Not So Elementary
Bringing fire and life safety together has its own challenges
- By David George
- Jun 01, 2010
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
About the Author
David George is the director of marketing at System Sensor.