FM Issue: Fire Management and Building Codes

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By Anne Vazquez 
Published in the July 2005 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

Last month, the U.S. Commerce Department’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) released a report containing recommendations for changes to the planning, construction, and operation of skyscrapers. The study examined the physical process the Twin Towers in New York City underwent prior to collapsing after the terrorist attack of 9/11. The World Trade Center (WTC) report contained 30 recommendations in eight categories on how changes to certain building codes could serve to increase safety in the event of a fire or other emergency event.

While the general consensus is that more stringent building codes would not have made the Twin Towers less susceptible to an eventual collapse, the goal of the three year study was to identify what structural and operational changes could have done to delay collapse and enable more occupants to escape. Says Dr. Shyam Sunder, lead investigator of the study and deputy director of NIST Building and Fire Research Laboratory, “We believe these recommendations are both realistic and achievable within a reasonable period of time and should greatly improve the way people design, construct, maintain, and use buildings, especially high rises.”

Included in the recommended changes related to the operational aspects of a building are:

  • Enhancing fire protection systems that provide redundancy and accommodate risks associated with increasing building height and population;
  • Designing tall buildings to accommodate full building evacuation of occupants if needed, including stairwell and exit capacity that accommodates counterflow due to access by emergency responders;
  • Evaluating for future use of such advanced evacuation technologies as protected/hardened elevators, exterior escape systems, and stairwell navigation devices;
  • Installing, inspecting, and testing emergency communications systems to ensure the systems and their protocols will function in challenging radio frequency propagation environments and can be used to track emergency responders in a building; and
  • Improving procedures and practices in design, construction, maintenance, and operation to include encouraging code compliance by non-governmental and quasi-governmental entities; adoption and application of egress and sprinkler requirements for existing buildings; and retention/availability of building documents over its life.

Public comment on the suggested changes will be accepted until August 4 at 5:00 pm EST.

The Role Of The Code

With building codes governing to a large degree how to protect against fire, it is important to know what needs to be in place and what may need to be corrected. When evaluating buildings, facility managers can consider code compliance from several aspects of fire management: compartmentation; detection and notification; evacuation; and suppression.

Compartmentation: This involves the presence of fire rated assemblies in the facility in order to contain fire. The assembly is given a fire rating according the time the entire assembly is expected to retain structural integrity (such as one hour or two hours). This fire rating is calculated through the testing of numerous combinations of all the individual products that would go into a fire rated assembly. Examples of fire rated assemblies include walls and floors.

Fire! 10 Tips For Occupant Notification With A Voice Communication System
By Debbie Cohen

Voice communications systems provide a measure of safety and security for employees and visitors in all types buildings including warehouses, processing plants, retail facilities, and college campuses. However, there are general issues facility managers should consider first.
1) The speaker system must be loud enough to be heard intelligibly above background noise. It must also produce clear and audible voice commands that do not sound muffled or distorted in any part of the facility, especially areas where people normally congregate.
2) The effective broadcast of intelligible commands is strongly dependent on the correct placement of speakers, rather than their volume level.
3) Voice communications should strive for a uniform sound field that can be heard equally well in all areas of the facility and compensate for extreme amounts of noise in specific locations.
4) For clear speech reproduction, it is important for the system to operate as smoothly as possible in the frequency region (bandwidth) centered around two KHz.
5) Consider the audience before choosing an emergency communications system. For instance, children react adversely to piercing sirens and far more favorably to voice commands.
6) In general, almost all audiences respond calmly when alerted by friendly voice instructions issued in a firm, yet even tone.
7) For cost effectiveness, select a voice evacuation system that not only meets present demands, but can also accommodate growth.
8) To defer costs further, consider an all-in-one system with pre-recorded tones and announcements, as well as paging and voice evacuation messaging.
9) For extremely noisy environments, consider a system that operates with narrow band signaling. This technology makes emergency messages audible in loud areas with signals that rise above average ambient noise.
10) Deal with reputable vendors and suppliers who back their products and services with long-term warranties and guarantees. The ability to alert occupants to a fire quickly, calmly, and clearly is often dependent on the expertise and credibility of the vendor.

Cohen is marketing communications manager at Long Branch, NJ-based Wheelock, Inc.

The individual elements that are tested for fire resistance in a wall or floor fire rated assembly, include doors, windows, ducts, joints, and through penetrations. In order to ensure that the compartmentation system is equipped to isolate fire, gaps in the structure must also be filled in with fire rated products.

The International Building Code, published by the International Code Council (ICC) and the Life Safety Code, published by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) are the codes that mandate all the assembly components have a fire rating.

The code for joint and through penetration, for example, specifies a certain combination of fire rated elements to create an effective firestop system. For through penetration, this includes type/size of penetrant, type of thickness and base (wall or floor) material, size of the opening, size of the gap between the penetrant and the opening, specific firestopping products, and installation details.

“It’s how you put the products together,” explains John Valiulis, who serves on the Code Action Committee of the International FireStop Council (IFC). “Every detail can have an impact on how the assembly is going to behave in a fire.”

To remain compliant after alterations are made to a fire rated wall or floor, facility managers should ensure that anything affected is addressed after the work. Valiulis advises, “It’s really up to the facility manager to make tradesmen aware of which walls or floors are fire rated. Or, the manager should check after the work is done to ensure compliance. It is wise to label the walls that have a rating. It allows everybody today, tomorrow, and 10 years from now to figure out when they penetrate a fire rated wall.”

Detection And Notification: Smoke detectors, alarms, and communication systems are included here. While the first step is having the products installed, maintenance helps to ensure proper functioning.

“One message in the [2003 International] Fire Code and the [2003 International] Property Maintenance Code is very clear: maintain what you have,” says Richard Piccolo, president of the Building & Fire Code Academy in Hoffman Estates, IL. “Fire protection systems need to be maintained regularly. The codes indicate when this needs to occur.” Both codes are available through the ICC.

In conducting its Fire and Life Safety Road Show Series, SimplexGrinnell in Westminster, MA, receives questions on fire codes. Mike Lohr, director of service marketing, shares a question on smoke detectors:

Q: Can you test smoke detectors by spraying canned smoke into a piece of conduit and holding it up to the smoke detector?

A: The detector sensitivity cannot be tested or measured using any spray device that administers an unmeasured concentration of aerosol into the detector.” NFPA 72E [National Fire Alarm Code, 2002].

Lohr adds, “For the yearly smoke entry functional test this would be an acceptable test. However, the canned smoke manufacturer may not recommend or condone the use of a piece of conduit. Most canned smoke suppliers have some type of distribution nozzle to prevent too much of the aerosol from getting into the smoke detector chamber and causing a residue of propellant to build up. Residue may cause dirt to stick to the unit or degrade the detector’s plastic, requiring replacement or cleaning.”

Notifying and instructing occupants is a very important aspect of fire management. Alarms, voice communication systems, and evacuation plans are components here.

One recommendation from the WTC study addresses installation and maintenance of emergency communications system. These systems, when properly maintained, improve the reaction time of occupants and help first responders (see sidebar).

Evacuation: A clear evacuation plan is part of the equation. “Facility managers need to look at evacuation planning and safety,” says Piccolo. “The 2003 International Fire Code outlines evacuation planning standards according to type of occupancy. These include office, factory, mercantile, and hospitals, among others.”

Suppression: Tools for fire suppression include sprinkler systems and fire extinguishers.

Lohr shares another question:

Q: Do sprinkler gauges need to be replaced every five years?

A: “Gauges shall be replaced every five years or tested every five years by comparison with a calibrated gauge. Gauges not accurate to within 3% of the full scale shall be recalibrated or replaced.” NFPA 25 Chapter 5.3.2, 2002 [Standard for Inspection, Testing, and Maintenance of Water- Based Fire Protection Systems].

“Many of the tests prescribed in NFPA 25 rely on the accuracy of pressure gauges. It is not the intent of 5.3.2 to require that each and every gauge be individually calibrated. It is acceptable to compare the reading of one gauge with that of a calibrated gauge. Other gauges on systems that are installed in similar positions and elevations (for example, on an adjacent riser) that show similar readings are acceptable.” Water-Based Protection Systems Handbook, 2002.

Lohr adds, “Replacement is a better option, because recalibrating can cost just as much.”

Piccolo says, “All sprinkler systems need to be maintained. The ICC Fire and Property Maintenance Codes indicate when this should occur.”

Commenting on the WTC report recommendation on sprinklers, Piccolo notes, “If there’s one thing we need to do, it’s to install sprinklers in high rise buildings that do not have them. That’s going to go a long way to make a building safe.”

At the outset, fire codes can be like a maze to navigate. If facility managers take a comprehensive approach, this course can accommodate smoother sailing.

Information from this article was provided by Lohr, Piccolo, and Valiulis.


 

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