Ten Years After—Fire Protection and Building Automation at the L.A. Convention Center

During the construction boom of the 1980s, building-automation systems—common today—were just becoming all the rage. Many facilities installed integrated BAS that incorporated control of fire-alarm, HVAC, security, lighting and other building systems. Functions such as smoke management were also handled by these integrated systems.

By Raymond A. Grill, P.E., SFPE, President, Sako & Assocs./The RJA Group, Fairfax, Va. April 1, 2005

During the construction boom of the 1980s, building-automation systems—common today—were just becoming all the rage. Many facilities installed integrated BAS that incorporated control of fire-alarm, HVAC, security, lighting and other building systems. Functions such as smoke management were also handled by these integrated systems.

By the mid 1990s, however, there was already a reconsideration underway about the wisdom of fully integrating fire-protection systems with other building systems. One project that I was involved with at the time, the Los Angeles Convention Center Expansion, completed in 1997, offers a good example.

In looking back at the fire-protection engineering that went into the LACC project, I’m amazed at how little, from a process perspective, things have changed since then. But a look at this decade-old project points to something else about fire-protection design that has changed: fire-protection engineering tools.

When not to integrate

Let’s first look at the issue of building-systems integration. While building systems in the LACC expansion project were designed and installed to work together, they were not integrated in the sense that fire-alarm and building-automation functions were handled by common equipment.

For complex buildings in the 21st century, this continues to be the predominant method of handling multiple building systems. For fire-protection design, the reason is simple. When it comes to fire safety, having all your eggs in one basket can be a liability.

If a fully integrated BAS that incorporates life-safety systems goes down, at a minimum, costly fire watches could be required to maintain occupancy until the system is repaired. In other words, ongoing maintenance and the need for flexibility should be key considerations when determining the level of integration for systems.

Even so, integrating security with other building systems and IT networks continues to be a growing trend. While the availability of devices accessible through the Internet—IP devices—has been accelerating, “uninformed” application of the technology can lead to missed expectations in system performance. Designers need to keep system goals in mind when selecting products and when developing the arrangement of equipment. Operations and staffing are also key elements that need to be considered.

In addition, over the last few code-making cycles, there have been a number of changes to the National Fire Protection Assn. codes regarding fire protection and building automation. Fire-protection engineers need to stay abreast of these developments.

Ongoing standards development

Standards such as NFPA 72, National Fire Alarm Code , over the last few cycles, have incorporated language to address the integration of fire-alarm systems with other building systems. However, NFPA 72 does specifically require that systems integrated with a fire-alarm system not impair the operation of the fire-alarm system should they malfunction.

Another significant code development is that NFPA 72 is undergoing changes to allow for the integration of mass-notification systems with fire-alarm systems. These changes have been proposed in the current revision cycle.

One other new standard on the horizon that will impact the design and installation of security systems is NFPA 731, Standard for the Installation of Electronic Security Systems . This proposed standard has been in the development process over the last four years and is scheduled to go before the NFPA membership at its upcoming meeting in June.

But finally, one can’t end a discussion of fire-protection systems and the building codes without mentioning performance-based design, because this, more than any other trend, has been at the heart of developments in fire-protection design. PBD proved essential to the success of the LACC expansion project.

Performance-based design

It goes with saying that the key to the success of a PBD approach depends on a team effort. For the LACC project, the team included not only the architect, engineers and owner, but also key decision makers in the Los Angeles building and fire departments. Authorities having jurisdiction (AHJs) were willing to work with the design team during the development stage of the design. Projects of this type never fit into the prescriptive limits of the building and fire codes. Equivalencies or performance-based solutions must be developed to meet the intent of the applicable code requirements.

The success of any complex project hinges on getting all the stakeholders—owners, designers and AHJs—working together in an organized manner. Since the completion of the LACC expansion, certain developments have pushed the trend in PBD for fire-protection systems even further. For example, the Society of Fire Protection Engineers has developed and published in collaboration with NFPA the SFPE Engineering Guide to Performance-Based Fire Protection Analysis and Design of Buildings and the SFPE Code Official’s Guide to Performance-Based Design Review .

These documents describe in detail the process of performance-based design and provide AHJs with advice on reviewing and handling projects incorporating performance-based de-sign approaches.

The other more significant factor impacting PBD has been the development of the Fire Dynamics Simulator (FDS) by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). FDS is a computational fluid dynamics (CFD) model specifically developed to predict conditions generated by fires. (The illustrations, at right and on the preceding page, are models generated by FDS.) Coupled with dynamic egress models such as Pathfinder, a proprietary software developed by RJA, FDS can be used to determine the conditions within a building at predetermined locations and the tenability expected within the building at various times. Analyzing the conditions against anticipated occupant movement can provide a basis for determining the level of protection within a building.

FDS is commonly used to evaluate and design smoke-control systems in a performance/goal-oriented fashion and has been used to evaluate unique designs and conditions that might not otherwise comply with the prescriptive requirements of the building or fire codes.

While performance-based design continues to gain momentum, how-ever, it is still primarily used in the design of unique buildings with features that don’t otherwise conform to prescriptive code requirements. When performance-based design is utilized, it is imperative that all elements of a building—and the systems that can impact the level of safety in a building—be considered in the development of the design.

What’s in the future?

I’ve used a project from a decade ago as the starting point for a look at how fire-protection systems design trends have evolved over the last 10 years. I’ve also tried to gaze into the future and suggest how these trends will continue in the next few years, specifically, with a consideration of recent code changes concerning integration of fire-protection systems with other building systems and the likely direction they will take.

With respect to integration of fire protection with other building systems, without a doubt, there will be a continuing effort toward toward total integration of building systems. But keep in mind that integration doesn’t always mean one piece of equipment performing multiple functions.