Specifying fire, life safety systems for new, existing office buildings
Office buildings might seem like simple structures from the outside, but engineers engaged in such projects know they can be highly complex, with specialized fire/life safety requirements, laboratory spaces, and other unique needs. Fire and life safety issues are of utmost importance.
J. Patrick Banse, PE, LEED AP, Senior mechanical engineer, Smith Seckman Reid, Houston
Robert Ioanna, PE, LEED AP, Vice president, Syska Hennessy Group, New York City
Douglas Lacy, PE, LEED AP BD+C, Senior associate, ccrd partners, Dallas
CSE: What unique fire suppression systems have you specified in office buildings?
Banse: Most office buildings are fully sprinklered, but occasionally a pre-action fire system or a clean agent fire suppression system such as FM-200 is required or requested by a particular tenant.
Ioanna: In addition to traditional wet sprinkler systems, we are seeing a trend toward more clean agent suppression systems, or foam systems and mist-type sprinkler systems that provide better extinguishing capability for the specific hazard present. This is becoming more prevalent in the generator rooms, the fuel oil storage rooms, main distribution frame (MDF)/telecom rooms, and also broadcasting spaces.
CSE: What unique egress, mass notification systems, or emergency communication systems have you specified into such buildings?
Ioanna: We have designed several buildings using staged evacuation and/or relocation of occupants strategies by deploying in-building fire emergency voice/alarm communications systems (EVACS). This is done for the purpose of notifying and instructing occupants in an emergency. These systems have a one-way emergency communications systems for live voice evacuation messages; and a two-way in-building emergency communication consisting of two-way supervised telephone service for emergency responders and the building’s fire safety team. The fire department communication are designed and installed in accordance with NFPA 72: National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code and operate between a fire command center and elevators, elevator lobbies, emergency and standby power rooms, fire pump rooms, areas of refuge, and inside enclosed exit stairways. We have also specified emergency responder radio systems in certain specialized buildings that require radio coverage for firefighters. Locally in New York City, we have specified auxiliary radio communications systems (ARCS) that provide for an in-building radio system to be installed throughout high-rise and/or large footprint buildings for fire department use. First responder radio coverage must also be evaluated for all new and existing buildings in accordance with the International Fire Code.
CSE: What are some important factors to consider when designing a fire and life safety system in an office building? What things often get overlooked?
Banse: I think it is most important to discuss during design and provide for the integration of the BAS and fire alarm systems along with security system. Is there smoke control needed, stair pressurization, should egress locks unlock with or without a delay? Which system actually does the controlling of smoke dampers and HVAC equipment operation during a fire event? Is the HVAC system an active or passive smoke control system? What is the fireman’s control panel supposed to do (how much equipment and dampers does it control)? There are so many things to coordinate that if there is little or no coordination provided, something will always be left out.
Ioanna: Pitfalls for owners and managers to watch for:
Assembling the right project team:
- Hire a professional engineering/consulting firm specializing in the design of fire/life safety systems. Many MEP firms do not have this expertise.
- Hire a reputable fire alarm contractor (who represents the manufacturer) and an electrical contractor (who performs the installation).
- Depending on the size of the project, hire a construction manager (CM) or general contractor (GC). A GC will be required for patching, painting, and other related GC work not covered by the fire alarm team or electrical contractors.
During the bid process, consider open-bid, performance-based specification. Note: Your current fire alarm service provider may not be capable of bidding on a newer technology fire alarm system.
- Owner may need to maintain two fire alarm contractors during the construction phase.
- Consider non-propriety type systems.
- Have the design professional perform a complete building survey and develop a design criteria, deficiency list, and building code/standards analysis. Develop a construction budget.
- Determine the exact occupancy and use of the building.
- Determine what type of fire/life safety is required.
- Contact local landmark and historic preservation commission (HPC).
- Determine what areas of building will be affected.
- Obtain pre-approvals from both landmark and HPC and the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ, usually the fire department or building department).
- Will the building be occupied during the system upgrade?
- Do we need to keep an active fire alarm system?
- Can the existing system be off-line?
- How do you switch systems?
- Coordinate with all systems (HVAC, elevators, fire protection, security).
CSE: In high-rise office buildings, what type of unique smoke detection/control, elevator lobby, or other fire/life safety systems have you designed?
Banse: On one high-rise office building there were no elevator lobbies included as part of the architectural design, which resulted in implementing elevator shaft pressurization with appropriate points of air injection to minimize smoke migration between floors and allow elevators to safely recall to the appropriate floor. The elevator lobby smoke detectors initiated the system and an area of refuge was designated near the elevators/stairs for rescue purposes