Not So Elementary

Bringing fire and life safety together has its own challenges

Part of a school’s appeal is based on its reputation for providing a safe, secure and convenient environment for its staff and students.

However, bringing the reality of fire and life safety in K-12 facilities in line with expectations is a challenging task.

The National Fire Protection Association reports that about three-quarters of fires occurring in educational properties involve schools that provide preschool through high-school education.

Almost one-quarter -- 22 percent -- of these fires are intentionally set.

One of the most effective means of improving fire safety is to use a variety of smoke alarms, smoke detectors, automatic sprinklers, notification devices, fire extinguishers and control panels to protect students, staff and property. The safety equipment installed in a school also should vary according to building size, height, age and use, as well as local and national codes, and any authority having jurisdiction.

Accommodating Diverse Environments
A school’s large open gymnasium may be unoccupied for hours or days and then be transformed for an event with hundreds of people, computer equipment, projectors and other heat-generating sources.

Modern smoke detectors are designed to provide protection in such variable environments. Smoke detection systems combine various sensing components to determine whether the safety of a physical space is being compromised.

A system may include addressable and non-addressable smoke detectors. Addressable control panels monitor smoke detectors and other equipment.

Addressable panels offer more capability in identifying and isolating a potential emergency quickly. Addressable detectors, such as those with address identification, will relay the exact location of the alarm to the control panel.

An addressable control panel receives signals that provide the precise location and status of each detector on the loop.

Information is immediately available to indicate if a detector goes into alarm, needs to be cleaned or loses contact with the panel. It is easier to maintain addressable systems because facility managers know where to go and what to do when a device requires attention.

Addressable systems provide early, constant and real-time monitoring.

They pinpoint the source of smoke before it escalates to more advanced, damaging stages. Fully networked addressable systems enable operators to instantly assess the status of detectors throughout a school. They allow diagnosis, and in some cases, repairs from a central location for improved system maintenance. These addressable systems also quickly direct emergency response team to trouble areas, minimizing smoke contamination.

Networked addressable fire and life safety systems use one of two types of communication media. An RS-485 network uses a single pair of copper wire to connect multiple buildings’ addressable systems on one network.

Fire and life safety systems also can use fiber-optic cables, which are popular in telecommunications and data applications.

The choice depends on site conditions, including whether an existing utility trench is available, the environmental conditions within an existing trench system and the availability of spare capacity on an existing fiber-optic network, as well as the thoroughness of the school’s master plan.

Finally, there are many interface options available for remote system monitoring and control, including elaborate graphical user interfaces on large stationary or small portable monitors.

Today’s fire and life safety systems offer more flexibility and rapid expandability with the integration of addressable smoke detectors.

Area Specific
Because of the diverse environments in educational facilities, fire safety considerations for each area must be planned individually. The challenge is to build these individual systems so they can communicate to one central fire and life safety system for overall protection.

If the school is multi-level, the fire and life safety approach for these areas may be quite different per level or area. Airflow plays a major role in the effectiveness of detection devices, and an exhaust approach using an HVAC system may be more helpful in smoke control.

Alternatively, the levels may be interconnected.

The purpose of a smoke control system in these areas might be to keep smoke on one floor from traveling to an adjacent floor. For example, the kitchen will have a different plan of action than the library. A school can add a beam smoke detector to the addressable panel loop. A beam detector can monitor a large, open space with a ceiling of 20 feet or higher, such as a gymnasium, by using optical sight to provide an early warning signal. Beam detectors have advanced algorithms to select optimum sensitivity for a specific environment. Remote test stations can facilitate maintenance and NFPA 72 test requirements.

The smoke control concepts must be developed to address the particular life safety needs for each unique school.

The best-case scenario is a life safety plan that examines all the fire scenarios that could occur and recommends actions to address the scenarios.

Human Response
The best detection technology requires trained staff to properly react and respond to incidents. The ability to provide very early warning of a potentially hazardous event allows for early evacuation of people and minimizes potential school impact.

A team that includes proper system application engineering, maintenance and response training responsibilities needs to be incorporated into the fire and life safety plan. This team should involve the system’s designer, vendor, installer, ERT staff and regulatory agencies. Only then can a school be certain that there are no blind spots related to successful system application, operation and maintenance. This structure also supports a strong training strategy, which is most effective when treated as a team endeavor.

About the Author

David George is the director of marketing at System Sensor.

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