Author(s): Ron Cote. Published on January 23, 2014.

In Complaince - NFPA 101

A LOT OF INTEREST is being generated by a proposed change to NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code ®, that would nearly double the allowable smoke compartment size in hospitals. The issue could lead to a NITMAM and associated Certified Amending Motion for debate at the NFPA technical session in June in Las Vegas.

For the health care industry, larger compartments mean lower construction costs as well as lower staffing costs — the same number of personnel would be able to keep watch over a larger patient area. Supporters of a proposal 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) argue that new hospitals in the United States 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 also help assure 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. Proponents also argue that smoke compartment size will not be excessive, because a current code requirement that limits the travel distance to reach a door to another compartment to 200 feet (61 meters) has been retained.

Those opposed to nearly doubling smoke compartment size argue that not all new hospitals, especially outside the United States, are designed to the FGI guidelines, raising the possibility that the limited patient load intended by the guidelines could be exceeded. Opponents also argue that extending the increased compartment size to existing hospitals that were not designed to the guidelines will place too many patients at risk of a fire because existing smoke barriers will be removed to create larger smoke compartments.

In preparing to listen and judge the arguments that might be presented at the technical session in June, members should understand the terms "smoke compartment" and "smoke barrier" and how those features play an important role in achieving the desired level of safety in health care occupancies such as hospitals.

The health care occupancy provisions of the Life Safety Code employ a protect-in-place strategy, recognizing that patients might experience more harm if moved to the outside than would occur if they were moved from a fire area to a safe area located on the same floor. Safe areas are created by dividing the floor into two or more smoke compartments. The barrier that separates one smoke compartment from another is a smoke barrier. Travel between smoke compartments typically occurs via cross-corridor openings protected by smoke barrier doors. The health care occupancy smoke barriers and doors resist the passage of smoke and also are fire rated to help keep adjacent smoke compartments tenable well into a fire.

The presence of smoke compartments increases patient safety by permitting a fire to occur in one compartment (i.e., the fire compartment) while the other smoke compartments on the floor remain unaffected by the fire. Conditions within the fire compartment often dictate that patients be moved to a safe smoke compartment. The number of patients and the distance those patients will need to be moved must be weighed against the number and capability of trained staff who can be expected to be present. Historically, the larger a smoke compartment, the greater the number of patients it can accommodate — but those larger compartments also make it more difficult to meet the travel distance limitation to reach a door to an adjacent compartment.

For now, the discussion continues, and the debate on this topic at the technical session could be quite spirited. Stay tuned.

Ron Coté, P.E., is principal life safety engineer at NFPA.