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While water is often the ideal medium for fire suppression based on availability, price, and effectiveness, there are certain buildings, contents, and equipment that building owners want to protect from exposure to water. This is a common topic of discussion for historical buildings, irreplaceable artifacts such as those that can be found in museums, sensitive electrical equipment areas including data servers, and power plant control rooms. It has also been asked about hospital operating rooms and MRI rooms. Building owners and designers will often question if there are options to omit sprinklers and piping from these spaces or from the building entirely, citing concern over water damage either from accidental sprinkler discharge or from leaks in the piping.  

 

The alternative proposed by those questioning the need for sprinklers in these instances is typically another extinguishing system that will have much lower impact to the contents of the protected space. These systems can include carbon dioxide, water mist, or clean agent extinguishing systems. While these are effective systems that, when designed and installed properly, should activate and extinguish a fire in a space before a sprinkler is likely to even operate, their installation does not necessarily allow for the omission of sprinkler protection in that space. Here, we’ll look at some considerations when asking this question, why sprinklers are not normally allowed to be omitted, and some other steps that can be taken to reduce the perceived risks of water damage. 

 

Are Sprinklers Required for the Building? 

Determining if sprinklers are required is the best place to start and will depend on the locally adopted building code.  The mandate for sprinklers will be based on the occupancy, construction type, stories in height, and floor area among other factors.  Life safety codes, fire codes, and any specialty codes or standards related to the building, equipment, or contents that have been adopted can also impact this determination (more on those below). Generally, a person arrives at the question of omitting sprinklers after having, determined that they are required for the building.  

 

Can other suppression systems replace sprinkler protection? 

If the building is required to be protected with a sprinkler system, it is unlikely though we won’t rule it out just yet, that sprinkler protection can be omitted from certain spaces or areas even if an alternative extinguishing system is provided. There are several reasons for this but the primary one is that fire and life safety is complex and is part of an overall system where many different components work together in order to provide a safe environment for occupants, property protection, and safer conditions for first responders. Many allowances in building codes and life safety codes are based on the condition that a building is “protected throughout” by an automatic sprinkler system. For example, providing sprinkler protection can allow for less fire resistive construction type than would otherwise be allowed for the building’s size, reduced fire protection ratings for occupancy separations, increased travel distances, allowances for special door locking arrangements, and numerous other allowances that are not permitted for buildings without sprinkler protection throughout. 

 

Now, the fact that the building would require sprinkler protection based on occupancy, construction type, size, and any other factors makes the argument to omit sprinklers in certain areas more difficult, but it does not completely end the discussion. 

 

Does This Imply that Other Suppression Systems are Inferior to Sprinkler Systems? 

A logical follow up to these points is questioning if the codes and standards are therefore implying that other suppression systems are inferior to or not as effective as sprinkler systems. This is not the case. Specialized suppression systems can certainly be effective against fire, and are typically designed to activate at stages of a fire well before a sprinkler would activate. This provides increased property protection for the material in these spaces especially when the extinguishing media won’t harm the structure, equipment, or contents of the space.  

The operational characteristics of these systems are where the real differences come in. These alternative systems are commonly designed for local application or total flooding of a space and have a finite volume available. If a fire is not controlled in that time before the volume of agent is completely used, there’s nothing else that can be done. Sprinklers on the other hand, even if they fail to extinguish a fire are designed to be able to flow water for several hours or indefinitely based on the water supply.  

 

What Occupancy or Hazard Specific Code and Standards Should be Referenced? 

Outside of the broadly applicable building, life safety, and fire codes there are numerous codes and standards that apply specifically to special building types, types of equipment, and materials. These include but are certainly not limited to: 

 

 

It should be identified if these codes or standards are adopted in the jurisdiction either directly or through reference. The scope and purpose of these documents are also important to understand. Some, such as NFPA 75, will require sprinkler protection if the building is sprinklered, others such as NFPA 909 will allow sprinkler protection or alternative suppression systems.  

 

If sprinklers must be provided, how can the potential for water damage be minimized? 

If sprinklers are still required to be provided, there are several approaches that can help limit concerns of water damage in the space. Pre-action sprinkler systems, either single- or double-interlock can be used to limit that potential for water damage due to accidental discharge resulting from a sprinkler being physically damaged. Piping can have increased pitch, additional auxiliary drains can be provided, and thorough inspection, testing, and maintenance programs can be implemented to limit the potential for corrosion issues. Of course, the installation of another extinguishing system (while maybe not eliminating the need for sprinklers) can also greatly limit the potential for water discharge in the actual event of a fire if it is able to effectively suppress or extinguish a fire in its incipient stage before sprinkler activation. 

 

Summary 

The potential for water to discharge in certain buildings, on certain spaces with special contents, or equipment within a building can certainly be a concern to building owners whether in a fire situation, an accidental discharge, or leaking. Often looking to still protect the building, the contents, and/or the equipment, the removal of sprinklers in favor of an alternative suppression system is often proposed. While these alternative systems can be very effective for protecting the property in question it is not always as simple as a straight replacement. There needs to be awareness of the overall fire and life safety approach for the building and an understanding of the building, life safety, and fire codes as well as the specialized codes and standards that may modify those requirements. Even where sprinklers need to remain, there are approaches that can be taken to limit the potential for water discharging in these spaces. 


A question that we receive from time to time involves the location of fire alarm control units (FACU). This question typically comes in as someone asking if NFPA 72, Fire Alarm and Signaling Code specifies the location of where these need to be located.

 

The short answer is that no, NFPA 72 does not specify where a fire alarm control unit needs to be installed. The code simply states that the system must be installed in accordance with the plans, specifications, and standards approved by the authority having jurisdiction.

 

And there you have it. If I was writing this on a Friday afternoon, I could call this a complete blog and move on. But since I’m writing this earlier in the week (to post on Friday morning) and have a had a fair amount of coffee, let’s check out some of the other considerations here. 

 

One of the places where a specific location could be required is through a building code or life safety code. The best example of this would be in high-rise buildings, where the codes will require the fire alarm control unit to be located in the emergency control center. For almost all other buildings however, NFPA 1, Fire Code, NFPA 101, Life Safety Code, and NFPA 5000, Building Construction and Safety Code will say that the unit must be installed at a convenient location acceptable to the authority having jurisdiction. “Convenient” is always a fun word to agree upon.

 

As we can see between NFPA 72 as well as the building, fire, and life safety codes much of the final determination is left to the AHJ. Many jurisdictions adopt their own specific language and incorporate it into their building codes upon adoption or include supplementary information through resources or other means often available on their websites. Many jurisdictions will specify that the FACU must be located near the main entrance or it will require approval if located elsewhere. In many cases, where the FACU is not located near the main entrance, AHJs will require annunciator panels near the main entrance and/or other entry points based on expected fire department response points so that when responding to an alarm they can quickly assess what the fire alarm system is indicating including the zone or specific location the alarm is originating from.

 

Another thing to consider for the location of the FACU is that if it is not located in a continuously occupied area then early warning fire detection needs to be provided at the FACU. This needs to be done by means of an automatic smoke detector or an automatic heat detector where ambient conditions prohibit the installation of an automatic smoke detector. A new requirement for the 2019 edition of NFPA 72 also specifies the maximum and minimum mounting heights for control equipment as 6 ft (1.8m) and 15 in. (375 mm), respectively.

 

So, as you can see there is no definitive answer as to where a fire alarm control unit needs to be installed. For the most part, NFPA 72 and the other applicable codes leave that determination to the AHJ. Designers should be aware of any specific criteria within certain jurisdictions and, as always, getting buy-in from the AHJ as early as possible can prevent headaches at the plan review stage.

 

Have you seen any jurisdictions with rather unique criteria for control unit locations? What is the most interesting location for a FACU you have ever seen?

 

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As stay-at-home policies ease and businesses reopen across the country, building owners and facility managers of offices, restaurants, and retail stores face unique challenges as they enter “the new normal.” Working to adhere to public health requirements and guidelines in response to COVID-19, businesses of all sizes are adjusting their physical configurations and operational usage to help minimize employee and customer exposure to the virus.

 

In that process, however, adequate levels of fire and life safety must be maintained.

 

With these challenges in mind, NFPA has developed a new fact sheet, Ensuring Safety as Buildings Return to a New Normal, which works to help businesses meet states’ public health requirements while ensuring adequate levels of occupant safety.

 

The new fact sheet addresses guidelines and considerations in the following areas: egress management; queuing lines; occupant flow; partition placement; hand sanitizer storage and placement; automatic and power-operated doors; seating arrangements; and storage management.

 

NFPA will also be hosting a webinar on Wednesday, May 27 from 1:00-2:00 pm EST, which will include a brief overview of the fact sheet followed by a Q&A led by a panel of NFPA staff, including Jonathan Hart, Shawn Mahoney, and Val Ziavras. To register for the free webinar, go to: https://zoom.us/webinar/register/7915900923554/WN_pq1sSg-CSRuBIRxcVPV--A

 

As all of us continue to navigate the evolving situation with COVID-19, NFPA remains committed to supporting you with the resources you need to minimize risk and help prevent loss, injuries, and death from fire, electrical, and other hazards. For information on NFPA’s response to the coronavirus, please visit our webpage

My colleague, Robert Solomon, provides insights on fire safety and evacuation plans to I Advance Senior Care for the benefit of owners, executives, administrators, and directors of nursing at assisted living communities, skilled nursing facilities, post-acute facilities, and continuing care retirement communities. 

 

In part, Solomon explains that, "A large percentage of the population are going to be incapable of self-preservation. This means that your employees may be called on to use special techniques to evacuate residents." Per Solomon, evacuation should actually be a last resort. “One of the things we strive not to do in a facility like a nursing home is to get to a point where we have to evacuate anybody. Planning is centered around the idea of ‘defend in place.’”

 

Read the article and share it with your colleagues.

 

Many health care facilities have recently been cited because their generators are not provided with emergency stop stations. Some have questioned whether existing installations should be "grandfathered" since they were previously accepted. Many authorities having jurisdiction (AHJs) and accreditation organizations have determined that this is not the case and are citing facilities and requiring the installation of switches.

 

In this NFPA® Live session I reviewed the code requirements, including how long the requirements have existed, why these switches are required, and where they are meant to be installed. I received this follow-up question from a member. I hope you find some value in my answer.

 

NFPA Live is an interactive video series in which members of NFPA staff address some of the most frequent topics they receive through the Member's Only Technical Question service. If you are currently an NFPA Member you can view the entire video by following this link. If you're not currently a member, join today!


Failure to adequately maintain fire suppression systems in health care facilities is consistently ranked as a most frequently cited deficiency by accreditation organizations. In fact, the Joint Commission indicates that this was cited as “not compliant” in over 80% of surveys of hospitals and critical access hospitals during the first half of 2018.
 
In my recent NFPA Live I provided an overview of the code requirements and compared those with the expectations of surveyors when they are in a facility. I received this follow-up question from a member. I hope you find some value in it.
 

 

NFPA Live is an interactive video series in which members of NFPA staff address some of the most frequent topics they receive through the Member's Only Technical Question service. If you are currently an NFPA Member you can view the entire video by following this link. If you're not currently a member, join today!

 

Essential electrical systems are intended to ensure that when facilities lose normal power there is a reliable source of backup power that can quickly restore power to circuits and equipment needed for life safety purposes and those that affect the well-being of patients or are essential to the clinical functionality of the facility.
 
In my recent NFPA live session I discussed different branches of essential electrical systems, generator requirements, and their required testing and maintenance.

I received this follow-up question from a member. I hear this question a lot so I wanted to share it here. I hope you find some value in it.

 

NFPA Live is an interactive video series in which members of NFPA staff address some of the most frequent topics they receive through the Member's Only Technical Question service. If you are currently an NFPA Member you can view the entire video by following this link. If you're not currently a member, join today!

 

The storage and management of gas cylinders in health care facilities is an ongoing compliance issue. During my recent NFPA Live presentation I provided an overview of the requirements in NFPA 99, Health Care Facilities Code for their storage. I addressed the differing requirements based on volume stored as well as the criteria for the small volume of gas that is allowed to be stored outside of an enclosure.  nfpa 99 - medical gas cylinder storage for healthcare facilities

 

During the live event I received these two follow-up questions from members. I'm now sharing them with you. I hope you find some value in it.

 

Also, I've attached a brand new fact sheet that you can download on this same topic.


NFPA Live is an interactive video series in which members of NFPA staff address some of the most frequent topics they receive through the Member's Only Technical Question service. If you are currently an NFPA Member you can view the entire video by following this link. If you're not currently a member, join today!

NFPA 99
Each year ECRI Institute releases an annual list of the top 10 technologies and patient care developments it recommends hospital executives pay attention to. The 2018 list includes at least two items that have implications on how fire and life safety codes, such as NFPA 101, Life Safety Code, and NFPA 99 Health Care Facilities Code, must be applied. 
The two trends which building and life safety professionals should be most aware of are a trend toward acuity-adaptable rooms and the construction of microhospitals.
Acuity-adaptable Rooms
Risks in health care are much more than just fire and life safety issues. Hospital acquired infections, medication errors, and patient falls are just some of these additional risk and those are increased each time a patient must be moved from one unit or area of a hospital to another, such as from an intensive care unit to a step down unit. What some facilities have begun to implement are acuity-adaptable rooms which can allow for hospitals to keep patients in the same room from admission to discharge regardless of their acuity level. 
While this approach has several benefits to facilities and is a patient-centered care model it will also introduce many complex challenges that will have to be addressed in order to successfully implement. While many of these relate to staffing, equipment logistics, and clinical issues, we’ll take a look at the NFPA codes and standards impact. 
In looking at NFPA codes and standards, the most immediately impacted code application will likely be NFPA 99 in how these rooms will need to be designed in order to meet gas and vacuum system requirements and electrical system requirements. 
The application of NFPA 99 is based on risk to patients. Rooms with higher acuity patients, where the risk of a system failure can have significant impacts, require more protection. All rooms designed to accommodate the acuity-adaptable approach will have to meet the requirements for the higher level of risk. This will likely mean a higher number of rooms that need to meet the increased requirements for the higher risk. Some of the impacts this could have would be additional medical gas and vacuum outlets and inlets, increased number of electrical receptacles at patient beds, additional zone valve boxes, and increased loads on the critical branch of essential electrical systems.
Microhospitals
Typically designed with 15,000 to 25,000 square feet of space, microhospitals are a concept which has gained a lot of traction over the past couple of years. These buildings are neither urgent care centers nor full-service hospital but act as a way for health care providers to increase community access by distributing care throughout the system’s region without undertaking huge infrastructure projects. There is no definition of what a microhospital is or what services it provides. Many will provide a range of services typically found in traditional hospitals, including inpatient services and emergency care, but generally have a lower acuity patient population.
For some, these facilities, which are a fraction of the size of traditional hospitals, might seem to be buildings which can have a lower level of protection than what is expected in full size hospitals. This is not the case based on the services and patient population expected in these microhospitals.
They will need to be classified as a health care occupancy per NFPA 101 if providing care to 4 or more patients on an inpatient basis who are incapable of self-preservation. This threshold is just 1 or more patients based on Centers for Medicare & Medicaid -CMS- interpretations. The classification as a health care occupancy will require automatic sprinkler protection throughout the building and each story used by inpatients for sleeping or treatment to be subdivided into at least two smoke compartments. This could result in relatively small smoke compartments given the condensed footprint of these building but is necessary to provide the “defend in place” concept needed for  building occupants who are in a compromised state.
Medical gas and vacuum systems and electrical system requirements will be based on the risk assessment approach defined in NFPA 99. If failure of these systems are likely to result in major injury or death of patients or caregivers, then the most stringent requirements will need to be followed. A multidisciplinary committee should be brought together to look at the expected services and patient populations to determine the inputs into such a risk assessment.
NFPA Technical Committees and the future of health care
The technical committees for NFPA 101 and NFPA 99 will continue to monitor trends and changes in health care delivery to ensure that the codes are still providing adequate levels of safety to patients and other occupants of health care facilities in a flexible manner that allows improvements in health care delivery models of the future. Both codes are currently accepting public input for their 2021 editions until June 27th. 
For more information on NFPA resources for health care facilities see www.nfpa.org/cms
NFPA has launched a new online training course on medical gas and vacuum systems. The four-hour course provides a detailed review of the medical gas and vacuum requirements in the 2018 edition of NFPA 99, Health Care Facilities Code. It will satisfy criteria for ASSE 6000 series recertification, which requires a four-hour course on new editions to the code. The training also serves as an excellent overview for those looking to gain a greater understanding of the requirements for medical gas and vacuum systems.
The training addresses all topics in Chapter 5 of NFPA 99, including source requirements, valve requirements, installation specifics, installer performed test, and system verification. Changes to the 2018 edition are also addressed, including allowance for oxygen concentrator supply systems, changes to pressure regulation, and information on corrugated medical tubing as a permitted piping material.

While many health care facilities across the country are still adjusting to last year’s adoption of the 2012 edition of NFPA 99 by CMS, the code revision process at NFPA has continued. We are now only a short time away from the final approval and issuance of the 2018 edition of the Health Care Facilities Code. These changes may affect health care facilities that start new construction projects in jurisdictions with building codes that reference the 2018 edition. These changes may also come into play through the use of categorical waivers or when a newer edition is adopted by CMS.

 

Join me for a webinar detailing many of these changes on July 20 at 12:30 pm ET.

 

      I will discuss the most noteworthy changes that will be found in the 2018 edition. Topics discussed will include:

  • New language on risk assessments

  • New permissible material for medical gas piping

  • Reorganized electrical systems chapter

  • Revised medical gas storage requirements

  • New chapter on dental gas systems

  • Revised hyperbaric facility requirements

NFPA 99-15 Code Cover Front 2015While those involved in health care engineering and life safety for health care facilities are still awaiting CMS adoption of the 2012 editions of NFPA 99, Health Care Facilities Code and NFPA 101, Life Safety Code®, believe it or not, it’s already time to look towards the 2018 editions of each of these important documents.

It may be hard to get overly excited for a 2018 edition while still being held to the 2000 Life Safety Code, but the changes made for this edition will certainly impact health care facilities at some point in the future. Whether it’s through an eventual outright adoption of later editions of the codes or categorical waivers, which CMS has lately been using to bridge the gap between adoptions, these changes will have an impact.

Your voice is an important part of this process. Both documents are open for Public Input until July 6th. Submit your Input to NFPA 99 and NFPA 101  to have your say in what the future of these important codes should look like.

6a0133f27f7a03970b017ee803c544970d-450wi.pngOne question that I have received quite often since the publishing of the 2012 edition of NFPA 99, Health Care Facilities Code, is whether or not windowless anesthetizing locations still require smoke purge systems. The answer to this is that the 2012 edition does not require it. What had previously been in NFPA 99 and previously NFPA 56A was language that remained essentially the same for years and was in the 2005 edition as follows:

 

“6.4.1.2 Supply and exhaust systems for windowless anesthetizing locations shall be arranged to automatically vent smoke and products of combustion.

6.4.1.3 Ventilating systems for anesthetizing locations shall be provided that automatically (1) prevent recirculation of smoke originating within the surgical suite and (2) prevent the circulation of smoke entering the system intake, without in either case interfering with the exhaust function of the system.”

 

My research shows this requirement to have first appeared in NFPA 56A in the 1960 edition. The way it was presented and worded has been slightly altered throughout the years but the intent that the smoke and products of combustion be vented and that recirculation be prevented had remained. When NFPA 99 was reorganized for the 2012 edition the requirement was not incorporated in the new Chapter 9, Heating, Ventilating, and Air Conditioning.

In the current revision process the technical committee on Mechanical  Systems has proposed language that specifically states smoke purge is not required in windowless anesthetizing locations. The main substantiation for this is that the requirement is considered to be a relic as when it was first incorporated into an NFPA requirement the use of flammable anesthetics was common and therefore the fire hazards in these rooms was much higher.

99 12 Code Cover Front

While it seems like NFPA 99 was revised for the first time in seven years only yesterday by approval at NFPA’s June 2011 Annual Meeting in Boston, the development of the 2015 edition of the Health Care Facilities Code is already beginning. 

The public input period closed on June 22nd and now the Technical Committees  responsible for the code are preparing for their First Draft meetings in San Diego next month. The seven technical committees consist of experts in the various fields that are addressed within NFPA 99 including:

-          Electrical Systems

-          Fundamentals

-          Health Care Emergency Management and Security

-          Mechanical Systems

-          Medical Equipment

-          Medical Gas and Vacuum Piping Systems

-          Hyperbaric Facilities

Guests are always welcomed at NFPA technical committee meetings and if you’re in the San Diego area and would like to attend one of the meetings simply let me know. For those who’ll miss out on all of the in-person action but still want to stay informed, the NFPA 99 “Next Edition” tab will contain all of meeting agendas, ballots, and drafts of the revised documents, will keep you up to date with the changes throughout the revision cycle.

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