Piluski: Many areas of college and university buildings are highoccupancy spaces where occupancy loads vary during the course of a given day. Effective egress path solutions, particularly in the area of smoke control are necessary life safety components. For the Harper College library, a focal point in the renovation design was a threestory open atrium connecting the three floors of the building for the first time. We designed a highvolume atrium smoke evacuation system, which incorporated actuators to open the ground floor exterior doors for relief as well as interlocking with actuation of clerestory windows on that same level. While there are other egress stairways in the building, this highprofile atrium and stairway would represent the shortest path out of the building for occupants during a fire emergency. While the atrium exhaust system was required by code, we took additional steps to model the possible smoke conditions and use equipment that was already part of the building design to enhance the functionality of this system. 

OConnell: Security features that are becoming more involved in building design conversations is addressing active shooter situations. Campus assessments specific to each campus are being provided and discussed. Reverse lock downs also occur in which speakers on the outside of the building direct students into the building. Where code allows, having only one fire alarm pull station at a supervised location so that a shooter does not use a pull station to drive students/faculty out of the building. 

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

OConnell: An increase in the quantity of security cameras and blue phones near or in buildings is one example how campuses are making locations more secure. Access badges to allow only specific faculty or campus personnel into areas to decrease the possibility of an unauthorized person getting control of security equipment. 

CSE: How has the cost and complexity of fire protection systems involved with college and university projects changed over the years? How did these changes impact the overall design process?  

Piluski: Working in smaller and older campus environments, I have seen buildings that lack fire protection systems altogether. Ceiling and mechanical room space constraints are further complicated by the addition of fire protection riser rooms, fire pump rooms and piping in the ceilings. These are extra steps in managing space, which may be at a minimum given design during an era where these were not mandated systems. 

OConnell: Codes are driving the engineer to use products that are either more environmentally or occupant friendly. Like any new technology the cost at first is high but then reduces as more of these systems are produced and become the norm. Because they are code driven there is less resistance by the construction team and owner to using them. 

CSE: How have changes to codes, BIM and wireless devices/systems impacted fire and life safety system design for these buildings? 

OConnell: Wireless devices have proven their reliability and because of that more codes are allowing their use. The advantage to these wireless devises is reduced cost for installation and relocation should spaces be relocated. Another area we see an advantage is if the building has historic values and there is a sensitivity to the aesthetics of having ornate walls or ceilings touched to allow conduit and wire installation. With wireless these issues are avoided and only the device impacts the walls or ceilings. 

CSE: Have recent active shooter incidents had a noticeable impact on the safety concerns and features youre adding to college and university projects? 

Fryman: Absolutely. We are seeing an increase in projects involving access controls upgrades to automated access control systems to allow for immediate lockdown capability of buildings and campuses. We also are providing more exterior cameras and I am aware of at least one gunshot detection and location system being considered.  

Piluski: We have been engaged to design campus security and advanced warning systems. The best outcome in any of these unfortunate circumstances is achieved by planning and communication as effectively as possible.