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Author(s): Ron Cote. Published on December 29, 2014.

A YEAR AGO, my column in this space [“Size Issue,” January/February 2014] addressed the pros and cons of a proposed change for the 2015 edition of NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code®, to increase the allowable smoke compartment size in hospitals from 22,500 square feet (2,100 square meters) to 40,000 square feet (3,720 square meters). The proposal was rejected by NFPA members at the technical reports session of the Conference & Expo in June. The proponents for the change—including members of the Life Safety Technical Committee on Health Care Occupancies (SAF-HEA), health care facilities engineers who are members of the American Society for Healthcare Engineering, and other health care industry practitioners and regulators—plan to revisit the issue as part of the revision cycle that will produce the 2018 edition of NFPA 101.

The premise for the increase in smoke compartment size for new construction remains viable. New hospitals in the U.S. are designed to the Facility Guidelines Institute (FGI) Guidelines for Design and Construction of Health Care Facilities, which allots a greater amount of floor space to individual patients. The FGI Guidelines help ensure that a new smoke compartment of 40,000 square feet has an occupant load similar to that traditionally associated with a 22,500-square-foot smoke compartment, so that additional patients will not be placed at risk of fire within the smoke compartment.

Further, smoke compartment size will be prevented from becoming excessive, because a current code requirement limits the travel distance to reach a door to another smoke compartment to 200 feet (61 meters). In order to meet the travel limitation, any smoke compartment that approaches 40,000 square feet will need access to more than one adjacent smoke compartment. A smoke compartment of typical proportions situated at an end of a rectangular-shaped building, so that it accesses only one adjacent smoke compartment along its narrow dimension, might approach 30,000 square feet (2,790 square meters) before exceeding the 200-foot travel limitation. In other words, the 40,000-square-foot compartment size might not be realized due to the travel limitation.

Any public input for increasing smoke compartment size, and any revisions to that input made by the SAF-HEA committee in its preparation of a first revision, will need to address the shortfalls identified by the NFPA membership when it rejected the change in 2014. Namely, existing smoke compartments in hospitals that were not designed to the FGI Guidelines, and which are currently limited to 22,500 square feet, must not be permitted to be made larger.

NFPA 101 applies both to new construction and existing building arrangements. Any provision for increased smoke compartment size should be crafted to permit the same language to be used in Chapter 18 for new facilities and Chapter 19 for existing. That would seem to rule out any mandate for compliance with the FGI Guidelines, as they are applicable only to new construction. A substitute criterion that could be applied to new and existing facilities is a maximum patient load per smoke compartment. Additionally, the SAF-HEA committee should work to codify criteria necessary to permit the increase in smoke compartment size to be offered to nursing homes.

The closing date for public input for processing the 2018 edition of NFPA 101 as part of the Annual 2017 Revision Cycle is July 6, 2015. Visit nfpa.org/101 and go to the link that reads, “The next edition of this standard is now open for Public Input.”

RON COTE, P.E., is principal life safety engineer at NFPA.