Protecting our past & our future

Protecting our past & our future

Guaranteeing the safety of our educational facilities has always been a challenge. Today the size of our universities, the diverse nature of the buildings involved and the sheer number of people present only serve to increase the complexity of this challenge. Protection is vital, however, particularly from fire writes Remo Notter Head Mass Market Europe of Siemens Building Technologies Division.

Fire protection is not only concerned with life safety and ensuring the uninterrupted daily routine of university life, it also includes the protection of the physical assets, such as the buildings themselves, the costly high-tech infrastructure, archived documents and manuscripts, etc. In the majority of cases, universities around the world are now self-funded and run along the lines of any other commercial organisation. Student fees and research grants (from government agencies, industry and private foundations) are a vital source of income, without which many universities would struggle to be viable.

The direct costs alone of fire damage to lecture theatres, laboratories or entire buildings could be quite considerable. However, the consequential loss of income resulting from the inability to provide the required educational training or carry out the contracted research work could deal a severe blow to the university’s income. It would also have an inevitable impact on its reputation and its ability to recruit high calibre teaching and research personnel.

Early and reliable detection 

Personal safety is generally regulated by law, while the protection of material assets is mainly determined by the requirements stipulated by insurance companies. Although the importance of asset protection should not be underestimated, life safety must always be given the highest priority. In universities and colleges this means protecting the lives of thousands of students, staff, technicians, support workers and visitors on a daily basis.

In most countries national and regional directives specify the required fire safety standards for all educational facilities. To meet these legal standards of safety and damage mitigation, a comprehensive fire protection system must be implemented. This system should ensure early and reliable fire detection, activate all necessary warning devices and fire safety control functions, and notify the local fire services.

Large, complex campuses 

University campuses often consist of a large number of buildings which serve a wide range of functions. These not only include teaching facilities, administration offices and student accommodation, but also libraries, a variety of specialised laboratories and high-tech research facilities. While some of these may be located in close proximity to one another, on larger campuses they may be some considerable distance apart.

The size and complexity of these facilities, together with the functional diversity and the fluctuating numbers of students and staff present at any one time, means there is no universal fire protection solution that fits all cases. The number of buildings, together with the diversity of size and usage, present a considerable challenge to the planning of an appropriate fire protection solution. Attention should, of course, be given to those critical areas where large numbers of students, staff or visitors are frequently present. Special attention should also be paid to those areas where deceptive phenomena (such as steam, vapours, dust, etc.) can be anticipated.

Applications such as cleanrooms will require extremely sensitive early detection, which can be best provided by aspirating smoke detection systems. On the other hand, the diversity of uses of event venues or similar large halls will demand a high degree of flexibility. Being able to modify the response behaviour of the fire detectors, in accordance with the anticipated level of deceptive phenomena, is an ideal way of ensuring this flexibility.

False alarms and thoughtless behaviour

The fire safety record of higher education facilities is generally quite good. One area that is always a concern, however, is student accommodation, where a high incidence of false alarms and minor incidents result in numerous unnecessary evacuations and fire brigade call-outs. The cause can frequently be attributed to careless or reckless behaviour of the residents and their friends (e.g. leaving cooking unattended, the use of candles or smoking materials etc.). Such incidents are a costly and frustrating waste of fire service resources.

More importantly, frequent unnecessary evacuations can breed complacency among some residents, which may easily result in a genuine alarm being ignored. State-of-the-art products, together with the relevant technical know-how, can now practically eliminate false alarms caused by deceptive phenomena, such as steam, cooking vapours etc. Correctly positioned multi-criteria detectors with the appropriate parameter settings for the anticipated deceptive phenomena are essential pre-requisites in achieving this goal.

Good organisation and management are also an important factor in preventing incidents resulting from thoughtless behavior. When students first take up residence, it is essential that they are instructed in good fire safety practice, which should be reinforced by regular follow-up training. The strict enforcement of fire safety regulations covering smoking bans, the use of candles and the misuse of electrical equipment is particularly relevant in student accommodation where careless, ill-advised behavior can put property and lives at risk.

The virtual elimination of false alarms quickly restores people’s confidence in the fire detection and alarming system. On hearing an alarm – because it is no longer a common occurrence – residents will react quickly and appropriately, rather than assuming it is simply another case of an unnecessary evacuation.

Early detection and prompt suppression

It is essential that any incipient fire is detected at the earliest possible stage. A rapid response can then minimise the danger of fire spreading and causing personal injury or damage to property. All colleges and universities must be fitted with standard firefighting equipment such as hoses and the appropriate types of fire extinguisher, to help those on the spot tackle any incipient fire. Such equipment must be easily visible, readily accessible and installed in adequate numbers throughout each building.

In many countries new high-rise university buildings are also legally required to be fitted with sprinkler systems. Of course, regular maintenance and servicing of all extinguishing equipment is vital in ensuring that everything is in perfect working order whenever an emergency situation should arise.

Smoke control and evacuation

Smoke inhalation is widely known to represent a very real threat to anyone caught up in a building fire. Consequently all possible means must be employed to ensure that escape routes are kept free of smoke. Smoke extraction systems and pressurisation fans fitted in corridors, stairwells and even underground car parks will prevent the build-up of noxious gases overwhelming those attempting to escape the danger area. In university and college buildings, smoke control should therefore be very much a part of the design process of any fire protection solution. Buildings should be compartmentalised by fire doors and fire-resisting walls and floors. Any customised smoke control system should restrict the build-up of heat and smoke, conducting both away through the installed vents and ducting.

A smoke-free escape route, however, would be of little benefit if it is obstructed by items left or stored there by people assuming that an emergency situation would never occur. Ensuring that escape routes are always kept clear and uncluttered (or used for storage of any kind) is a fundamental part of good housekeeping. Staff and student training, together with regular fire drills, are also essential pre-requisites in being fully prepared for an emergency incident.

Advantages of available solutions

Today’s automatic fire protection systems can provide early and reliable smoke detection, programmable alarming concepts to suit different site conditions and automatic notification of the local fire services. When a fire alarm is activated, the fire protection system can be programmed to activate location-specific control functions. The air conditioning system can be switched off and smoke dampers closed to prevent smoke from spreading throughout the building; pressurisation fans can be activated to keep stairwells and escape routes free from smoke; vents can be opened to allow smoke to escape to the atmosphere; elevators can be commanded to travel to a predetermined floor (e.g. the ground floor) and remain there with the doors open.

Of course, the programming of these control functions must be based on a detailed analysis of the building layout to ensure that the appropriate devices are activated, in accordance with the location of the fire.

The installation of a state-of-the-art fire protection system can benefit all universities, irrespective of whether they are traditional institutions with buildings of historical importance or modern high-tech facilities. Such a system will ensure regulatory compliance with all relevant legal, technical and safety standards. It will also significantly reduce the risk of costly fire-incident related disruptions to the teaching timetables and to the operation of the research facilities. By virtually eliminating the possibility of false alarms caused by deceptive phenomena, modern automatic technology restores people’s confidence in fire detection and alarm systems.

Open communication protocols

In recent years the vulnerability of students and staff has been cruelly highlighted by a number of malicious attacks on university and college campuses. The integration of fire and security systems (e.g. video surveillance, intruder alarms, access control etc.) into a common management system can go a long way towards providing the improved security demanded. This integration process has been made considerably more efficient by the use of open communication protocols, which also enable the monitoring and control of building automation systems (e.g. lighting, HVAC, elevators etc.) from the same management station. All systems can therefore be managed in a highly efficient manner from one central on-site location or even remotely from any convenient off-site location.

Effective mass notification in the event of either a fire or an attack on the campus can be provided via video displays in lecture theaters, communal areas and other strategic points. Alerts can also be transmitted automatically to the personal devices (smart phones, tablets, etc.) of students and staff.

Universities and educational establishments now have the choice of sourcing a highly reliable fire protection solution from a single source which will meet all the challenges a complex campus presents and have the potential of integration with other security systems into a third-party building management system.

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