When overseeing any type of building alteration (even something as simple as changing out an office space into a conference room), facilities professionals should always ask themselves, “How will this modification to the building impact the life safety of its occupants?”
Better yet, ask a fire protection engineer- a design professional who really understands the science and technology needed to protect structures, people, and contents from the devastation of fire. Chris Jelenewicz, engineering program manager for the Bethesda, MD-based Society of Fire Protection Engineers (www.sfpe.org), offers proactive, forward-thinking facilities professionals some recommendations on questions to ask a fire protection engineer (FPE):
1) What are the required codes and standards? “While this might seem like an elementary question to ask, each local jurisdiction has its own building and fire codes,” says Jelenewicz. “Some have adopted NFPA standards; others are using the Intl. Building Code; and still others might have their own local amendments to these model codes. A fire protection engineer is working with code officials on almost a daily basis, and has a really good understanding of the proper codes and standards that apply. FPEs can also provide suggestions on when to use performance-based design for a project.”
2) Will a building modification affect the facility’s exit requirements? “Without a doubt, providing an adequate amount of egress capacity is one of the most important life-safety features in a building,” explains Jelenewicz. “If an owner converts an office space into a large multi-educational conference area, the occupant load could increase. An FPE can determine if additional egress features (i.e. exit doors, exit stairs) are needed.”
3) Will a building modification impact the design limitations of the existing fire protection systems? “A common mistake is to assume that when a building modification is made, the design hazard hasn’t changed,” notes Jelenewicz. “This is particularly common in storage occupancies (from stacking a few boxes of metal containers at a 4-foot height to assembling large storage racks that hold hazardous, combustible objects) and atriums (where a change in use of the space may affect the smoke exhaust system that has been designed for a minimal hazard).”
4) Can the existing fire protection systems be expanded or is a new fire protection system needed? Jelenewicz recalls seeing a total - but unnecessary - extra sprinkler system added during a building modification when the existing system was adequate. “That’s the easiest way to do it,” he says, “but the cost implications to the owner, as well as maintenance issues with dual and extra systems, can be significant.”
5) What are the commissioning requirements for the fire protection systems? “This is commonly overlooked in design and construction,” says Jelenewicz, citing acceptance testing and inspecting the systems as important actions. “An FPE can assure that each individual fire protection system is working, and also how all the individual systems - from sprinklers to fire alarms to smoke management to exiting- work together as one integrated life-safety system.”
Without considering how a building modification may impact fire and life safety, the smallest of incidents can have drastic implications. Fire protection engineers use science and technology to protect people, property, and businesses from destructive fires. They analyze how buildings are used, how fires start, how fires grow, and how fire and smoke affect occupants and property. With their expertise, facilities professionals have the tools to pinpoint risks and the means to protect against fires.
Linda K. Monroe (firstname.lastname@example.org) is editorial director at Buildings magazine.