The Evolution of Fire Protection Systems

The Evolution of Fire Protection Systems

by Terin Hopkins

Much like the evolution of mankind, fire protection systems continue to evolve and provide higher levels of protection. We cannot expect systems, installed decades before, to perform and provide the same level of protection we have become reliant upon in modern construction. We see examples of these tragic fires every day across the United States. They are largely preventable with fire sprinkler retrofits. This is not to say that decade old buildings should meet all the new requirements for fire protection, but at some point they need to be retrofitted with some of the newer features we have developed over time.

Early notification is a great example, where we see tragic preventable outcomes, in buildings equipped with antiquated “manual fire alarm systems”. Today’s modern high-rise is constructed with very advanced voice activated mass notification systems, that allow first responders to communicate directly with building occupants during emergencies. This allows for newer fire service tactics like shelter-in-place strategies, staggered stairway specific egress, and the ability to design audible alarms that activate specific zones within the building. That’s a huge leap from a manual fire alarm system, needing to be activated by a building occupant during an emergency, that lacks the ability to automatically notify the need for emergency 911 services.

The Importance of Fire Sprinkler Retrofits in High-Rise Buildings

We see this scenario again and again in tragic fatal high-rise fires every day in older buildings. Many older buildings were not originally required to have some of those basic fire protection systems and have chosen not to invest over the years in upgrading or retrofitting to newer fire protection concepts. This issue spans the United States from the New York City Bronx Fire all the way to Honolulu Hawaii’s Marco Polo fire and the states in between.

Highlighting the need for fire protection systems.

Earlier this year Maryland suffered one of these tragic fires claiming the life of a young vibrant 25-year-old who lived on the eleventh floor of the building. The fire was on the seventh floor of the building built in the 1960’s and lacked basic fire protection required in all new construction for decades. This proved challenging to first responders and led us to this preventable tragedy.

The lack of a modern-day notification system did not allow the first responders to communicate with occupants above the level of the fire, ultimately not communicating to shelter in a safe location or give any direction. The lack of automatic fire sprinklers, again required in new construction for many decades, that would have controlled the fire and potentially mitigated its size, proved to be devastating. The requirement for automatic fire sprinklers is not only for new construction but has been a retrofit requirement of the national codes for decades.

Days after the tragic 3-alarm fire, estimated at $1.5 million in loss, displacing 400, hospitalizing 19, condemned 60 units and tragically took the life of Ms. Melanie Diaz. The building owner released a statement stating that “We can confirm that all fire protection systems within the building were in working order and were up to date on all code and fire safety requirements.” While this statement may be true, it is referencing the antiquated 1960 fire systems installed within the building that are clearly outdated and did not provide an adequate level of fire protection needed.

The majority of existing high-rises have been renovated many times over the decades, but newer life safety systems are rarely part of those building upgrades. Owners often avoid adding systems, fearing it will create a Pandora’s box effect, triggering new construction requirements. One of the things we must keep in mind is the fact that these decade-old buildings are not going to meet the modern expectations of today’s requirements for new construction, without a complete renovation. This is where we need to separate fire sprinkler retrofits from renovation allowing a path to upgrade fire protection.

This leads to the big question: what upgrades should be retrofitted and where do we begin the process. The simple answer is having the building evaluated by a professional fire protection engineer partnered with the local authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) that can give the building owner appropriate guidance in finding a solution.

The process should begin with basic infrastructure of automation. As discussed, many buildings have manual legacy systems and lack the overall basic requirement for fire sprinklers. Addressing automation and retrofitting the existing buildings with fire sprinklers is the solution. It should include review of the buildings basic fire separation requirements like self-closing and latching doors. This evaluation is not intended to seek out alternative equivalencies or to randomly suggested alternatives to the basic tried and true automatic fire alarm and sprinkler systems.

The planning discussion needs to involve all stakeholders in order to have a clear path and understanding of the scope of the project. We are not constructing a new modern-day high-rise but looking to add the missing basic fire protection infrastructure. This allows us to upgrade the level of fire protection within the building to provide an elevated level of life safety for the occupants without a complete renovation.

The completed expectation is a decades old building with some basic modern fire protection features that now provides a higher level of fire protection. This concept of basic fire protection retrofit is widely used in existing historic preservation, high-rises and assembly occupancies and continues to demonstrate an increase in overall life safety protection.

Do you Have a Question About Fire Sprinkler Retrofits? The NFSA Can Help You

If you have a codes questions the National Fire Sprinkler Association (NFSA) is ready to help! NFSA members have unlimited access to the association’s Expert of the Day service.

This service provides members with a codes interpretation in less than one business day! For more information on our Expert of the Day service, or to become an NFSA member, visit our membership page today!