Fire & Life Safety: School EVAC System Rules

June 12, 2019
A fire alarm system primer for new educational occupancies

New schools are graduating to modern emergency notification methods, also known as EVAC (emergency voice/alarm communication) systems – and the fire alarm system you install will be providing the primary backbone. With the ability to broadcast emergency messages both automatically and manually, our fire alarm voice EVAC systems may aid in the effort to keep schools safe; in fact, any new school building with an occupant load of more than 30 persons now requires an EVAC fire alarm system.

Here’s a closer look at some of the codes you should be aware of:

IBC Rules for EVAC Systems

The EVAC requirements are found a few pages after the fire alarm requirements based on occupancy in Section 907 of the International Building Code. This section requires you to follow the rules in NFPA 72 for the design and installation of EVAC systems. There are also optional features and functions that are listed, but not required by NFPA 72. Section 907 addresses this by providing a few paragraphs indicating which of these features and functions they want applied.

Upon receipt of a fire alarm signal, the system must first sound an alert signal (“tone”) to get everyone’s attention. After the tone has sounded (which is used for measuring the audibility level), an approved recorded voice message is to be broadcast throughout the building. Schools generally do not have “staged evacuation” as described by NFPA 72, but will normally sound a “general evacuation” message that will be in accordance with the building's “fire safety and evacuation plans” required by the fire code.

Schools must submit their emergency evacuation plans which must be approved by the state/local fire officials – ask for a copy of the school’s state-approved fire safety and evacuation plan before you program the EVAC messages, and how these are initiated, as they must be in accordance with those pre-approved emergency plans.

Manual Pull Boxes

Your customer may choose to forgo the installation of manual pull boxes at each exit if the building is equipped with smoke detectors in the halls and heat detectors (or any other suitable type) installed in the auditoriums, cafeterias, gymnasiums and similar student areas.

If there are shops or laboratories where dust or vapors are found, then these rooms must also be protected with heat detectors or other automatic detection methods. If they choose all of these solutions, you may omit all but one manual pull box, as manual pulls are often omitted when malicious activation by the student population may be a concern. The choice can be made by the school district and not the code official since the automatic detection “exception” is a pre-approved equal.

In case you were wondering, the one manual pull box still required by the building code may not to be installed in a riser room, as is the norm with sprinkler monitoring systems. In this case, it is intended that any building occupant have access to it, if necessary. This is why it is not permitted for this lone manual pull box to be installed in the attendance office or any other space that is locked during afterschool hours for club or intramural sports activities. Even if just a single teacher or janitor is present, the pull box must be accessible.

If the school system has chosen to install a fire sprinkler system in the building, you may still eliminate all but one manual pull box. No real savings for the school will be exercised since you will now have sprinkler alarm and supervisory connections to make.

Elevators & Duct Detectors

Do not wait until you begin wiring to notice the elevator. If one is present, you will have to install connections to provide recall service (if not a LULA-Limited Use/Limited Area).

Similarly, check the plans for any required duct detectors that may have to be connected. Remember duct detectors are required to initiate a fire supervisory (not alarm) signal. This is not a decision for the code official.

Optional EVAC Functions & Features

There are optional functions and features that you may elect to provide. For example, if the above pre-approved emergency plan includes a defensive lockdown feature, then your alert tone and message will be different from the fire alarm evacuation message; in fact, some of the areas may get a different message than from the message broadcast to the main group of occupants.

One-room mobile classrooms on the school campus – that are not necessarily provided with fire alarm systems – will still need to receive the other emergency messages the fire alarm EVAC system is capable of providing, such as student lockdown and tornado warnings. EVAC messages for the mobile classrooms should be on their own speaker zone where their custom message instructs them to go to their designated tornado shelter within the main building, for example.

The school’s EVAC system is permitted to be used for everyday announcements using a microphone.

Microphones are optional with some EVAC manufacturers; however, the IBC requires you to provide live emergency message capability. This means that at least one microphone must be provided so “manual override” may be performed by qualified and authorized staff or other emergency persons, once they arrive on the scene. Since the approved emergency plan may allow for the fire alarm signal to be manually overridden, a quiet and orderly occupant response is essential so that any further messages are easily recognized.

Greg Kessinger has been the fire alarm and codes expert and a regular contributor to Security Business magazine for more than 15 years. Please email him your fire & life safety questions for potential inclusion in this column at [email protected].