Fire/Life-Safety Survival in the Great Indoors

Fire/life-safety issues for large venues such as shopping malls, arenas and big-box stores run the gamut. Installing contractors must grasp how to balance the tradeoff among system types, costs and coverage, as well as negotiate the sometimes conflicting goals and demands of others involved in decisions.

Americans like everything bigger: bigger hotels, bigger stadiums and bigger convention centers, to name but a few examples. But bigger is not always better as evidenced by the demise of truffula trees in the recent movie adaptation of Dr. Seuss’ “The Lorax,” supersized servings contributing to an obesity epidemic, and the challenge of protecting large indoor properties. Fortunately, where the latter is concerned, better technology and smarter planning can offer greater protection.

Integrated multidetection devices, such as those sensing heat, smoke and carbon monoxide (CO), are emerging to take a more inclusive approach to protecting indoor spaces. Voice evacuation systems for sharing important instructions are gaining traction and are borrowing intelligibility principles from similar public address system devices. These technologies, as well as aspiration systems and other newer devices, have great potential for detecting danger and improving egress in some applications within large indoor properties.

The sophistication of protection in large indoor venues varies widely. According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), Fire Analysis and Research Division, 15 of the 17 large-loss fires in 2010 occurred in these structures. Many of these did not have automatic suppression systems; some didn’t even have functioning detection equipment or “human error” overrode the protective systems. These 15 structures, which included several public assembly buildings and large facilities, resulted in a total property loss of about $369.8 million. Here is a summary of some of the other data:

  • A deliberately set fire at the 1.4-million-square-foot Roseville Galleria shopping center in California caused $110 million in damage.
  • Two fires were reported in churches, including the historic, 8,000-square-foot Provo Tabernacle in Utah, which reported a $15 million loss.
  • A 300,000-square-foot Louisiana restaurant and a 37,000-square-foot South Carolina golf course country club each had damages of $10 million.

Large-loss fires capture attention due to the sheer magnitude of the fire and life-safety challenge: How do you choose the right technologies to detect fires and protect people and property within facilities that could be the length of a football field or more? What is the proper tradeoff between system types, cost and coverage? How far do our responsibilities in systems design extend?

As cited in Home Insurance Co. of Illinois v. National Tea Co., a deli oven in one shopping mall store started a fire that destroyed the store and caused water and smoke damage to other mall stores. The trial judge concluded that the store in which the fire originated was solely responsible for the damage. The mall owners complied with all applicable building codes and, therefore, were not negligent.

In “Premises Liability for Shopping Mall Fire Safety,” John O. Hayward states that although tenants are liable in these cases, mall owners, who essentially act as landlords, should protect tenants from harm resulting from foreseeable activities taking place within these areas.

As the uses and designs of large public facilities continue to evolve, fire and life-safety system planners would be well advised to go beyond meeting code and protecting each party’s legal obligations. By incorporating longer-term thinking for diverse uses and occupancies, engineers can help drive more thorough and responsible fire and life-safety system designs.

Who’s the Client?

Admittedly, making the case for a more technologically advanced system can be challenging, depending on a number of factors, not the least of which is the client. When the client is a contractor in a design/build situation, cost is king, and the contractor may not appreciate any design that exceeds minimum code requirements. In that case, it may take some careful negotiation to convince the contractor to discuss with the building owners what levels of risk they may be exposed to with a minimum-code approach versus a more reliable or advanced fire and life-safety system.

Kevin Kimmel, a senior fire protection engineer with architectural/engineering firm, Clark Nexsen in Norfolk, Va., has designed safety systems for numerous occupancies and large, indoor structures. He says tuning in to building intent during the planning phase is key. If the architect and the client have spent hours in planning meetings talking about their design concepts and the beautiful interior for a new casino, then a design engineer needs to respect how important visuals are for the project.

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