Do new school buildings now require emergency voice evacuation systems?
A. Yes, due to one of two major changes in the 2012 edition of the IBC/IFC.
The first change was to reduce the minimum occupant load from 50 persons down to 30 for Educational Occupancies. This means that a smaller school must now have a manual fire alarm system installed; whereas in the past, a one-room schoolhouse (and trailer-type classrooms) used 100 eyeballs and 50 noses to detect fires and smoke. Little Joshua would yell “FIRE” and the teacher would lead everyone out—the handicapped included. These “portable” or modular classrooms usually have two exits where most brick and mortar buildings have only one exit from each classroom. And since the units are a safe distance from the main school and other classrooms, no protection should be required. With the new rules lowering the occupant load to 30 for any newly built Educational Occupancies, many more school districts will be installing or extending a fire alarm system to these units.
The second major change now requires the notification of occupants to be made using an emergency voice alarm communication (EVAC) system as the audible signaling method. The voice evacuation system then introduces a new option for schools, which is the ability to provide either staged or total/simultaneous evacuations. Since the IFC requires a Fire Safety and Evacuation Plan to be approved by the local fire official, school systems will have to have their pre-recorded voice messages pre-approved along with the evacuation plan required by IFC section 404.
Fire evacuation plans must include the emergency egress or escape routes and indicate whether evacuation of the building is to be complete or, where approved, only by selected floors or areas. Fire safety and evacuation plans are required to be prepared and maintained for all E-Educational Occupancies and F-Factory buildings having an occupant load of 500 or more persons or more than 100 persons above or below the lowest level of exit discharge. Since new Educational Occupancies must now be equipped with an emergency voice alarm communication system, the fire evacuation plan must include a description of the emergency voice/alarm communication system’s alert tones and preprogrammed voice messages.
Drawings and documentation
Since the fire alarm plans submitted for approval prior to installation are required to indicate the location of all manual fire alarm pull boxes annunciators, and control units, these drawings may be used to provide this new information required by section 404. This includes the locations of the school’s exits, primary and secondary evacuation routes, areas of refuge inside the school as well as any exterior areas designated for assisted rescue. This plan must also identify personnel responsible for maintenance of the fire alarm detection and notification systems. Hopefully, you will get a signed testing and inspection contract for your alarm company.
Section 404 of the IFC also includes the requirements for lockdown plans. Where facilities develop a lockdown plan, the plan must first be approved by the fire code official and must include instructions for reporting any emergency that requires a lockdown, including procedures for staff to report the presence or absence of occupants. Of course, the fire alarm EVAC system will be the best method of also notifying building occupants of a lockdown. The plan must indicate how this signal is to be distinguished from the fire alarm signal. For example, a temporal three alert tone preceding the fire evacuation message typically will be used for fire warnings. This is easily discernible from a steady alert tone followed by a verbal “LOCKDOWN NOW” message. Buildings adding a lockdown plan to their fire alarm plan must have additional equipment installed to also provide an approved means of two-way communication between a central location and each secured area.