Fire & Life Safety: Educational Occupancies Get Life Safety Upgrade

June 11, 2013
IBC changes strengthen EVAC systems for schools

Q.   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 (EVAC) 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.

While a two-way communication system may be part of a fire alarm EVAC system, the local AHJ may also approve an intercom system. The intercom can also provide the required prearranged signal for returning to normal activity. Section 404 also recognizes that the lockdown drills not a substitute for the fire and evacuation drills already required for schools in other parts of the IFC.

Q.   My local school system is adding classrooms by placing portable trailers behind the main building. Do each of these new classrooms need fire alarm systems?

A.   Normally, no.   Trailers used for school classrooms are pretty much exempt from having fire alarm systems installed in them when they are comprised of a single room and have a maximum occupancy of 30 people.   Single room Amish school houses are also exempt for the same reason (well that and the ‘electricity’ thing). Mostly, this exception allows an ever-growing school system to add more classrooms quickly and economically with little or no additional risk. Each portable classroom comes with two exits.

Q.   If a fire alarm system is provided, is it required to be part of the main building’s system?

A.   No. It is a separate building set apart from the main building and doesn’t need to evacuate with the main school building. In fact, students may be much safer if they were to remain closely supervised in their portable classroom. If desired, adding a fire alarm system may be accomplished one of several ways.   The cheapest, and worst method, would be to extend the current building-wide fire alarm system to include the portable units. Adding a separate fire alarm system to each portable classroom would do the job, but then you would have the problem (multiplied by the number of portable classrooms involved) of off-site reporting to contend with. And additionally, annunciation in the main office would certainly be a requirement of the principal (again, multiplied by the number of portable classrooms involved).   If the present system is addressable, the best option would be to add an addressable relay that activates only the NAC for the trailer that initiated the manual alarm using an addressable input module. This would also provide the required reporting and annunciation at no extra equipment or wiring cost.

Learning to keep up with Educational Occupancy requirements now will help you jump to the head of the class when your state adopts this new edition of the IBC. With schools being funded more than ever to improve safety and security, watch your state and local websites for bidding information. As you know, learning is a life-long habit that can pay off handsomely.