Protecting our schools

Schools require fire detection and suppression, mass notification systems (MNS), and emergency communication systems (ECS) to protect occupants. Because many schools are becoming multi-use buildings with theaters, computer rooms, and flexible classroom spaces, the fire protection engineer's job has become more complex.
By William E. Koffel, PE, FSFPE, Koffel Associates Inc., Columbia, Md. October 19, 2015

This article is peer-reviewed.Learning Objectives

  • Apply NFPA codes and standards for fire and life safety systems in schools.
  • Evaluate the codes and standards for detection, suppression, mass notification systems (MNS), and emergency communication systems (ECS) in schools.
  • Survey the various approaches for designing safe schools.

The hallways in this school include compartmentation for fire protection purposes. All graphics courtesy: Koffel AssociatesDesigning an educational occupancy today involves considering threats and vulnerabilities that are not typically covered by modern building and fire codes. Here, we will highlight some of these considerations and how the design team needs to work with school system personnel and other professionals to identify and address these modern-day threats. It also should be recognized that many educational facilities serve other purposes within a community including being used for worship services, public meetings, and entertainment activities beyond just performance by the students.

Fire protection, security, and emergency planning are critical in today’s schools. Most modern building codes in the United States require that at least portions of new educational occupancies be protected with an automatic sprinkler system. Depending on the edition of codes being used, the trigger for the sprinkler requirement typically will be 12,000 sq ft of fire area. In some cases, it is possible to subdivide the building with fire barriers in lieu of protecting the building with an automatic sprinkler system. It also should be noted that other areas of the facility, such as the assembly occupancies, may also require automatic sprinkler protection depending on the occupant load.

The sprinkler threshold for automatic-sprinkler-system protection dates back to the legacy building codes in the U.S. The debate that occurred during the code hearings that resulted in the current requirements took a different approach than many of the other debates that resulted in a requirement for automatic sprinkler protection. While opponents recognized that there were some historical multiple-death fires in schools, the more recent fire experience was cited as being much better and, therefore, sprinkler protection was not required. Proponents cited the need to limit the area of unsprinklered compartments to an area that could be controlled by the fire department. In addition, proponents cited the impact on property damage, the impact on the community when a school facility is damaged, and the fact that most areas where our children will be (residential, assembly, mercantile) are often required to be protected with sprinklers—therefore, it only makes sense that when our children are in school that they would be protected as well.

While manual fire alarm systems have historically been required in educational occupancies, there was a time when at least the Uniform Building Code required automatic detection in educational occupancies as well. While common in some other countries, current U.S. building codes do not tend to require automatic detection in new educational occupancies. There may be some specific areas where automatic detection will be provided due to protecting unique hazards (such as data-processing equipment). However, the approach in the U.S. seems to be based upon a philosophy that while the building is occupied, it is by occupants who are awake and alert and capable of prompt detection of a fire. It also should be noted that codes typically permit the omission of manual fire alarm boxes if the building is protected throughout with an automatic sprinkler system.

In the past, the discussions regarding fire alarm systems in educational occupancies tended to focus on whether the alarm system could be used for other purposes such as class changes and public address. Current codes and standards address these issues and will permit a fire alarm system to be used for other, supplemental purposes provided the operation of the system as a fire alarm system is not adversely impacted. However, the design issues being faced today go far beyond these historical discussions.

Hallways include fire detection systems and notification systems so that students can be efficiently evacuated in an emergency. Courtesy: Koffel AssociatesFire history

In September 2013, NFPA published the report entitled "Structure Fires in Educational Properties," which contained a data analysis of the fire experience over the period ranging from 2007 to 2011. For facilities reported as being elementary through high school, the report documents an annual average of 3,380 fires (62% in middle and high schools), 67 civilian injuries (76% in middle and high schools), and $60 million direct property damage (63% in middle and high schools). More than half of the fires occurred between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m., with most of the fires occurring during the school week (Monday through Friday) and the traditional school year (September through May). Approximately half the fires were intentionally set and approximately one-quarter were started by cooking equipment. Approximately one-third of the fires started in areas defined as "lavatory, bathroom, locker room, or check room."

Most of the fires were classified as confined, most likely due in part to the fact that half of the fires occurred when the building was occupied. However, the 8% of fires that were not confined to the room or origin resulted in 75% of direct property damage. Other NFPA reports highlight the difference in direct property damage in buildings protected with an automatic sprinkler system as compared with buildings that are not protected with an automatic sprinkler system.

Regardless of the code requirements and recognizing the arguments made to support the sprinkler requirement, fire protection engineers involved in a project in which the school is not going to be protected with an automatic sprinkler system might want to perform a risk assessment as to whether the school system believes an acceptable level of risk exists without some additional protection.

Security systems—like cameras—often are included as part of the fire and life safety system. Based upon numerous recent events, there is increased interest in considering security during the design process. Courtesy: Koffel AssociatesMore recent challenges

Fire is just one risk that must be considered when designing new educational occupancies. Based upon numerous recent events, there is increased interest in considering security during the design process. It is not uncommon to hear about a school, or multiple schools, in a jurisdiction that are "locked down" due to some suspicious activity or individual in the area. Such lockdowns not only secure the building from unauthorized entry, but they also may impede free egress from the building and sometimes impede free movement within a building.

While there are numerous code-acceptable methods to restrict one’s ability to access an educational facility, modern codes generally don’t allow locking arrangements that restrict the ability of an occupant to evacuate or relocate to a safe area. One such locking arrangement that is permitted by some U.S. codes is referred to as a delayed-egress locking system. Such systems may delay the time for one to egress by 15 to 30 seconds and they cause an alarm to sound so that one can investigate if the person trying to exit is authorized to pass through the door. To use such a system, the building must be protected with an approved, supervised automatic sprinkler system or an approved, supervised automatic fire-detection system.

As such, a lockdown situation in which egress is impeded needs to be evaluated by the regulatory agencies as an equivalency or alternative method of compliance with the code. If the design professional does not consider such protocols during the design of an educational occupancy, the options available to the school system may be limited. A security vulnerability assessment should be prepared to determine what hazards and threats need to be addressed during the design process.

In December 2014, NFPA sponsored the Codes and Security Workshop. One of the goals of the workshop was to better identify and understand some of the competing objectives related to fire, safety, and security in schools. Although sponsored by NFPA, the workshop participants included representatives from school systems (facility design and operations), law enforcement agencies, security professions, and other interested parties in addition to fire professions. In addition to publishing a report summarizing the workshop activities, NFPA has developed a website containing resource documents from both fire and security interests in an attempt to help address the competing objectives. There are also proposed code changes currently being considered by both the International Code Council and NFPA to address some of the concerns raised during the workshop.

Areas of refuge are clearly marked for disabled students, faculty, or staff. Courtesy: Koffel AssociatesEmergency planning and notification

Recognizing the increased need to communicate vital information during fire and other emergencies, U.S. codes now require an emergency voice/alarm communication system in new educational occupancies. To address concerns beyond fire emergencies, mass notification systems (MNS) are becoming more common in educational occupancies. NFPA 72: National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code contains a requirement for a risk analysis to be prepared for an MNS. Unfortunately, the requirement is contained within the MNS section, and, therefore, may be overlooked and not prepared if one has not already committed to providing an MNS (see NFPA 72-2013, Paragraph 24.7.6.4).

Many higher education facilities have already prepared a risk analysis to determine how to address the various threats identified in a security vulnerability assessment (SVA). In a similar manner, the risk analysis required by NFPA 72 for MNS would be a useful tool to evaluate the communication methods necessary to address the threats identified in the SVA. The systems may need to address both in-building notification as well as a wide-area MNS. Many of the threats identified in the SVA will impact a community, or portion thereof, and not just an individual building. As such, the design of an MNS, as well as the emergency plans for the educational facilities, must include community needs and resources.

Another challenge that design professionals will encounter is related to the fact that the emergency plans for the various threats may not be prepared while the facility is being designed. This challenge is not unique to educational facilities in that the design of health care facilities has experienced the same challenges for many years. However, as the design of educational facilities starts to consider threats, other than just fire, the design of the facility and the emergency communication systems need to address the various scenarios. A system that merely alerts the occupants when it is time to evacuate will not address the various scenarios that will be included in current emergency plans.

A new approach to designing schools

Historically, many design professionals have relied on building and fire codes to establish the minimum requirements that impact the design. However, those codes have historically been limited to addressing the threats caused by unwanted fires. Educational facilities today face many threats beyond fire, and it would be prudent for the design team to consider those during the design process.

The NFPA website contains some tools that may be used by design professionals working on a new educational facility. In addition to making sure the facility meets applicable building and fire codes, the design team should consider including the following tasks:

  • SVA to evaluate potential security risks posed by the environment in which the facility is located.
  • Fire risk assessment: While design professionals typically rely on the codes to address the fire risk, what about the risk of fire during a security incident? Or the need to assess the fire risk based upon security measures beyond those that are normally permitted by the codes?
  • Risk analysis to address communication needs: This may be part of the fire risk assessment or may be a separate risk assessment. NFPA 72 provides the criteria for such a risk assessment and it is intended to determine the potential need for an MNS.
  • Coordinate the building and system design with the emergency plans being prepared by operational personnel.

During the NFPA-sponsored workshop, some successful examples of such a risk assessment approach were discussed. Some states have developed assessment and guidance documents to be used by school systems and design professionals. NFPA has committed to keeping the website current as additional resources are made available to be posted on the site.

Due to the increased number and variety of threats that educational occupancies are experiencing, the traditional design approach of relying on building and fire codes may not be adequate. Some of the threats are beyond the scope of traditional building and fire codes and require assessments to be performed. Coordination between the design team and operational personnel within the school system is becoming increasingly important.

Properly designed schools can provide a reasonable level of safety to the occupants and the contents within the school. When fire and security are both considered during the design process, many of the conflicts that develop post-occupancy can be avoided. Resources and methodologies exist today to address the threats and challenges that have been experienced recently. It also should be recognized that a design team may not be able to foresee all possible challenges and threats that may be identified in the future. However, the assessments prepared during the design can be modified as new threats and scenarios are identified.


William E. Koffel is president of Koffel Associates. He is chair of the NFPA Correlating Committee on Life Safety and a member of numerous NFPA technical committees. He is a member of the Consulting-Specifying Engineer editorial advisory board.