The car alarm in the employee parking lot wails with no criminal in sight. The microwave in the break room beeps, signaling that someone’s leftover spaghetti is ready. The elevator in the lobby pings, announcing its passengers’ arrival. The radio announcer signals the weekly test of the emergency broadcast system, saying, “This is only a test.” Mixed in with this sensory overload, another alarm rings. No one budges from his or her seat. After all it’s just another sound of the day. Not necessarily—it’s the fire alarm, and no one knows it.
This time it’s not a fire, just the monthly drill, practiced to ensure employees know what to do should a blaze occur. And yet not one person makes a move for the exit.
For facility managers (fms), this conditioned response is more of a concern than ever when it comes to fire management in their buildings. Christa Poss, audible/visible product senior marketing manager for System Sensor in St.Charles, IL, labels this lack of action “learned irrelevance.”
“Past history and fire safety research show us that everyone does not exit from a non-residential building when the fire system is in alarm,” says Chris Jelenewicz, P.E., engineering program manager for the Society of Fire Protection Engineers (SFPE) in Bethesda, MD. “They don’t exit because they don’t recognize the alarm, are unaware of proper response, or fail to hear it.”
As a result of poor reaction to traditional bells and whistles of fire alarms, more fms are installing voice notification systems to announce the hazard. System Sensor has developed different types of speakers to help with alarm recognition. One product is designed for high fidelity, ensuring voice signals are clear and intelligible, and another incorporates high volume to overcome ambient noise levels in places such as train stations or factories. Says Poss, “Voice notification lets people know that they need to take immediate action for their own safety.”
Stairs without photoluminescent lighting (top) make for a much more difficult egress then when marked with pathway indicators (bottom). (Credit: National Research Council Canada)
But even if employees do react to the alarms, their corresponding actions may become an even bigger issue. According to a July 2007 survey by SFPE, only 28% of respondents knew their first action in a fire should be to exit, not call the fire department (as nearly 40% of those polled replied).
Even more concerning is research from another SFPE study. In that report of 335 fire incidents, exiting the facility wasn’t among the top five actions people perform when there is a fire.
And evacuation may often be the most difficult task when it comes to proper fire protocol. Consider that getting everyone out of high-rise buildings (100+ floors) takes at least 20 minutes, which goes quickly if calculating five floors per minute. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) estimates that complete egress may be even more extenuated in the tallest buildings in the world, possibly taking nearly two hours.
“Even with constant fire drills, it may not help much because people’s reactions in a real fire situation through smoke clogged corridors and stairwells would be totally different from how they behave during fire drills,” says Michael Chiu-ming Leung, property and facility manager at the Hong Kong Institute of Education.
Lighting The Way
While getting people out of a building, no matter how many stories, presents its challenges, what about the egress itself? How do employees know what path to follow, especially if power to the building has failed? OSHA requires that an emergency power system must automatically activate and last at least 90 minutes.
Yet, that could still leave scores of people in darkness in the tallest of high rises. The installation of photoluminescent pathway marking systems has been a valuable aid in assisting those left behind without electricity. Once used to make Halloween costumes glow in the dark, photoluminescence in safety products have been invaluable in egress evolution.
The difference between what is found in toys and what is used for emergency is in the crystals. Toys use zinc sulfide crystals, while pathway marking strips use strontium oxide aluminate. This safety option glows 10 times brighter than zinc sulfide when exposed to the same light conditions.
Photoluminescent sources store incident electromagnetic radiation, usually from ambient light sources, and release it as visible light, glowing for at least eight hours. When these sources have been exposed to fluorescent ambient light, they glow even brighter than when exposed to incandescent bulbs.
Most pathway marking systems are positioned near the floor. As tragic as the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center were, imagine how many more occupants could have perished had they not been able to find their way down with the aid of the photoluminescent markings.
The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey had installed the marking systems as a consequence of the bombing attack on the World Trade Center in 1993, which completely knocked out all emergency power to the buildings and caused chaos during the evacuation.
Photoluminescent marking systems were included in the Pentagon’s renovations following 9/11. In 2004, New York City went even further, passing Local Law 26, which required photoluminescent pathway marking systems to be in the stairwells of all high-rise office buildings.
In August 2007, the International Code Council passed an update to its International Building Code and International Fire Code requiring non-electrical exit path marking (including photoluminescent) in buildings having “occupied floors located more than 75 feet above the lowest level of fire department vehicle access” (IBC 1027.1). The new marking must be evaluated and tested to the UL1994 performance requirement or the ASTM E 2072 luminance standard.
Saving The Building
While evacuating people is a vital portion of any fm’s fire management plan, it is merely part of the overall picture. The actual building must be preserved as much as possible. According to a U.S. Fire Administration study, fires in non-residential structures caused over $26.9 billion in damage from 1997 to 2006 (not including the amount in property loss from 9/11). While these blazes account for only 2% of deaths, 8% percent of injuries, and 7% of fires, they make up 24% of the dollar loss. No FM wants a structures to end up like the One Meridian Plaza high-rise in Philadelphia, which never reopened after a fire in 1991. Another unwanted outcome would be to have to wait several months to reoccupy the building, which is what happened in 1988 with a fire at the Interstate Bank tower in Los Angeles.
One common issue with those two blazes, and the resulting damage, was the lack of automatic sprinkler systems. Depending on the city and various fire and building codes, sprinklers are not always mandatory in newer construction.
However, that does not mean sprinkler technology has been ignored. Fms can select sprinklers for a specific geometry and select others, such as large orifice styles and early suppression fast response models, to help contain certain hazards.
It is not just the sprinkler systems that have evolved, but so too have the alarm systems that can aid the fire department when it arrives. The sooner the trucks appear and the sirens sound, the quicker the blaze can be brought under control.
System Sensor is introducing an advanced multi-criteria detector that uses complex algorithms to interpret signals from four different sensors (an electrochemical carbon monoxide cell, an infrared sensor, a photoelectric smoke sensor, and a thermal sensor) to monitor every product of combustion and respond with accuracy. If one of the sensors detects a fire condition, the on-board intelligence verifies the condition with another sensor before going into alarm mode.
“As site conditions change, an internal algorithm continually changes sensor thresholds, sensor combinations, and sampling rates to ensure faster response to fires,” says Todd Alford, commercial product senior marketing manager, detector devices at System Sensor.
Along with new alarm systems and an array of smoke detectors (using optical sight, high sensitivity duct smoke detectors, or even laser detectors), many of these products now work in conjunction with fire alarm control panels (FACPs). The FACPs can convert 4-20 mA sensor outputs to a common communication protocol that can be interpreted for monitoring and display.
Problems Along The Way
Just because the technology is better, does not mean there are not drawbacks. “These advances, though, have been a double-edged sword,” says Lee West, property technical manager, risk control for Travelers Insurance in Hartford, CT. “They prompt the construction of higher, more hazardous warehouses and more extensive, complex alarm systems, so the technology becomes as much a concern as an opportunity.”
Even the way fires are put out with building suppression systems faces challenges. While water is an obvious choice in sprinklers, other alternatives are needed to help save valuable equipment, such as computers and their associated networks. Yet, if fms think they can avoid the “green building” issue here, guess again.
“Environmental sustainability is also taken into consideration, so the use of a total gas flooding system may not be a good solution,” says Leung. “I am against the use of (a specific waterless suppression system) in our mainframe room. While it has zero ozone depleting potential, its global warming potential is 3,300 times worse than carbon dioxide.”
What’s The Plan?
No matter what technology comes to market, fms still need to make sure they have a solid fire management plan in place and test it to ensure its functionality. One way to help with that is to consult with the local fire department or a fire protection engineer, either of whom can review designs for new and existing building modifications and help create a program which best fits that facility. When the fire professional leaves, it doesn’t mean the program should just be displayed. “A successful plan should always be tested,” says Jelenewicz. “It is important to have drills to see what works and what doesn’t work. All of the important stakeholders should take part in this drill. Finding out that something doesn’t work will give the fm an opportunity to make the plan better.”
Foresight is the key. “A plan should encompass the entire operation,” says West. “It needs to include the facility, its equipment and contents, the occupants, plus consider the need to restore operations as quickly as possible.”
Fires are unpredictable events, and preparing for their appearance may seem like an exercise in futility for employees and fms. But when that alarm sounds for real, when smoke and flames begin to take over the building, and the event is no longer a drill, the practice can pay off in saved lives and a facility that will be open in the future.
This article was based on interviews with Alford, Jelenewicz, Leung, Poss, and West.