Sounding the Alarm

July 1, 2000
Sprinklers can help contain a fire, but alarms and other early-detection devices can be more effective in warning students of life-threatening situations.

School administrators can do little to eliminate the chances of residence-hall fires. Rules and regulations that restrict smoking, cooking and other activities can reduce the incidence of fires to some extent. But it is not possible to police all the different ways a fire can start.

So, it is critical for schools and universities to have smoke-detection systems in place to alert students of potential dangers. Sprinklers can help contain a fire already burning, but the extra time that an early-warning system provides can save lives.

Sprinklers are not enough Sprinklers can be a problem because they can tempt students to engage in serious mischief-making. A sprinkler system can put out fires, of course, but its basic function is not so much extinguishing a fire as it is containing a blaze until firefighters arrive. Sprinklers help limit the spread of fire, but they should not be a stand-alone life-safety solution.

Because a false alarm or the premature discharge of a sprinkler system could cause serious upset, sprinklers are set to begin spraying at fairly high temperatures. So even before a fire reaches the stage at which it is likely to activate a sprinkler, it may have become quite substantial.

Most fire fatalities are attributed to smoke and toxic fumes, such as carbon monoxide, that disorient people or obscure the escape route. And smoke and fumes can be products of a fire that is not very large-often still smoldering and nowhere near the sprinkler-activation stage.

Timely warnings A sprinkler system can stop the fire from spreading and may even extinguish it, but does it make it easier and safer for occupants to leave a burning building? Not necessarily.

In 1987, Factory Mutual Research tested ionization and photoelectric smoke detectors, and quick-response sprinkler systems in smoldering fires. The test series was repeated in 1988 for flaming fires.

The testers built a bedroom setting and evaluated generic quick-release sprinkler systems and ionization and photoelectric-type smoke-detection systems. In a flaming fire, the quick-release sprinkler systems did not activate until the concentration of carbon monoxide had reached lethal levels, and the spread of smoke and toxic gas was so substantial that it almost completely obscured the corridor exit sign. In the smoldering tests, the sprinklers never did go off because the room never got hot enough.

In both the smoldering and flaming test series, the detectors were triggered in time to warn occupants to escape. The sprinklers activated in time to stop the spread of fire, but not before the fire seriously damaged the room.

A detector should be considered as the first line of defense in saving lives and injury in case of fire.

False alarms A basic problem in college residence-hall fires, for instance, is that occupants do not take fire alarms seriously-they have lived through too many false alarms. Misapplied or malfunctioning equipment may cause some false alarms, but most are the result of smoking or cooking-real fires, but in a relatively controlled situation-or mischief-makers.

Schools can attack unwanted alarms in many ways. For example, set up the detection system so that a room detector that senses a fire will alert security personnel and sound an alarm in that room only. The system does not sound a general alarm throughout the building until heat sets off the thermal detector in the room or the smoke gets into the corridor.

Applying this procedure to a residence hall would minimize the effect of false alarms from smoking or cooking in rooms because only a single room would receive a warning. Residence-hall personnel would be able to correct the situation before a general alarm is sounded. New application-specific fire-alarm technology also can greatly alleviate the problem; it can be set to ignore transient smoke conditions but respond if the conditions continue.

Dealing with mischief Mischievous false alarms usually come from the manual pullstations in corridors. You can take various steps to deter the mischievous use of these stations. For example, you can install a cover that can be easily removed, but when it is removed, an alarm sounds. Or you can equip alarm sites with security cameras that activate as soon as an alarm sounds. Another deterrent is a device that sprays infrared dye on the hand that pulls the handle.

Many colleges, for instance, try to give students who live in the residence hall some incentive for discouraging and preventing false alarms. Among the approaches that have had success: assessing an entire floor with penalties for false alarms, and expelling residents responsible for false alarms.

Technological advances Modern technology has made important advances in detecting fires and using sprinklers, but more work is needed to improve evacuation procedures. The present signals for evacuation-horns, bells, strobe lights and even voice messages-are still fairly primitive.

Some systems are available that could help, but at this point are not sufficiently cost-effective for general use. A radio frequency identification (RF-ID) mustering process, for example, could help ensure that everyone has evacuated a burning building.

The same industries that devised smart alarms and security devices should now focus on improving evacuation processes, including ways to re-route occupants to the safest escape route as a fire is burning. Technological convergence has brought together voice and data, video, high-speed Internet connections and more.

All too often, it takes a disastrous fire with loss of life to prompt action: tightening local laws and codes; bringing in modern equipment; and heightening the awareness of the community. That growing awareness, coupled with technological advances, may provide a formula for schools and universities to continue to promote effective life-safety procedures.

Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, is one school that uses a multidiscipline approach to life safety. The university has about 65,000 students; campus housing consists of twin, 24-story towers and some two dozen other residence halls. The towers are equipped with sprinklers, a life-safety system that includes ADA-compliant speakers and strobes for voice evacuation, and false-alarm-resistant, application-specific smoke detectors.

Robert Barnett, the university's housing-safety program coordinator, says that the university is investing $4 million in intelligent smoke detectors to upgrade its residence halls.

"Smoke detection is the way to go," says Barnett. "You get a much faster result."

Where finances permit, the best solution for protecting schools is to install everything: early-warning life-safety detectors, which also are designed to reduce the incidence of unwanted alarms; appropriate speakers and strobes, as well as voice warnings to reaffirm to occupants that the warning is serious; quick-response sprinklers to stop the spread of fire; and security systems to keep some track of residents.

Equally important, authorities should educate students that fires can lead to death and injuries, but false alarms also can lead to such consequences.

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