How to Be a Detection Detective

An inquiry concerning a campus-affiliated residential multiple dwelling provides a launching point to explore fire system code requirements. Find out how to solve such challenges and where to turn for further guidance.

An electrical inspector in a major city recently wrote me to inquire what type of fire alarm protection he should require in a college dormitory-type structure. “What type of system would you recommend for four-story student housing compared to four-story apartments?” he asked. “There are approximately 12 units, each with four bedrooms.” Whether the building is located on campus or not was not clear, nor should it matter.

Fire code on or off campus should essentially be the same, so far as minimum standards are concerned. But university safety officers may have rules of their own they want you to follow. The architect and designer/electrical engineer (EE) should consider all of this before submitting the stamped plans and specifications for examination by the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ).

Application-specific issues are probably the most difficult ones to sort out not only for an inspector but also for fire alarm technicians and project engineers. This is where a firm knowledge of Life Safety Code, NFPA 101, published by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), and International Fire Code (IFC), published by International Code Council (ICC), is necessary.

The purpose of these code sets is to provide direction on specific occupancies, such as multiple-family dwellings. In some state, county and local jurisdictions there’s a separate, institutionalized building code, like the Basic Building Code (BBC) in Ohio. In this case, use group designations follow those specified in IBC, also published by ICC.

This month we’ll take a look at NFPA 101 and IBC references with regard to our building inspector’s proposed application.

Confirming Structure Type

In this case we might assume the electrical inspector’s application is a student dormitory. Even so, we must determine what type of fire protection system is required. Thus we must look closely at his description of the project to ascertain the number of dwelling spaces and tenants who will be living there.

According to the inspector, there appears to be 48 units total (12 X 4 = 48). Turning to the index in the Life Safety Code book, the actual definition of a dormitory from the standpoint of code can be found in Section 3.3.59: “A building or a space in a building in which group sleeping accommodations are provided for more than 16 persons who are not members of the same family in one room, or a series of closely associated rooms, under joint occupancy and single management, with or without meals, but without individual cooking facilities.”

So the first thing we know is that the inspector’s application must fall under Section 28.1.4 of NFPA 101, 2009, which pertains to dormitories.

Determining Use Group

In his inquiry, the building official also wrote, “They are proposing another complex with eight bedrooms per apartment. Is there a cutoff to a standalone-type system with pull stations and smoke detection? Or can we treat this situation like a multiple-family situation and let an electrician wire each unit separately, and then use the house panel for interior corridors and common rooms?”

In most cases all we need to determine the use group designation is to go to the first page of the blueprint. Here we’ll find the use group along with other critical data. Typically it’s the fire alarm company’s responsibility to submit the plans for review.

In this instance, we are likely dealing with an R-2 Residential classification, defined as: “R-2 Residential occupancies containing sleeping units or more than two dwelling units where the occupants are primarily permanent in nature, including: Apartment houses, Boarding houses (not transient), Convents, Dormitories, Fraternities and sororities, Monasteries, Vacation timeshare properties, Hotels (nontransient), Motels (nontransient)” (Section 310.1 Residential Group R, IBC, 2003 Edition).

To find out what the R-2 classification requires in terms of fire protection, we go to Chapter 9, Fire Protection Systems, also found in IBC. Section 903.2.7, titled Group R, tells us, “An automatic sprinkler system installed in accordance with Section 903.3 shall be provided throughout all buildings with a Group R fire area.”

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About the Author


Al Colombo is a long-time trade journalist and professional in the security and life-safety markets. His work includes more than 40 years in security and life-safety as an installer, salesman, service tech, trade journalist, project manager,and an operations manager. You can contact Colombo through TpromoCom, a consultancy agency based in Canton, Ohio, by emailing [email protected], call 330-956-9003, visit www.Tpromo.Com.

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