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Safeguarding our students.

THE SAFETY OF STUDENTS LIVING in college dormitories continues to concern institution officials, governors, fire safety officials, code authorities, of course parents--and the students themselves, as college newspapers attest.

The 1984 standards of the Building Officials Conference of America (BOCA) suggest that all dorms be fitted with interconnected smoke detectors in public areas, such as halls, stairs, and dining rooms. BOCA standards are part of many ordinances, but even where they're not, college officials, take their responsibilities seriously. Life safety precautions that meet, or in many cases exceed, BOCA standards are being incorporated in new dorm construction and retrofitted to upgrade existing buildings in colleges around the nation.

The problems and procedures for life safety in college residence halls are closely related to those for hotels and motels. In both cases, many residents are grouped together in a fairly high density. The unit of occupancy is a single room or suite. Occupants and their visitors come and go at all hours without--in many cases--the sense of stability or responsibility they feel at home.

Consider a block of college dorms built as needed and as funding allowed over many years. The most recent buildings are likely to be larger, lower, multibuilding complexes that were probably fitted as built with acceptable life safety systems. The older buildings are usually solidly built--like older residence hotels--and relatively secure.

The problem buildings are those that went up in the '50s, '60s, and early '70s. They are usually high rises that closely resemble high-rise hotels or motels. That type of construction requires special life safety considerations.

Fire is a danger anywhere, but nowhere is it more dangerous than in high-rise construction. Methods of high-rise construction have eliminated many of the safety factors intrinsic to older buildings and have created new problems. In many cases, fire alarm and extinguishing systems once thought to be adequate may not be enough to ensure life safety. Why is this?

Older buildings were built floor by floor, and each floor was a self-contained unit. The buildings were made of fire-resistant materials; walls of rooms were plaster or masonry; and few plastics were used. Windows could be opened, and fire escapes were supplied.

High-rise dorms seem even more fire-resistant. Halls and walls are usually bare concrete--low-cost and spare. Concrete certainly does not burn, but another significant change brought about by high-rise construction is not readily apparent: In most cases the concrete floors are not structurally connected to the walls.

Modern buildings start with a skeleton of steel. Floors are of separately poured, prestressed concrete. Outer curtain walls are then assembled around the skeleton. They serve as a sheathing but in many cases the floor beams do not penetrate the outer wall.

When a fire starts in an older building, it is generally compartmentalized. Solid floors, fire doors, and solid dividing walls localize and contain the fire until it can be brought under control. Windows can be opened to allow occupants to breathe should smoke penetrate the room. If all else fails, the fire escape is always available.

When a fire starts in a modern high rise, many of those control factors are missing. Most high-rise buildings have false ceilings, above which electric wiring and other utilities run in channels through an open plenum. The plenum also carries smoke, flame, and heat to other areas on a floor. Heat buildup is contained by effective insulation; but the curtain wall may warp or buckle, allowing fireproofing to spill out and heat to rise to higher floors. Even without buckling, the fire can curl around the floor slab and continue upward.

If a building has a central core for elevators, stairwells, and air conditioning shafts, heat, smoke, and fumes have unlimited access to the floors above unless the shaft is pressurized. Add to this the fact that the fire department's most modern aerial equipment can only reach up about 10 stories. Many dorms go higher.

In the face of all these problems, can high-rise residence halls be safe? Of course they can. The means are available: the same sprinklers and smoke detectors that protect low-rise buildings. The equipment must be grouped and controlled with more sophistication, however, to solve the particular problems inherent in high-rise construction.

Early-warning detectors, either light-scattering (photoelectric) or ionization types, are the first line of defense. Many codes and colleges require one in every sleeping room--certainly in corridors, storerooms, air conditioning and electric ducting, elevator shafts, and lobbies. Common rooms and cafeterias can be protected with smoke or heat detectors.

Sprinklers, too, have come a long way in recent years. One of the latest, the result of research sponsored by the US Fire Administration, is a unit for residential use that decreases response time and distributes water in precise, predetermined patterns. Decreased response time results from new fast-response sprinkler link techniques.

HOWEVER, ARMLOADS OF DETECTORS and miles of sprinklering are obviously not the whole answer in a high-rise dorm. Such a large building with hundreds of student rooms to be protected requires interconnected equipment. Another factor is the problem of student pranks and rule breaking. College authorities need to know if a fire is burning in even the most remote room. That is why one of the most significant developments in life safety protection for campus buildings is the microprocessor-controlled life safety system.

This advanced system is based on microprocessor control over a single pair of wires. Its integrated approach begins with addressable devices capable of sending information to the main control panel over a multiplexed communications circuit and receiving commands from it. As a result, the design offers continual supervision of all components, such as detectors, pull stations, and sprinkler flow switches, through digital microprocessing techniques.

All devices are automatically scanned, and any alarm is reported as a readout at the main panel. Most colleges also duplicate this panel in the security office or campus central monitoring system, and if desired, the same information can go to a central station or directly to the fire department. A system printer provides a hard copy for the record or for analysis.

Since each device is addressable, the system shows exactly which ones are in alarm and reads out their identities in plain language. The house manager, maintenance manager, or college security office can spot the exact origin of a signal, greatly speeding response. In a large college that has many dorms and hundreds of initiating devices, this ability to pinpoint a hazard can be invaluable.

A further advantage: The system is self-checking and self-diagnosing. Any trouble in its circuits is identified in the readout and printout. Proper functioning of the entire system may be checked from the panel or printer in minutes. Where false alarms cause a problem, sensitivity of devices can be adjusted from the main panel.

Addressable smoke detectors, interconnected through a multiplexed system, are annunciated as soon as they go into alarm. But a microprocessor-controlled system can do far more than that. For example, water flow in the sprinkler system can be identified through a flow switch and relay-interface module to the control panel, which can be set up to send an automatic call to the fire department and to alert college authorities.

Elevators can be programmed to return to the ground floor on the first alarm. From there they can be activated only by special signal or fire department personnel. Air conditioning systems can be rendered safe by use of modern duct detectors, which note a problem as smoke enters a duct and automatically shut down fans and close dampers to contain smoke and fumes -- at the same time telling the main console where smoke was detected.

Microprocessor-controlled voice and alarm communication can also be tied into the protection package. A specialized type of intercom, voice-evac, can offer alarm tones and taped evacuation messages and allow live-voice instructions. Like the smoke detector system, voice-evac can be zoned for maximum effect. Systems can also include two-way fire fighters' telephone networks.

The accompanying chart shows one college's experience: alarms for a typical month at Princeton University in New Jersey. Any one of the five actual fires could have destroyed a building. About 70 percent of the alarms were nuisance alarms caused by student pranks or rule breaking.

Princeton has 44 dormitories and other sleeping quarters. Its massive fire protection system includes about 5,000 dormitory smoke detectors plus thousands more in academic buildings. Anyone attempting to deactivate a detector head or otherwise tamper with one sets off a supervisory circuit that signals an alarm on the console as a system malfunction. The situation is promptly investigated.

The system at Indiana University's Bloomington campus was specified with cross-zoning, specifically to avoid problems with pranks. Each detector operates as an individual zone, so two detectors must operate to put the system into alarm. College authorities note that misuse of the system is becoming less acceptable among peers, as an innocent prank.

Officials at Duquesne University note that microprocessor-controlled system response is so quick that they have a good chance of catching up with pranksters. Since the startup of that school's new system, building alarms have dropped from about 10 a month to one or none.

When considering all the modern equipment available to promote life safety in dormitories, don't forget training. Alert, knowledgeable maintenance and security staff members can be invaluable in responding to an emergency.

Students should also be part of life safety activities. All new dorm residents should be familiarized with the system and its benefits. Both announced and unannounced fire drills should be standard--and frequent--procedure.

The steps outlined so far provide worthwhile protection for high-rise dorms. A few college administrations, looking toward the next century of progress, go even farther. They opt to network their microprocessor systems through a fire command center so all functions are reported to and controllable from one location.

For example, Duquesne University has four high-rise residences housing 2,000 students: a necessity of its big-city location. The two 17-floor towers of Duquesne Towers, the six-and seven-floor wings of St. Ann's, and the several floors of Assumption are linked through a fire command center, with 14-floor St. Martin's Hall scheduled to join them soon.

The center, with a color display terminal, keyboard, and printer, serves as the control and monitoring point for all systems on campus. All functions of each building system are reported and controllable there. The center is also the connection point with the city fire department, which is notified of and responds to every alarm. Security police have a base station monitored 24 hours a day, the logical location for the command center.

Carnegie-Mellon University has a similar center slated to tie into the central computer so security patrols can monitor fire alarms from any terminal on campus.

The goals of life safety are early warning, prompt evacuation, and speedy, intelligent response. All these goals can be met with advanced, microprocessor-controlled systems.

Occupants of a room that's on fire receive the earliest warning for safe, panic-free evacuation. Security staff and fire department personnel are notified in time to respond, and they understand exactly where to look and what to look for. If the fire burns more than a few minutes, sprinklers are activated to contain and suppress it, and redundant precautions are taken to prevent its spread.

Costly? Life safety for college students is a bargain at any price, but by today's standards it's also remarkably inexpensive. The new high-tech systems save money in several ways. Because they operate on few wires, they're quickly and easily installed. Because they're flexible, they allow the college to stay current, meeting future code variations and adding functions without inconvenience or great expense. Maintenance and inspection costs are also lower. But the cost of even the most sophisticated life safety arrangement is minimal compared to the cost of building or renovating a modern college dorm.

Robert Salamone is director of marketing for Cerberus Pyrotronics in Cedar Knolls, NJ.
COPYRIGHT 1991 American Society for Industrial Security
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:includes related article; safety in school dormitories
Publication:Security Management
Date:Apr 1, 1991
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