Summer is a busy time at NFPA. This year, the Building and Life Safety Systems Department has been preparing for and staffing NFPA 101, Life Safety Code, First Draft meetings in Minneapolis; I am off to another week of NFPA 101 meetings this Sunday. In addition, the Fire Code Technical Committee will hold their First Draft meeting this September working towards the development of the 2021 edition.
While I am preparing in the office, a lot of students are preparing to head back to college, maybe on their way for the first time and have lots of preparation to do themselves including the ever-important shopping for dorm room décor; posters, strings of lights, wall hangings, and new furniture. It’s important to understand the fire safety requirements that colleges and universities must abide by and the various roles that students, building managers as well as fire inspectors play in enforcing these regulations and keeping students safe.
Here I will discuss the requirements specific to dormitories, where it’s most common for violations to occur related to furnishings and decorations. However, it is important to remember that college campuses contain a number of different occupancies such as business, assembly, and even industrial and the requirements for those occupancies may vary. Generally, the occupancies that do regulate furnishings and contents involve occupants who are non-ambulatory, who are otherwise restrained or detained, or who are asleep, such as dormitories.
NFPA 1 regulates furnishings and contents in dormitories in Section 20.8. The requirements are primarily extracted from NFPA 101 and are as follows:
- New curtains and other similar loosely hanging furnishings and decorations must meet the flame propagation performance criteria from Test Method 1 or Test Method 2 of NFPA 701. Hanging thin tapestries is a common decoration in dormitories. The testing requirements of NFPA 701 measure the level of hazard posed by draperies and other loosely hanging fabrics and films.
- Newly introduced upholstered furniture must be tested to ASTM E1537 and demonstrate limited heat release rates (a single furniture item cannot have a peak rate of heat release more than 80kW). This is not applicable to furniture in a fully sprinklered dormitory!
- Newly introduced mattresses must be tested to ASTM E1590 or ASTM F1085 and meet the applicable performance criteria. This is not applicable to mattresses in a fully sprinklered dormitory!
- Furnishings and decorations of a highly flammable material cannot be used.
- Bulletin boards, posters, and paper attached directly to the wall cannot exceed 20 percent of the aggregate wall area to which they are applied. This is applicable to inside dorm rooms as well as in the corridors and common areas. Bulletin boards, posters, and paper attached directly to a wall can behave similarly to interior finish materials with the potential for spreading flame. The 20 percent criterion helps ensure that there are not sufficient expanses of such materials, for which classification is unfeasible and unenforceable, that could spread flame more quickly than would occur with wall finish materials complying with applicable interior finish requirements.
While not part of the Code sections on furnishings and decorations, other Code provisions should be considered when regulating and enforcing this issue in dormitories. Decorations should never be placed on any fire protection equipment such as sprinklers or alarms as residents must not render any portable or fixed fire extinguishing system or device or any warning system or device inoperative or inaccessible. Candles are another hazard, on their own, and when used carelessly around furnishings and decorations. Section 10.10.2 of the Code gives the AHJ the authority to prohibit their use wherever such use is deemed to be hazardous.
Enforcers of the Code must be aware of the provisions relating to furnishings and contents when inspecting dormitories. However, some Code issues, such as regulating decorations or other parts of a person’s residence, can be difficult to enforce regularly. Utilizing campus safety personnel and residential staff can assist with spreading the word about fire safety. Educating dorm residents about fire safety is a critical part of their overall safety while living in dorms. Colleges should establish best practices for how students and residents in dormitories are educated on fire safety requirements and responsibilities including any limitations on furnishings and decorations, the presence of fire safety equipment and roles and responsibilities for emergency drills and evacuation procedures.
What Code enforcement issues related to furnishings and decorations have you faced while inspecting buildings at a college/university?
Thank you for reading. Stay safe!