Moving in the Right Direction

Oregon State University makes changes to provide the optimum fire-safe environment

Understanding Directional Sound

OREGON State University has made fire and life safety a real priority. In fact, the University Housing and Dining Services department developed a partnership with the municipal fire department, to create its own fire prevention and protection program. And the program was put to the test when the GEM Building, a dormitory cell building, was scheduled for remodeling.

ExitPoint uses directional sound, positioned at perimeter exits and stairwells, to guide students to the nearest exit quickly and efficiently. Triggered by the fire alarm control panel, the system uses broadband sound that evacuees will follow intuitively.

"We put together a good program in conjunction with the Corvallis Fire Department to train our full-time and student staff and, then, subsequently the students who reside in on-campus residences," said Gus Villaret, associate director for housing and dining at OSU. "Every year, not only the staff, but also the residents are trained to understand the fire-safety features of their particular building. Fire drills are conducted throughout the year and all facilities are inspected periodically. Fire safety is something we take very seriously."

OSU's building construction partner, Housing Northwest, shares similar core values.

"We want to develop partnering relationships so that we can provide the best fire-safe environment for our residents," said Dan Potter, vice president of Housing Northwest.

Most of OSU's residence halls are simply designed. For example, a student steps out of the room into the corridor, turns left or right, and then goes to the end of the corridor and to the stairwell. Therefore, it's not very difficult for a person to find their way out of the building. However, OSU does have some complicated structures on campus. The GEM building is probably the most complicated.

"That's when we thought it would be best to bring in a demonstration of this new technology to campus," Villaret said.

The technology Villaret is referring to is System Sensor's ExitPointTM. ExitPoint uses directional sound, positioned at perimeter exits and stairwells, to guide students to the nearest exit quickly and efficiently. Triggered by the fire alarm control panel, the system uses broadband sound that evacuees will follow intuitively. Unlike standard fire alarm sounders, which simply alert people that there is a fire in the building, directional sound technology helps building occupants evacuate quickly and efficiently by informing them which way to go -- the perfect solution for the GEM.

The GEM is a seven-story, 120,900 square-foot, concrete building that is being converted from a dormitory cell building to studio-style suites, plus one, two and three bedroom apartments. In addition, the original food service area is being converted into loft units to create a total of 231 units. Each floor consists of three wings, a central lobby and central lobby elevators. The wings are winding, and going around one corner does not necessarily bring you to the stairwell or exit.

There are many considerations prior to the layout and design of a campus fire- and life-safety system, especially in a remodeling job.

"From the architect's perspective, normally we try to meet the letter of the code when thinking about fire and life safety, as well as safety egress," said Kurt Haapala, an associate with Mahlum Architects. "But when we walked through this building, we all were left with a certain level of uneasiness about the egress route. It was simply a very confusing building to know where you were. It was even very confusing to find the mezzanine level, how to get in or out during an emergency. There was a high level of concern for the egress of the building -- that is not normal."

Understanding Directional Sound

Directional sound technology uses broadband, multi-frequency sounds with low-, mid- and high-range signals instead of the narrowband noise emitted by standard audible/visible devices. This is a significant difference because people cannot reliably localize narrowband noise -- in other words, they have trouble determining the source of this type of noise. If people cannot localize a sound, then they can't follow it to safety.

The broadband sounds given by directional sound devices, which are placed at perimeter exits and stairwells, lead people toward them and clearly communicate which way to go. People intuitively know to follow these sounds and to move from one device to another until they reach an exit.

When people follow the sound coming from the closest directional sound device, they not only ensure that they will find an exit faster, but that building occupants will be more evenly divided between different escape routes. In facilities where more than one escape route and exit are marked by a series of directional sound devices, evacuees will be kept from collectively crowding a common, everyday route. Instead, people in an opposite section of a building, for example, will be directed to a secondary exit, which will reduce congestion and evacuation times for all.

Directional sounders can decrease exit times in a smoke filled area by up to 75 percent and up to 35 percent in clear visibility.

Sound Advancements
Bringing sound technology to OSU and the GEM project all started with a presentation given by John Fennah of Sound Alert on directional sound at the 2003 Campus Fire Safety Forum. Steve Owens, a UHSD fire prevention and protection specialist, brought back this sound innovation and, ultimately presented a campus demonstration of directional sound technology for the GEM building.

"Seeing the demonstration was really the turning point for me. We were able to use an area in the GEM building, bring the light level down to where it was virtually a dark area, add smoke and run through an evacuation scenario. It was extremely convincing," Owens said. "It became apparent to me that somebody, in a short period of time, such as resident unfamiliar with the building, could receive a short instructional period and be able to function and find their way out of that building unassisted using the system. I don't know of any other system built into a structure that could make that claim."

Oregon State is the first campus in the country to use directional sound in a residence hall.

"Directional sound makes sense for the safety of residents in the building. It can help deal with some issues of exiting this building by making it easier and clear for people to find their way to an exit if there is an emergency," Potter said.

Furthermore, Corey Riedel, project manager at Walsh Construction, said the layout of the building was really the deciding factor on whether or not to use directional sound. He also said using such a system was in the best interest of the university.

Working in conjunction with the smoke detectors and other audible/visible notification devices, the directional sound system consists of a series of sounders placed throughout the GEM building. The sounders, which are on the same circuit as the building's notification appliances and are automatically activated as soon as a sensor detects the presence of fire or smoke, deliver easy-to-understand cues that intuitively lead people to the nearest exit.

"The GEM building does have a confusing exit plan. We have a lot of young students with different levels of abilities at different times of day, nights and weekends," said Jim Patton, a fire inspector with the Corvallis Fire Department. "I think this system will really make a difference for their ability to evacuate and find exits in the event of a smoke-filled environment. This building also is being sprinkled, which is a great thing. It wasn't sprinkled previously to any extent. It's going to turn out to be one of the safest housing facilities on or near campus."

Improving Fire-Safety Protection
Directional sound offers a significant improvement over visual-based emergency way-finding aids, such as emergency lighting and photoluminescent guidance strips, that can be difficult to see in smoke-filled environments. Directional sound devices lead people to exits using sounds, not words. Assisting people who may have visual impairments or language barriers. The devices also can be heard above other noises, including fire alarms and shouting.

The system has the ability to provide directional information based on its non-verbal, multi-frequency tones, enabling people to locate the sounds and follow the sounders to designated exits.

"The sound tells you where to go -- it's intuitive. You can walk down a dark smoke-filled hall and the sound will lead you to the exit," said Neil Hall, a fire marshal with the Corvallis Fire Department.

By tapping into a sense that is unaffected by smoke -- hearing -- directional sound technology provides clear, easy-to-understand assistance for finding the nearest exit. Evacuations occur much faster than with other emergency egress aids, even in completely unfamiliar buildings.

"This is really a quantum leap in that you are really changing from the vision to the hearing aspect of evacuation. I believe it will function much better for the majority of occupants in the building during a fire event," Villaret said.

Life on campus today is all about the amenities, as university and college administrators are beginning to focus as much attention on dorms, recreation and retail as they do on educational offerings. This shift in focus emphasizes housing security and fire and life safety issues.

"ExitPoint is, again, just the latest example of UHDS going the extra mile to make sure they provide the safest accommodations possible," Patton said.

This article originally appeared in the September 2006 issue of Security Products, pgs. 28-29.

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