Topic: Building & Life Safety

#101Wednesdays - The Great Escape (...Or Not...)

“Escape rooms” seem to be popping up everywhere. For a fee, you're locked in a room with a group of friends. The goal is to escape from the room by searching for clues and solving a series of intellectual challenges within a given time-frame. Businesses use them as a fun team-building activity. Others go just to test their wits and see if they can solve the challenges before time runs out. It's a great concept… except for the being locked in a room bit. The fire safety implications are obvious: countless people have lost their lives in fires because they were locked in the building or their means of egress were otherwise compromised. The topic of escape rooms has recently garnered the attention of NFPA's Technical Committee on Assembly Occupancies. A task group has been established to determine whether escape rooms require special attention in the Life Safety Code. And so it was with some skepticism that I agreed to my first escape room encounter on a recent snowy Saturday with my girlfriend and 12-year old daughter. I was admittedly curious to see what they were all about. I agreed to try it on the condition that I would evaluate the egress arrangement before we started the challenge to ensure it was safe; I wasn't about to jeopardize the lives of the most important people in the world to me (not to mention myself)! We drove through a near-blizzard to downtown Worcester, MA (not far from my alma mater, WPI), entered a nondescript office building, and took the elevator to the third floor. The first thing I noticed was the building was sprinklered and equipped with a fire alarm system – we were off to a good start. We were then led into the room from which we would try to “escape.” However, it was immediately explained that our objective was to unlock a door on the opposite side of the room, which led to another room with another locked door, which would lead us to victory (I was confident in our problem-solving abilities). Here's the important part: the door through which we entered the room was equipped with no locking hardware. We could leave any time we wanted, whether there was a fire in the building or someone needed to use the restroom. My concerns were quickly allayed. This was going to be fun! One life safety question I had going into the experience was, “What is the occupancy classification of an escape room?” I believe they fall under assembly use (probably less concentrated) for the purpose of determining occupant load (see Table, but of course, they would not be considered an assembly occupancy unless the occupant load exceeded 49, based on the NFPA 101 definition of assembly occupancy:* Assembly Occupancy. An occupancy (1) used for a gathering of 50 or more persons for deliberation, worship, entertainment, eating, drinking, amusement, awaiting transportation, or similar uses; or (2) used as a special amusement building, regardless of occupant load. (SAF-AXM) I don't believe the escape room I experienced was a special amusement building – the egress path wasn't confounded and lighting levels were not reduced. The escape room I visited was relatively small, with an occupant load of, most likely, fewer than 50 persons. Since the occupant load was fewer than 50, I believe it was a business occupancy, and it posed no unusual life safety hazard. My experience with escape rooms is very limited. A quick Google search for the term “escape room” returned hundreds of hits – they're becoming more and more popular. It's incumbent on the business owners to ensure their “escape” scenarios do not physically restrict their guests against egress. Moreover, guests need to understand that they are provided with free egress at all times; this should be part of the pregame briefing. If occupants think their egress is restricted, even if it physically is not, it could delay their egress in the event of an emergency. (What would you do if you thought you were locked in a room and an emergency were to occur? Would you immediately try the door through which you entered the room, or would you frantically try to solve the puzzle you were working on to get out?) AHJs should be familiar with the Code's door locking and latching requirements in; the ability of occupants to egress a building at any time without the use of keys, tools, or special knowledge or effort is a fundamental tenet of the Code. Occupants can be contained only for safety and security purposes in occupancies such as health care and detention and correctional – never for entertainment. The escape room we experienced was perfectly safe, and a great time. I wouldn't hesitate to do it again. Incidentally, we didn't make it out in our allotted 45 minutes. We were down to the final challenge, which had me plunge my hand into a bucket of slimy rubber worms to locate a key – it's harder than it sounds! (After time expired, the game master came in and had my 12-year old try. Of course, she found it within seconds. Figures.) Do you have an escape room experience you'd like to share? Please post it in the comments. If there's a problem with these venues, we want to know about it. Likewise, we want to know if escape room owners are doing the right thing, as in my experience. Thanks for reading, and as always, stay safe! Got an idea for a topic for a future #101Wednesdays? Post it in the comments below – I'd love to hear your suggestions! Did you know NFPA 101 is available to review online for free? Head over to and click on “Free access to the 2015 edition of NFPA 101.”

NFPA 1: Automatic sprinkler requirements for fire stations, #FireCodefridays

Photo from Happy 2017!  Time for the first "Fire Code Friday" post of the new year.  This past Wednesday, a fire that occurred locally at a fire station in Concord, MA, highlighted one of the valuable provisions in NFPA 1, Fire Code. Early Wednesday morning, just after midnight, a fire broke out on the first floor of Station 2 in Concord, MA.  Three firefighters were on duty and at the station at the time the fire occurred.  The first floor of the station sustained heavy damage (not structural) and the second floor had minor damages. Two fire engines and one ambulance were also damaged by the fire. The presence of smoke alarms in the station woke the firefighters and they were able to quickly and safety escape.  They were even able to assist in fire fighting operations from the outside of the building.  Protecting buildings that house emergency and public services is especially important.  In 2003, NFPA 1 introduced a provision that requires automatic sprinkler protection for new fire stations (the Concord fire station dates back to the early 20th century): From NFPA 1, 2003: New fire stations shall be protected throughout by an approved automatic fire sprinkler systems. In the editions that followed, the requirement was expanded to include other emergency services and the language now reads: From NFPA 1, 2015: New buildings housing emergency fire, rescue, or ambulance services shall be protected throughout by approved supervised automatic sprinkler systems. The requirement for sprinkler protection not only protects the emergency services personnel occupying the facility but also diminishes the probability of disrupting the provision of emergency services to the community as a result of a fire. This requirement is consistent with the Code's public welfare goal and objective which are as follows:* Public Welfare Goal. The public welfare goal of this Code shall be to maintain a high probability that buildings and facilities that provide a public welfare role for a community continue to perform the function for their intended purpose following a fire, explosion, or hazardous materials event.* Public Welfare Objective. Buildings and facilities that provide a public welfare role for a community shall be designed, constructed, maintained, and operated to provide reasonable assurance of continued function following a fire, explosion, or hazardous materials event. Section 4.1.5 includes requirements intended to maintain a high probability that certain buildings or facilities operate during and after an emergency event, such as a fire, an explosion, or a hazardous materials event, in order to provide an anticipated critical public service. Such facilities might include hospitals and public safety buildings (fire and police stations.)  The requirements for providing automatic sprinkler protection in new buildings housing emergency fire, rescue, or ambulance services is one way of ensuring this goal and objective of the Code is met. This fire had a relatively happy ending.  Yes, costly damage occurred to equipment and the building, but three lives were saved. These firefighters are able to continue their job saving others and giving back to the community of Concord. 

#101Wednesdays - Shedding Some Light on Emergency Lighting

In this week's edition of #101Wednesdays, I'll take a look at what I think is one of the Life Safety Code's most widely misunderstood requirements: emergency lighting. We take for granted that when we're in a public building, if the lights go out, emergency lights will kick on to illuminate the path of egress in the event of an emergency. In many, but not all, cases this is true. Emergency lighting is required by the Code where specified by the applicable occupancy chapter. In some cases, emergency lighting is always required (e.g., health care occupancies). In other cases, it depends on the number of stories in height and occupant load (e.g., business occupancies). To determine whether emergency lighting is required for a specific occupancy, go to the X.2.9 subsection of the applicable occupancy chapter, where X is the chapter number (e.g., 38.2.9 for emergency lighting requirements in new business occupancies). Where emergency lighting is required, the performance requirements are specified in Section 7.9, which prescribes such criteria as illumination levels (average of 1 ft-candle at the floor level – and maximum delay from the time the normal illumination source fails (10 seconds – These criteria are widely understood and implemented. What are not widely understood and implemented, in my experience, are the conditions under which emergency lighting must be provided, as specified in* The emergency lighting system shall be arranged to provide the required illumination automatically in the event of any interruption of normal lighting due to any of the following: (1) Failure of a public utility or other outside electrical power supply (2) Opening of a circuit breaker or fuse (3) Manual act(s), including accidental opening of a switch controlling normal lighting facilities Let's take a look at each of the three scenarios described in and the means by which emergency lighting might be provided. Item (1) describes a condition where the building loses its normal, incoming power supply from the grid (e.g., lightning strikes a pole and takes out a transformer; the neighborhood is in the dark). If emergency lighting is provided by battery-operated unit lights, the units will sense the loss of power to the lighting circuit and activate, illuminating the egress path. (It's important to ensure that the unit is wired or plugged into a lighting circuit, and not a power circuit. The unit needs to activate when the lighting circuit loses power, not a power circuit.) If emergency lighting is powered by an emergency generator (emergency and standby power system), then likewise, the system will recognize the loss of power to the building, the emergency generator will start, and subsequently power the emergency lighting circuits. In most cases, compliance with Item (1) isn't a problem. Item (2) describes a condition where a circuit breaker or fuse, located anywhere in the building, opens, resulting in loss of the normal means of egress illumination. This could be a breaker in a distribution panel on, say, the 8th floor of the building. If such a breaker protecting a lighting circuit trips, again, battery-operated unit lights on that circuit will activate and provide the required illumination. But what about systems powered by a generator? We wouldn't expect the generator to come online when a breaker in a distribution panel trips. So how will emergency lighting be provided in this case? Hold that thought. Item (3) describes a condition where someone accidentally flips a light switch and the required means of egress illumination goes dark. Battery-operated unit lights won't activate because the circuit still has power; power has just been interrupted from the switch to the luminaire (that's code-speak for light fixture). Likewise, we would hope the emergency generator won't start every time someone turns out the lights (and it doesn't). So how can we possibly meet the emergency lighting performance criteria for the scenario described in Item (3)? It's important to note that the Code does NOT tell the designer how to arrange the lighting circuits; it only specifies the required performance criteria. I can describe one means to meet the performance requirements of, but keep in mind, it's not necessarily the only means: arrange the lighting circuits so that no area required to be provided with emergency lighting is normally illuminated by fewer than two separate lighting circuits, one of which is an emergency lighting circuit where an emergency generator is employed. Here's how it works: Scenario (1): Building loses power; all lighting circuits are de-energized; battery-operated unit lights activate, or generator comes online, transfer switch energizes emergency lighting circuit; good to go. Scenario (2): Distribution panel breaker trips; regardless of which lighting circuit loses power, the other circuit in the same area will still be energized. As long as an average of 1 ft-candle is initially provided along the designated egress path, the emergency lighting performance criteria have been met without necessarily activating any battery-operated unit light or the emergency generator; again, good to go. Scenario (3): Someone accidentally opens a switch controlling the normal lighting; like Scenario (2) above, the other circuit will provide the needed average 1 ft-candle. Using this arrangement, the NFPA 101 emergency lighting performance criteria are met for all three conditions. When I describe how works in NFPA's three-day Life Safety Code Essentials seminar, I usually see some jaws hit the table (figuratively), which indicates, to me, that these provisions are, perhaps, not being widely implemented, or enforced. It's the Code's intent to provide emergency lighting for any condition that causes the normal illumination source to lose power, not just failure of the building's normal power supply. I'm hopeful that this installment of #101Wednesdays has illuminated some of you. Since NFPA will be closed December 24 through January 2, this will be the final installment of #101Wednesdays until 2017. I'd like to wish everyone a very happy holiday season, and I look forward to posting lots more topics next year. Until then, stay safe! Got an idea for a topic for a future #101Wednesdays? Post it in the comments below – I'd love to hear your suggestions! Did you know NFPA 101 is available to review online for free? Head over to and click on “Free access to the 2015 edition of NFPA 101.”

NFPA 1: Referencing NFPA 72 and fire alarm requirements in NFPA 1, #FireCodeFridays (Monday edition)

Last week I spent Monday through Wednesday attending NFPA's 3 day classroom training on NFPA 72, National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code in Orlando, FL (followed by a few days of vacation with my family...when in Orlando, right?)  Attending this training has provided me with a stronger foundation and connection with other documents that I work with such as NFPA 1, NFPA 80, NFPA 101, and some additional training initiatives that I will be involved with next year as NFPA rolls out some newer offerings! NFPA 72 is referenced throughout NFPA 1, Fire Code. Section 13.7 of the Code is the main section for detection, alarm, and communication systems.  It mandates that where building fire alarm systems or automatic fire detectors are required by other sections of NFPA 1 that they be provided and installed in accordance with NFPA 70, National Electrical Code, 72 and Section 13.7.  Codes such as NFPA 1 and NFPA 101 will tell the user whether or not a fire alarm system is required; how it must be initiated, and whether or not occupant and emergency responder notification is required; that is not the role of NFPA 72.  NFPA 72, however, provides the installation, inspection, testing, and maintenance criteria for the required system.  Section 13.7 provides comprehensive provisions, extracted from both NFPA 72 as well as NFPA 101.  The NFPA 101 provisions cover the basic functions of a complete fire alarm system, including fire detection, alarm, and communications. The provisions extracted from NFPA 101 are also occupancy based (see Section 13.7.2.)  Certain occupancies might not be required to have a fire alarm system at all. In industrial and storage occupancies, for example, the number of occupants in the facility or the hazard classification of the building's contents determines whether an alarm system is required. In small mercantile and business occupancies, there are usually enough people present (at least during a part of the day) to discover an incipient fire. For these occupancies, the Code imposes less rigid requirements for fire alarm systems than it does for certain other occupancies. Conversely, for health care occupancies, the provisions for fire alarm systems are quite detailed with respect to notification and emergency functions, such as the automatic closure of smoke barrier doors. The NFPA 72 provisions extracted into NFPA 1, found primarily in Section 13.7.3, address the following technical provisions: Nonrequired coverage (instances where a facility installs a detection system to meet certain performance goals or to address a particular hazard or need.) Smoke alarm and smoke detector installation location Alarm annunciation, annunciation access and location, and annunciation zoning Supervisory and trouble annunciation Fire alarm system equipment Documentation Manually actuated alarm-initiating devices Installation of automatic fire detectors (including smoke, heat, and duct detectors) which addresses protection of equipment, location, specific installation criteria by detector type, protection during construction NFPA 72 is a fundamental fire protection document.  Even though much of Section 13.7 is extracted from NFPA 72, users should always consult the source document for the full details.  Remembering the scope of NFPA 1, the provisions included in the document help aid the enforcer/inspector with fire alarm provisions they may need to know while enforcing the Code.  It is the basics (when a system is required, installation criteria, equipment provisions, etc.)  NFPA 72 should also be consulted for full details regarding inspection, testing, and maintenance of fire alarm systems. Chapter 14 of NFPA 72 will provide the detailed requirements for ITM.

Fatality in a water tank reminds us about importance of confined space safety procedures

The recent death of a worker in a water tank in Braintree, Massachusetts this past week provides a grim reminder of the importance of following safe entry procedures for all confined spaces. Water tanks are confined spaces because they are not normally occupied and their design and configuration offer limited means for entry and exit. When they are entered for the purpose of periodic inspection and maintenance it is essential for workers to be familiar with the characteristic hazards of such spaces and to have a plan for safe entry, work, and exit. Typically these tanks are entered through a hatch in the top of the tank, requiring workers to climb to the top of the tank, where there might not be guardrails around the top to prevent falls and often there are no appropriate anchorage points for the connection of fall protection devices.   Atmospheres inside the tank can be unsafe due to rusting or decomposition of residual debris which can lead to unsafe levels of oxygen or other atmospheric hazards.   Water tanks may also be covered with snow or ice, leading to slip hazards. Rescue from these spaces is also a challenge because of the elevation and the possibility for the rescuers falling.   In this recent incident, reports indicate there were two workers on the top of the tank. The tank did not appear to have guardrails on top and it is unclear if there were anchorage points in the vicinity of the hatch. The victim (the entrant) was inside the water tank wearing diving equipment to inspect the tank while a “spotter” was outside the tank. The spotter in this case acted like the “attendant” in a confined space entry. When it became apparent that the diver's equipment was compromised, the spotter “heroically” jumped into the space in an attempt to rescue his coworker. Ultimately, the spotter had to be rescued by fire department and technical rescue personnel. There are on average 100 deaths per year caused by confined spaces. It is estimated that 60% of fatalities that occur in confined spaces involve the “would be” rescuers. The spotter who dove into the tank was rescued but could have become the second victim in this incident for a myriad of reasons including a hazardous atmosphere above the water level due to oxygen deficiency, a condition that frequently occurs when a metal tank rusts and uses up oxygen. Entering a space without testing is risky, which is why NFPA 350, Guide for Safe Confined Space Entry and Work, recommends atmospheric testing all confined spaces prior to entry to ensure there is no hazardous atmosphere. Safe confined space entry procedures that include identification, evaluation and control of hazards in and adjacent to confined spaces are addressed in the guide.   The document provides guidance beyond OSHA regulations and explains “How To” comply with requirements in OSHA regulations, including best practices for entering into and providing rescue from confined spaces.   Prevention through Design (PtD) information is also addressed and covers safe design practices such as designing guardrails, anchorage points or other means of fall protection in or adjacent to confined spaces. You can view NFPA 350 free of charge on line at the document information page found at If you are unsure whether you have a confined space in your workplace check out this a free 5 minute video available. An online training program is also available and site specific training is also available on request. Click on the training tab for further information. Additional questions on confined spaces and the new NFPA 350 Guide for Safe Confined Space Entry or work can be directed to me at  

#101Wednesdays - Life Safety Basics in Assembly Occupancies

Welcome to premier edition of #101Wednesdays (with apologies and all credit to my colleague, Kristin Bigda, who inspired me with her weekly posts on NFPA 1 in #FireCodeFridays (be sure to follow her @KristinB_NFPA). Each week I'll explore an issue related to NFPA 101, Life Safety Code, and hopefully generate some discussion. My goals are to share some of what I've learned working with the Code over the last 20 years, and also to learn from you, the usersin the real world. This is a two-way street. I'm looking forward to getting the conversation started. In this edition, in the wake of last week's tragic Oakland warehouse dance party fire that claimed 36 lives, I'll review some of the basic NFPA 101 requirements for assembly occupancies. The first thing that is important to understand is, “What exactly is an assembly occupancy?” The Code defines an assembly occupancy as an occupancy (1) used for a gathering of 50 or more persons for deliberation, worship, entertainment, eating, drinking, amusement, awaiting transportation, or similar uses; or (2) used as a special amusement building, regardless of occupant load ( – references are to the 2015 edition of NFPA 101). For this discussion, I'll focus on Item (1) in the definition, which is a “typical” assembly occupancy. Item (2) refers to things like haunted house attractions, and the like. Based on the definition, two criteria must be met for an occupancy to be classified as assembly: there must be 50 or more people, AND they must be collocated in the occupancy for one of the specified purposes (deliberation, worship, entertainment, eating, drinking, amusement, awaiting transportation, or similar uses). If 50 or more people are working in a densely occupied call center, it's most likely a business occupancy based on its use. If there are 50 or more people in a large conference room, that is an assembly occupancy. The 50-person threshold is determined based on the calculated occupant or the actual expected number of occupants, whichever is GREATER ( With the occupancy classification established, let's look at some of the basic life safety requirements. MEANS OF EGRESS The importance of providing adequate means of egress from assembly occupancies can't be overstated. For new assembly occupancies, the general rule is at least two means of egress are needed for not more than 500 occupants; three are needed for 501 to 1,000 occupants; and four are needed for more than 1,000 (7.4 and For existing assembly occupancies, two means of egress are good for up to 600 occupants; the other thresholds are the same as for new assembly occupancies (13.2.4). Early reports indicate the second floor performance space in the Oakland warehouse was accessed by a single, makeshift stair. NFPA 101 would have required, in all likelihood, at least two stairs because of the strict 20 ft common path of travel limit for egress paths in assembly occupancies serving more than 50 people ( and In addition to adequate numbers of means of egress, sufficient egress capacity (width) is needed. As a Boston area native, I make an analogy to the old Central Artery, which was an elevated highway that snaked its way through Downtown Boston. Before the infamous “Big Dig,” I-93 was a relatively wide, three- and four-lane highway north and south of Boston. Where the highway hit the city, however, it narrowed down to two lanes in each direction. This narrowing resulted in traffic jams, day in and day out. The same phenomenon exists where occupants attempt to egress through a relatively narrow doorway or via a stair. The reduction in egress width results in queuing; the wider the opening, the shorter the wait time to move through the opening. Section 7.3, 12.2.3, and 13.2.3 provide all the details on means of egress capacity. If insufficient capacity is provided, the occupant load must be carefully controlled to prevent overcrowding and exceeding the available egress capacity, or additional egress capacity must be provided. An additional egress consideration is the main entrance/exit. People will have a natural tendency to try to go out the way they came in. In an emergency, if everyone makes their way to the main entrance/exit, the evacuation can be significantly delayed. For this reason, the Code requires the main entrance/exit to be sized to accommodate at least half of the occupant load. For certain new assembly occupancies, such as nightclubs, the main entrance/exit needs to accommodate at least two-thirds of the occupant load ( & (The two-thirds criterion was added to the Code following the 2003 fire that killed 100 concertgoers at The Station nightclub in Rhode Island.) AUTOMATIC SPRINKLERS AND FIRE ALARMS New assembly occupancies are required to be protected by automatic sprinklers where the occupant load exceeds 300. In addition, any new nightclub-like assembly occupancy must be provided with sprinklers if the occupant load is 50 or greater. For existing nightclub-like assembly occupancies, sprinklers are required if the occupant load is greater than 100. Otherwise, sprinklers are required for existing exhibition facilities that are more than 15,000 ft2 in area. Fire alarm systems are required in both new and existing assembly occupancies with an occupant load exceeding 300, and in theaters with more than one audience-viewing room. The alarm system is required to alert personnel at a constantly attended receiving station for the purpose of initiating an emergency response. Alternatively, the system is permitted to automatically provide voice notification to the occupants. There are some exceptions to and variations of the sprinkler and fire alarm requirements for assembly occupancies; see 12.3.4, 12.3.5, 13.3.4, and 13.3.5 for all the details. CROWD MANAGERS ALL assembly occupancies must be provided with at least one trained crowd manager to facilitate an orderly response to an emergency (12.7.6 & 13.7.6). (There is an exception for assembly occupancies used for religious worship with an occupant load of not more than 500.) Additional crowd managers must be provided where the occupant load exceeds 250 at a ratio of one crowd manager for every 250 occupants. Guidance on the required crowd manager training is provided in Annex A of the Code (A. and A. Crowd managers are an integral component of the life safety package prescribed by the Code for an assembly occupancy and should not be overlooked. Organizations such as the International Association of Venue Managers offer online training for trained crowd managers and crowd manager supervisors; go to for details. SOME FINAL THOUGHTS (BUT BY NO MEANS THE CONCLUSION) The life safety criteria for assembly occupancies prescribed by NFPA 101 that I've described here is only the tip of the iceberg. The Code has much more: interior finish regulations; vertical opening protection; emergency lighting; construction limits; seating arrangements; I could go on for days! (In fact, I frequently do when I instruct NFPA's three-day Life Safety Code Essentials seminar.) But hopefully this brief review helps you gain an understanding of some of the basics. It's still early in the Oakland fire investigation, but I won't be surprised if some, if not all of the items described here were missing. Let me know what challenges you encounter related to assembly occupancies. If we can keep the discussions going, and continue to raise awareness, maybe we can help to prevent future tragedies like the one we witnessed in Oakland last week. Check out my earlier blog post about the unsettling 13-year trend of large loss-of-life assembly occupancy fires. I hope you'll return next week for another edition of #101Wednesdays. Until then, stay safe. Did you know NFPA 101 is available to review online for free? Head over to and click on “Free access to the 2015 edition of NFPA 101.”
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