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Managing Fire System Upgrades For Health Care Facilities

Overhauling fire and life safety systems in health care facilities is a complex operation. Planning can ease the pain

By Marge McAllister   Health Care Facilities

Health care facilities may seem like they’re perpetually under construction. On a medical campus, for example, outdated clinical space may be undergoing conversion to administrative use, while at the same time an ambulatory treatment area is being built. Meanwhile, the facility executive may well be planning an addition for specialty diagnostic facilities. In the midst of all that construction activity, one critical challenge is providing a flexible, integrated fire alarm system.

Obviously the system must meet current needs. But it’s essential that the system also provide ample spare capacity and flexibility to accommodate expansions and renovations, while complying with changing building occupancy requirements.

A starting point is a fire and life safety report prepared by a fire protection engineer. This report reviews current code requirements for life safety systems as well as building features that will be affected by or work in conjunction with the fire alarm system. The document also identifies existing fire barriers, smoke control systems and compartments, and automatic sprinkler system zoning. The report will determine how the fire alarm system will interact with these features.

Prepared in the conceptual design phase, the report helps to ensure that planning for fire and life safety systems is coordinated. Unlike a specification, the report is a living document, updated to address major building design changes. It may also be used to establish order-of-magnitude costs early in the budgeting and cost estimating phases.

The design team, which may include a fire protection engineer and fire alarm designer, should meet with the facility executive early in the planning process to discuss design parameters and operational requirements. The facility executive should be familiar with the existing alarm and mechanical systems and facility operations and therefore can provide the design team with historical data and information not always evident in design documents. The design team should also understand the intended budget and schedule. Designing a system without a firm grasp on how much time and money are available leads to problems.

Locked In

Another factor to keep in mind is that most fire alarm systems use proprietary equipment and operating protocols. This can make upgrades difficult because the facility executive is sometimes locked into one manufacturer for service and repairs. Part of determining whether to stay with the current equipment and service provider means figuring out if replacement parts are readily available and how many local vendors are available to provide service if the current provider proves unsatisfactory.

Often it is not financially feasible to replace the complete system, even if the facility executive is dissatisfied with the manufacturer. Nevertheless, it is worthwhile to make the design team aware of any unhappiness with the current system or service. Steps can be taken in the design and specification stage to build a less proprietary system. On the other hand, if the current product and provider are satisfactory, the existing system may be expanded.

In the design process, it is important to consider how the space or facility will be used long term, as shown in the facility master plan. There are different requirements for different occupancy uses. The current and future use of the space will set the baseline for which codes will be enforced.

Design Considerations

Depending on the age of the existing system, a fire alarm master plan may not be available. Even if drawings are available, space redesigns, renovation work or fire alarm system changes are not always documented. As a result, a site survey may be needed to create complete as-built drawings of the existing system. The drawings should include all fire alarm devices, circuits and auxiliary devices, such as door holders, smoke fire dampers, dedicated power circuits and control relays. It is important to identify the existing fire alarm system circuit devices and power loads to determine if the circuits can be properly expanded.

It’s important to define the system’s capabilities to determine if it meets the goals of the new space. The system should be intelligent, addressable and able to quickly identify alarm locations and provide versatility in controlling auxiliary life-safety functions. Older, conventional zoned systems rarely meet the needs of new medical facilities as space is remodeled or changes use. What’s more, conventional equipment often is more expensive to maintain, requiring costly sensitivity tests.

It’s also important to keep in mind that the fire alarm system controls or monitors other systems, such as suppression systems, HVAC systems, smoke control systems, door locks and security systems. This level of sophistication requires careful planning for both small and large projects.

As part of the design process, facility executives should review the current notification equipment, including speaker/strobes or horn/strobes. Sequence of operation and method of notification should also be reviewed. Although budget is always a consideration, the system should never be designed to maximum circuits capacity, as this will prevent future expansion or modifications.

In Case of Emergency

Many medical organizations prefer to have one emergency response procedure across the entire facility. The design team must understand what emergency response procedure will be used. Codes may require digitized voice evacuation, or the surrounding spaces may currently use a voice system for evacuation.

The National Fire Protection Association NFPA 101: Life Safety Code, outlines procedures for emergency relocation and building evacuation. If emergency relocation is used, the architect will design smoke compartments for that purpose. The notification design and sprinkler zones have to match the design of the smoke compartments. Generally, that means notification circuits can only serve devices within the same smoke compartment. The notification and relocation strategy may also require approval from the local authority having jurisdiction, often a fire marshal.

Another consideration is whether notification devices should be mounted on the ceiling or the wall. Many buildings today prefer ceiling-mounted devices because of the cost of repairing holes in walls during later changes. But the ceiling space in a medical facility is filled with medical gas lines, low voltage system wiring, power conduits, lighting equipment, pneumatic tube transfer systems and mechanical duct work — all of which can make ceiling-mounted notification systems challenging. Today’s health care facilities also have a growing number of non-fire alarm wall-mounted devices used to aid health care personnel with both patient care and data management. Whether wall- or ceiling-mount is chosen, devices should be reviewed on a space plan to make sure there are no conflicts with other equipment.

Facility executives should consider any unique architectural features that need to be preserved. Coverage patterns are dictated by fire alarm standards. Often by altering the candela settings or placement of notification devices, a system can meet code requirements while retaining architectural design elements.

Proper selection of notification devices and power supplies can make the system less dependent on one manufacturer. Many brands are readily available from several sources and can be used with most manufacturers’ equipment.

However, different horn/strobe or strobe products shouldn’t be mixed on the same circuit. The frequencies used by manufacturers often vary, which can cause synchronization problems. The specified operating voltage should depend on the length of the circuit run and the capability of the fire alarm equipment. All speakers on the same circuit also need to be powered or tapped at the same voltage. This voltage is also designated at the amplifier. The design must also ensure that notifications are audible and intelligible.

Facility executives should consider several factors when planning for location of sub-panels, amplifiers and power supplies. The number of power supplies that will be required depends on synchronization requirements, voltage drops, future expansion, circuit capability, dedicated power and floor space. Consider planning for 35 to 50 percent spare capacity on both initiation and notification circuits. This pre-planning may reduce fire alarm contractor costs for medium and small tenant improvement projects and allow for last-minute design changes.

Coordinating Efforts

Because the fire alarm system monitors and controls a great deal of equipment not provided by the fire alarm installer, design team coordination is critical. Any equipment interfacing with the fire alarm system should be identified on the design drawings. For example, devices to hold doors open for smoke compartments will be controlled by the fire alarm equipment, but are often provided as part of the door hardware contract.

The facility executive should provide complete mechanical system design drawings, along with any mechanical operation sequences, to the fire alarm design team. Smoke/fire dampers and air handling systems require control or activation by the fire alarm system. Smoke control systems, meant to exhaust or pressurize areas, will need to be planned in conjunction with the fire alarm system. Fire alarm systems controlling or activating smoke control system components are required by codes to be listed for this use. Additionally, the International Building Code, Section 9, covering smoke control systems, requires wiring to such devices be installed in raceways.

Many construction projects today tend to go fast track. Continuous communication and information on the most current design changes are crucial. The fire alarm design team will have to work with the electrical, mechanical and other teams, as well as the facility executive and architect.

The Bidding Stage

During the bidding stage, facility executives should be cautious about contractors offering value-engineering solutions. Of course, facility executives should look to the contractor for valuable alternative products or solutions. But these alternatives should always be filtered through and agreed upon by the responsible project engineer. Given the number of auxiliary functions and systems the fire alarm equipment must interact with, any change in design direction should be reviewed for all possible consequences by all parties. Value-engineered offerings should be compared against the fire and life safety report to determine if there are fire and life safety features that may be affected.

Installation Considerations

The bidding documents should request more than just a price from the contractor. Often pricing is based on a parts list or drawing take-off. Little forethought is given to how the installation will be performed. But this is critical for work in a facility that is fully occupied and in operation 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Renovating an existing occupied hospital pod may require a redundant system, or an expensive fire watch. These are aspects the contractor should consider thoroughly prior to providing a price for the work. Often the authority having jurisdiction is also interested in how existing protection and notification will be provided in an occupied space during the retrofit.

The design team should request a written summary of the installation plan. This written scope outlining the work will provide the facility executive with a snapshot of the installation method. This information can be used to prevent obvious project roadblocks and misunderstandings about scope while reducing patient complaints. An equipment list should also be requested. The purpose of the list is to verify that all bidders have included approximately the same equipment. All contractors should be asked for referrals from projects of similar size and complexity. It is imperative to contact the referrals to understand how the contractor handled similar installations.

Clearly, design and installation of a fire alarm system in a health care environment is a complex, and time-consuming endeavor. But health care facility executives who go into the process well-informed about the challenges ahead are more likely to achieve their goal: a flexible and integrated fire alarm system capable of adapting to present and future needs.


Covering All the Bases

After the fire alarm system contractor is selected, shop drawings should be reviewed for adherence to the design documents prior to submittal to the authority having jurisdiction. The design team should also provide construction administration services to verify that installation methods meet recognized standards such as NFPA 70: National Electric Code, or NFPA 72: National Fire Alarm Code.

The testing of notification devices can be a challenge in occupied spaces, but there are methods to reduce complaints. For example, if fire alarm speakers are used, one option may be playing soft music through the speakers while pre-testing them prior to inspection. As long as existing protection and notification is not compromised, this should not be an issue with the authority having jurisdiction; nevertheless, it is advisable to check first.

After the system has been installed and accepted, but prior to final payment to the contractor, several documents should be provided to the facility executive. These include a record of completion as described in the National Fire Alarm Code, along with electronic as-built drawings. The latter will enable facility executives to maintain a master plan of all existing equipment and system changes. The contractor should also provide in-person system training sessions and written operation and maintenance manuals.

— Marge McAllister

Marge McAllister, an associate designer in the Phoenix office of Schirmer Engineering Corporation, has 27 years experience in the fire alarm industry. She has worked on fire alarm renovations and replacements in numerous hospitals, nursing homes, assisted living centers and medical office buildings.

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  posted on 9/1/2007   Article Use Policy

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