When, how to use a team approach for integrating MEP systems with fire, life safety
Successful mechanical, electrical and plumbing integration with fire and life safety systems require significant investment from all angles
- Understand the value of oversight and verification for fire and life safety systems and mechanical, electrical and plumbing (MEP) integration.
- Identify the value of knowledgeable team members for fire and life safety projects and facility operations.
- Discover lessons learned from fire and life safety projects.
- The design, installation and testing of fire and life safety systems are key to ensuring building occupants are safe.
- Integrated testing of the fire protection system must be done before occupancy, preferably by a professional knowledgeable with the system.
One of the most vetted systems in buildings is the fire and life safety system, which includes fire protection sprinklers, fire/smoke rated assemblies for containment, detection and alarming and smoke control or evacuation. Yet, after a building receives its certificate of occupancy, it is the assumption that because it worked once when it was demonstrated for an authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) that it is set up to respond correctly in every scenario, including all the mechanical, electrical and plumbing (MEP) and controls components integrated within the building that support fire and life safety.
Ensuring all the individual components, equipment and systems are designed and set up to be failsafe is one of the biggest challenges that requires extensive consideration and practical experience. This is key when integrating all the MEP equipment and systems so the monitoring stations and an operator are given direct notice when any one component doesn’t operate correctly or isn’t providing confirming feedback. If components, equipment and systems are not set up in this manner, as the building and its components age over time and receive different levels of attention and care, there will be unknown failure points.
Fire system testing and ongoing use
From fire and life safety system installation and completion, to the end of the one-year warranty period, to five years down the road, some components may be found to be failed or defeated, wired incorrectly, have inaccessible components or incomplete documentation or even have unsafe conditions due to required updates or replacements to connected systems.
While most project teams typically aim to create high-quality buildings, some systems are not always set up to be maintained easily either due to accessibility, facility team knowledge or experience or a lack of available time needed to keep things from becoming deferred maintenance items. Life safety systems require as much or more time to maintain than was spent on its design, installation and verification upon completion.
Setup for system longevity with ease of maintenance in mind will always remain a best practice for project teams as it is rare that facility operations team have as much experience with the individual MEP or fire and life safety systems or have access to the wealth of knowledge.
It is the building owner and operator’s responsibility to periodically test its life safety systems, connected components and document it for the AHJ. It takes knowledgeable project team members and facility operators to coordinate, plan, execute and document efforts to set up the system for success and periodically perform required maintenance regardless of the enforcement environment. Enforcement does make a huge difference for what gets done studiously versus what may get overlooked on a budget due to the apparent risk to operations.
Testing should occur at the following rates: fire dampers and fire smoke dampers every four to six years per NFPA 80: Standard for Fire Doors and Other Opening Protectives and NFPA 105: Standard for Smoke Door Assemblies and Other Opening Protectives or semi-annually for dedicated smoke control systems dampers and annually for nondedicated dampers per NFPA 92: Standard for Smoke Control Systems (see Figure 2)
Design thoughtfulness, coordination, installation, testing and good documentation pays dividends to the operations team and anyone that performs system maintenance. For smoke control systems, semiannual and annual testing doesn’t get regular review by an AHJ in the Northwest region but it is still a responsibility based on national and local fire code requirements which are all based on the International Fire Code (IFC) Chapter 909.20.
How to keep a fire system up-to-date
Use of the project commissioning provider and/or a smoke control special inspector to review design plans and shop drawings, verify installed components and equipment and oversee the different integration of MEP systems while leading coordinated testing is one of the most valuable quality assurance and quality control roles there are for a building project.
For this reason, a good portion of state and local fire code requires, based on IFC Chapter 909.3 and International Building Code Chapter 1705.18 that a special inspector is responsible for the smoke control system.
For example, in Portland, Oregon, a smoke control special inspector is requirement for all smoke control systems including a simple certified panel focused on just stairwell pressurization. That special inspector works with the engineer of record (EOR) to review the smoke control design, inspect its installation, verify its performance and co-stamp the final report with the EOR.
After a building enters its operational occupied phase, most building owners and operators must rely on their fire alarm maintenance provider to keep systems up to date and meet facility code requirements. However, the fire alarm maintenance provider doesn’t have MEP equipment and systems scope other than to maintain any existing tie-in points from their side of the fire alarm system, which can cause major challenges when only one system is being work on, changed or altered without having team members responsible for the entire systems operation.
A facility operations or service team lead is needed that understands how these systems are integrated or is knowledgeable enough to delegate and require responsibility to avoid unintended impacts and consequences. There are many available published documents and guides out there to help in-house teams and service providers.
NFPA 3: Standard for Commissioning of Fire Protection and Life Safety Systems and the AMCA Guide for Commissioning and Periodic Performance Testing of Fire, Smoke and Other Life Safety Related Dampers include two accessible and descriptive ways to set up processes to maintain fire and life safety systems and their MEP connected components.
There are also a wealth of replacement instructions available from manufacturers, along with technical representatives to guide in the process. Should someone find themselves in a situation where UL listing is debated and a party wants to replace damper assemblies as a whole versus replacing the failed component, Dampers – UL Marking and Application Guide can be referenced.
Fire and life safety integration
For example, a major health care provider’s existing hospital in Portland, Oregon, underwent fire and life safety upgrades to reduce actuated and fusible link fire dampers as they reconfigured their egress paths and fire-rated corridors. This could take place only after an engineering-led review of their life safety plans, which had accurate fire smoke damper testing documentation and required field verification of ductwork and components. This life safety project required significant planning, after-hours work and documentation of field work to ensure ongoing hospital operations were not interrupted.
By hosting a coordination meeting with hospital department heads early in the project, the owner representative, facilities lead, general contractor and engineering team resolved several issues immediately. With the right people in the room, questions were answered in about an hour with a detailed spreadsheet as the output. After a post-meeting debrief was completed with the organizer, the engineering team set an inspection and test schedule together, planned a support structure to reduce risks when executing the tests and pushed out the plan to the project team.
During this project, as a result from the risk assessment discussion, the team supported creating test buttons at the fire alarm control panel (FACP) to trigger alarm functions and operate the panel versus activating field devices directly. This was due to the nature of a 24/7 hospital, where the team couldn’t trust initiating field devices such as area detectors or duct detectors as the system had numerous revisions and additions to the fire alarm system programming and field wiring over the decades of operation. In addition, the FACP programming had inconsistent naming conventions for relays, devices and equipment. The risk profile was too high to trust manually activating field devices that could potentially impact live systems adjacent to the one the team planned to test.
Integrated fire alarm testing could not be done by level or individual system without potential to significantly impacting operations regardless of the time of day when conducted. It was decided that testing would be performed as individual electrical, controls and heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) components then triggered by system relay programming for an encompassing inspection and testing program.
This would mean that for an individual fire alarm relay device, electrical terminations were reviewed when triggered and all the system interactions verified from the fire smoke damper closing to the HVAC equipment turning off, status notifications generated within the building automation system for the position switch and alarm notification generated at the FACP for the specific area and device alarm.
On one evening, it was discovered a bevy of simple termination errors at several relay devices during a failure condition would not depower the fire smoke dampers for smoke compartmentalization, trigger an alarm or shutdown the equipment as intended. Essentially, in a fire or smoke event condition, no shutdown or closures would be initiated and no way to identify there was a response problem would be provided. What ensued was a discussion with the electrician, the fire alarm system operator and general contractor night leads about the potentially disastrous situation that was avoided due to team integrated testing as a result of the commissioning effort.
Commissioning providers’ top priority is to identify issues upfront and avoid unwanted call backs years later, not just for an individual party, but the whole team.
The team continued to run into other minor issues from bad end switches and some exhaust equipment not shutting down as planned due to fire alarm programming errors, but overall, it was a resounding success because of efforts made to verify components and the system interactions. As a result of the team coordination and planning or ongoing operations were not impacted over the course of the team’s time on the project, including all of the hospital’s surgery suites.
In addition, the commissioning final report was reviewed and sign off by the AHJ without any corrections or revisions required. It pays dividends to have a good team, with members who support each other, especially when each individual trades’ work impacts others and the system. Integrated testing allows for the vetting of the building’s life safety system and when coordinated and executed as a team, not only ensures individual systems are fully functional, but responses are appropriate and notifications provided when a component fails to do its job.
Fire system coordination, now and later
The most important lesson learned during this project is that it is imperative to have an experienced and responsible party to validate building systems and interactions with the support of the design team to meet code requirements (see Figure 5). There are high levels of effort needed to execute projects and many unforeseen challenges can occur when dealing with life safety systems that are composed of different systems working together. Commissioning providers are a critical component, but without the general contractor and subcontractors as part of the project team, key interval reviews and inspections won’t get the job done alone.
It’s key to require thorough documentation and testing requirements for projects, have a team full of dedicated professionals who coordinate effectively, execute cooperatively and ensure systems are functioning properly and who conduct pretesting efforts before final inspection by the AHJ. There are many opportunities for individuals to miss things, from the planning and design stage through construction and project completion. The best way to catch these mistakes is a strong oversight and verification process integrated within a supportive project team environment, where buy-in is a must.
Systems aren’t getting less complicated; integration of those systems and their different components will be the crux of every project whether it is a new or existing building. Focus on getting the right group together that can plan and execute as a team, exclude those with large egos and who set defensive postures regularly due to budget or personality, so that a critical building systems functions now and years down the road.