NFPA Journal®, January/February 2005
by Mike Halligan
Gimme an F! Gimme a P!
University of Utah student fans. See larger image.
The campus of the University of Utah. See larger image. Photos: University of Utah
At the University of Utah, where the daytime population is 75,000, the answer is a fire prevention program that employs six full-time personnel and five part-timers. Most four-year schools across the United States are so concerned about the impact a fire can have on their students, staff, and research that they have similar fire prevention departments focusing specifically on reducing the risks of fire on campus.
The University of Utah Fire Prevention Program is a division of the Department of Environmental Health and Safety, allowing the program to draw on the talents of the fire prevention staff and experts in the fields of laboratory and industrial safety. As on many other campuses, the program consists of four interrelated components: prevention, preparedness, response, and recovery. Fortunately, day-to-day activities are focused on prevention and preparedness activities. The occasional fire alarm—there were 203 unwarranted alarms in the 2003-2004 school year—disrupts prevention activities and shifts part of the fire prevention staff into a response mode. Rarely is there a need to engage in fire recovery efforts. In the 2003 academic year, there were only 12 fires, and most were confined to trash containers, stoves, and cars.
The low incidence of fire is a good indicator of the time and effort the university places on prevention and preparedness to minimize its exposure in the areas of life and property loss, and damage to prestige, student recruitment, the environment, business continuity, and grant income.
As the associate director and fire marshal of the Fire Prevention Program, I am responsible for its overall management and for conducting specific inspections, which usually require more than a basic understanding of applicable codes. For example, laboratory occupancies require an in-depth knowledge of many codes and standards, including NFPA 45, Fire Protection for Laboratories Using Chemicals. Entry-level fire prevention staff rarely inspect university labs. Generally, specialists experienced in laboratory safety first visit labs, consulting with the fire marshal for an interpretation of the codes’ laboratory requirements if specific questions arise.
The fire marshal also inspects assembly occupancies and all special events on campus, conducts state-mandated fire safety inspections, and issues occupancy permits for new and renovated buildings.
In addition, the campus fire marshal, who is also a deputy state fire marshal and certified plans examiner, is responsible for reviewing all plans for new buildings and remodeling projects. The university normally conducts more than $350 million in construction annually. Projects range from new buildings to small remodels of very high-tech spaces.
Often, the construction requires careful review of alternative approaches to life safety because of the buildings’ age and historical significance. One of the greatest challenges facing the university is fitting modern high-tech research labs into 100-year-old facilities. Campus buildings are rarely completely gutted and retrofitted. More often, a series of remodeling projects takes place in a structure over several years, requiring a phased approach for fire and life safety improvements. Some research buildings average a complete remodel in phases every seven or eight years, and some of the medical research and health-care buildings are completely renovated every five to six years as researchers and new technologies move in or out of space. While the initial project in a building may identify an overall plan for upgrades to fire protection features, the implementation may span two or three code cycles and require periodic reviews of the original life-safety improvement plan.
To track current conditions in buildings and guide a life-safety improvement plan for the campus, half the full-time fire prevention positions are responsible for plan review and building audits. One full-time position at the health science center is responsible for reviewing plans, inspecting construction, and issuing occupancy permits, and two individuals provide the majority of plan review, construction review, and occupancy permits at the main Salt Lake City campus. Also on the main campus, the fire marshal is responsible for reviewing architectural drawings and performance-based designs, while the senior fire prevention specialist reviews fire alarm system submittals for compliance with NFPA 72, National Fire Alarm Code®, and sprinkler system designs for compliance with NFPA 13, Installation of Sprinkler Systems. In addition to internal reviews, campus fire sprinkler projects are reviewed by a Utah state fire marshal’s approved review agency.
The university’s design standards actually go beyond the requirements of NFPA 72 and NFPA 13. For example, campus standards require use of Schedule 40 pipe in all research facilities, even though the code may permit thinner Schedule 10 pipe, because these systems are frequently altered as portions of buildings are renovated and Schedule 40 pipe is very durable.
Campus standards also require that all fire alarm systems installed be addressable. While zoned systems may be permitted, the Fire Prevention Program’s campus clients want to pinpoint exactly where an alarm is initiating for a rapid response. And an addressable system allows maintenance and contractor teams to program out single points instead of a full-zoned floor, something important given the constant remodeling of some of the campus buildings. This reduces the need for a fire watch on occupied floors and allows for rapid detection and notification of the building occupants.
One unique aspect of the university’s plan review process is that the design team includes fire prevention staff, who are involved from the initial development of a project, allowing them to make comments on the impact of proposed uses. As the architectural team moves into schematic design, the fire prevention team can review early solutions, again commenting on code compliance and providing alternatives that may reduce project costs. The team reviews drawings at the design development stage and at the final design stage.
Historically, design and fire prevention teams have struggled on projects where fire prevention has not been considered in the early stages of design or when changes are made during construction. The university recently closed this loophole, and projects can no longer be bid before the campus fire marshal and building official sign off on the final drawings. No change orders are issued during construction until the fire marshal and building official reviews and signs off on them.
Over the past two to three years, the quantity of performance-based designs has increased significantly, forcing the campus building official and fire marshal to quickly develop a working knowledge of the performance-based design process. In the last year aloe, three projects used a performance-based approach, and even the simplest project has some performance-based design elements.
For example, a performance-based design used in the renovation of the main library allowed the egress system to use a five-story monumental stairway open to the entire building. Smoke modeling determined that, based on expected fuel loads, the stairway would maintain a tenable environment long enough to allow visitors and staff to leave the building. In another campus building, a performance-based approach was used to reduce the need for a complete smoke evacuation system in an atrium. Louvers at the top of the atrium, coupled with horizontal sliding doors and smoke curtains, significantly reduce the air supply in the atrium. The third project used fire modeling to determine that, even though a new practice facility had no side-yard separations, as required by code, a fire in the facility or the building adjacent to it would have no impact on the building not involved in the fire.
Community and campus public relations
The fire prevention office also focuses on promoting fire safety among the on-campus population of students, staff, and researchers. We focus our efforts on building a relationship with all departments on campus and developing a fire prevention program based on the unique hazards represented in their environment.
This is particularly important with the university’s research community, which does not receive traditional enforcement role well. By nature, researchers question rules, and successful researchers rarely think inside the proverbial “box.” Telling a researcher the “code does not allow” them to do what they are doing is often met with great resistance. So, we decided to work our way on to the research team, where we can be seen as a resource to the research group.
Another partnership success story concerns the university’s Office of Residential Living, with which the Fire Prevention Program has a strong 25-year history, even though personnel have changed on both sides over the years. Management-level talks take place periodically so the program personnel can stay in touch with the housing staff’s needs. Fire prevention staff review all housing units monthly to test alarm systems and to work directly with residents on fire safety. Minor problems, such as housekeeping issues, candle use, obstructed exits, disabled smoke alarms, or obstructed sprinklers, can be handled by the resident and the fire prevention staff. If problems continue, live-in floor staff work with the student to change his or her behavior.
During the weeks before housing is opened each fall, the fire prevention staff conduct a Fire Academy for Resident Advisors, where we spend a half-day talking to housing staff about fire safety. This program, based on a model developed by the
First, the RAs are taught about the typical types of campus housing fires and about fires that occurred on the campus and their affect. They then learn about the active and passive fire detection and suppression systems in the buildings in which they live and work. By the end of the discussion, they know why it is important to keep exits and corridors clear of combustible materials and how hold-open door devices, sprinklers, smoke alarms, and horn strobe units work.
Next up is fire extinguisher training. RAs are trained to activate the alarm, size up a fire quickly to decide whether they can extinguish it, and use proper extinguishing technique. The university requires that anyone choosing to use a fire extinguisher follow the buddy system. While one individual discharges the extinguisher, the second is directly behind him or her to ensure that a safe exit path is always available.
Fire drills are conducted at the beginning of each semester on weekday evenings when most residents are likely to be in their rooms to see how well the RAs trained their students. The drills are announced to the housing staff but not to the residents.
Once the alarm is activated, students are expected to evacuate the building within three minutes and report to a designated meeting place away from the building. Housing staff is in place to take a roll call and count how many people evacuated. The roll is never complete, since residents may be at work or in class, but the information will at least allow the staff to provide some information on who participated. Those who are not accounted for receive a follow-up letter explaining that there was a drill and reinforcing the message that they should evacuate when the alarm sounds.
Fire prevention staff also spend a few minutes discussing fire safety on campus, reminding students that they should evacuate any time an alarm goes off in any campus building and that they can call us any time they feel a campus safety issue is not being addressed.
We also supply articles to the campus newspaper promoting fire safety on campus and at home. As students start looking for off-campus housing in the spring, we run a story listing the questions they need to ask to determine how fire safe their off campus housing will be. During fire prevention week, we enlist student groups to write fire safety messages on sidewalks, particularly near all the on-campus fire hydrants. In 2004, the messages reminded them to change the batteries in their smoke alarms—smoke detectors–got batteries?—and to “cook your dinner, not your kitchen.”
The campus program at the University of Utah is on the right track. We may use catchy phrases to promote fire prevention, but the result is a great relationship with the campus community. When problems are identified, those involved work together to find solutions. Our approach is paying off; fires are rare. Recently, our campus risk manager announced that our fire losses were well below the average. This is one time when being below average on a campus is a good thing.
Mike Halligan is an NFPA member and the associate director and fire marshal of the Fire Prevention Program at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, Utah.
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