By David W. Stroup, FM Journal July/August 1995
THE FEDERAL FIRE SAFETY ACT OF 1992 (FIRE ADMINISTRATION Authorization Act of 1992, Public Law 102-522) was signed into law by President George Bush on Oct. 26, 1992. This legislation was initiated in February 1991 by the House Science Subcommittee of the Science, Space and Technology Committee. The Act requires federal agencies to provide sprinkler protection or an equivalent level of safety in certain buildings. On the surface, it appears that this legislation only affects the federal government. However, this law has potentially broad impact on the fire protection and building operations communities, especially private sector building owners.
The definition of a federal employee office building is unique to the Federal Fire Safety Act. It is defined as any building, whether owned or leased by the federal government, that houses at least 25 federal employees during the course of their employment. It is important to note that this definition does not apply to all buildings, but only to those with more that 25 federal occupants. Also, it does not apply solely to office or business occupancies. Any federal workplace can be defined as a federal employee office building under the Federal Fire Safety Act.
The Act also provides a specific definition for automatic sprinkler systems that is critical to its application. Under the Act, an automatic sprinkler system must be an electronically supervised, integrated piping system with sprinklers which when activated by heat from a fire, will provide appropriate warnings signals and protect human life by discharging water over a fire area.
Residential properties that receive federal assistance in the form of a grant, contract, loan, loan guarantee, cooperative agreement, interest subsidy, insurance or direct appropriation, also must meet certain requirements of the Federal Fire Safety Act. These residential properties can be federal employee housing or other housing properties assisted by the federal government. Properties assisted through the National Housing Act National Homeowners Trust, Federal Deposit Insurance Act or the Federal Home Loan Bank Act are excluded.
New or rebuilt multi-family housing for federal employees must have sprinklers or an equivalent level of safety and hard wired smoke detectors. Hard wired smoke detectors must be installed in all other federal employee housing either by Oct. 26, 1995, or after current tenants move out, whichever comes first.
Sprinklers and hard wired smoke detectors also are required in federally assisted, new multi-family housing that is four or more stories above ground level. New multi-family housing receiving federal assistance in New York City must have sprinklers or an equivalent level of safety and hard wired smoke detectors. Rebuild multi-family properties that are four or more stories above ground level must comply with the NFPA 101, Life Safety Code=s criteria on existing apartment buildings. All other federally assisted housing must have hard wired or battery operated smoke detectors.
The legislation also contains requirements regarding pre-fire planning, implementation regulations, research and reporting. The Law applies to all federal agencies and buildings, except those under the control of the Resolution Trust Corp. The effective date of the legislation was Oct. 26, 1994.
Why all the interest in fire safety at the federal level when fire protection is not an issue? Per capita fire death rates in the United States are the worst in the developed world. From the life safety standpoint, severity rates (deaths per fire) are better that the rest of the industrialized world. However, there are more fire incidents per capita, giving the United States the worst loss record. In addition, billions of dollars are taken out of the economy in direct and indirect fire losses. Significant progress can be made in cutting these losses through the prudent use of fire protection systems and equipment.
Congress wanted to do something to promote fire safety. In the late 1980s, the Hotel/Motel Fire Safety Act was introduced. It took two ... sessions of Congress before it was passed but it provided a legislative baseline for hotel protection. Congress created the Federal Fire Safety Act of 1992 to serve as a model for local jurisdictions that were not doing enough to promote and provide for the fire safety of citizens.
The evidence in support of the Congressional concern is staggering. According to NFPA, to date these are about 30,000 fire departments in the United States, yet, according to the National Fire Sprinkler Association, only seven states and 34 local jurisdictions have sprinkler requirements that affect existing buildings. In addition, these ordinances have caveats, applying only to specific occupancies. Most of them exclude residential occupancies, the occupancy where most fire deaths occur.
The intent of the Federal Fire Safety Act was not to mandate the installation of sprinkler systems, but to provide proactive attention to fire safety. Throughout hearings on the Act, many groups testified that sprinklers were not the only system component necessary for fire safety in buildings. Congress listened to all of the information and crafted a piece of legislation that attempts to treat all involved parties fairly while promoting significant advances in fire safety.
The federal government chose to lead by example in lieu of imposing requirements on states and local communities. Many of the requirements contained in the Act were derived from the General Services Administration=s (GSA) fire protection program. For several years, GSA has required sprinkler protection in all new construction and in modernized long-term assets, not just in high rise buildings.
The equivalent level of safety option is similar to equivalency concepts contained in most building and fire codes. Alternative systems, methods or devices achieving a reasonable level of protection and meeting the intent of the specific code requirement can be used if the equivalency is proven to the satisfaction of the local code authority. The equivalency concept is provided in recognition of the fact that compliance with one prescribed solution may not be the best alternative in every case.
The General Services Administration (GSA) was required by the Act to issue regulations to further define the term equivalent level of safety. In developing the regulations, GSA held meetings with a working group composed of representatives from the United States Fire Administration, the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the Department of Defense, as well as a number of other affected federal agencies. Trade associations, state fire marshals, fire chiefs, consulting engineering firms, building owners, academia and research also were consulted.
The final (GSA) regulation was established in the form of a performance requirement (41 CFS Subpart 101-6.6 Fire Protection (Firesafety) Engineering, Federal Register, Vol. 59, No. 210, Nov. 1, 1994, pp. 54524-54532). The requirement states that a fire protection engineering analysis must be used to measure the amount of protection provided by the building in question. Fire is subject to the laws of physics; many conditions in a building can affect fire growth and development, directly impacting the life safety provided. The ability of a building to withstand thermal insult, absorb heat energy, detect fire conditions and control or extinguish a fire can be assessed from a systems analysis standpoint. Whether or not the equivalent level of safety analysis is being conducted for an entire building or just a hazardous area, the findings of the evaluation are valid.
In general, acceptable analysis results require that the existing or proposed safety systems in the building provide a period of time equal to or greater than the amount of time available for escape in a similar building that complies with the Act. In conducting these analyses, the capability, adequacy and reliability of all building systems impacting fire growth, occupant knowledge of the fire and time required to reach a safety area have to be examined. In particular, the impact of sprinklers on the development of hazardous conditions in the area of interest within the building must be assessed.
The (GSA) regulation provides three options for establishing that an equivalent level of safety exists. In the first option, the margin of safety provided by various alternatives is compared to that in a code-complying building with complete sprinkler protection. The margin of safety is the difference between the available safe egress time and the required safe egress time. Available safe egress time is the time available for evacuation of occupants to an area of safety prior to the onset of untenable conditions in occupied areas or the egress pathways. The required safe egress time is the time required by occupants to move from their positions at the start of the fire to areas of safety.
Available safe egress times can be developed based on analysis of a number of assumed reasonable worst case fire scenarios. Reasonable worst case fire scenarios are combinations of an ignition source, fuel items and building location likely to produce fires that would have significant adverse impacts on the building and its occupants. Additional analysis can be used to determine the expected required safe egress times for the various scenarios. If the margin of safety plus an appropriate safety factor is greater for a fire safety alternative than that in a building with complete sprinkler protection, then the alternative should provide an equivalent level of safety.
A second option is applicable to typical office and residential scenarios. In these situations, complete sprinkler protection can be expected to prevent flashover in the room of fire origin, limit fire size to no more than 1 megawatt (950 Btu/sec) and prevent flames from leaving the room of origin. Flashover is a phenomena that occurs in many building fires. For the purposes of the regulation, it is characterized by a fire in which the upper layer temperature in a room reaches approximately 1100 degrees Fahrenheit (600 degrees Celsius) and the heat flux at floor level exceeds 20 kilowatts/meter2 (1.8 Btu/ft2/sec). The times required for each of these conditions to occur in the area of interest within the building can be determined through fire protection engineering analysis. The smallest of these three times becomes the time available for escape. The difference between the minimum time available for escape and the time required for evacuation of building occupants is the target margin of safety. Various alternative protection strategies should be evaluated to determine their impact on the time required to egress from an area in which hazardous conditions have developed. If a combination of fire protection systems provides a margin of safety equal to or greater than the target margin of safety, then the combination is considered to provide an equivalent level of safety.
In order to offer complete flexibility a third option was outlined in the (GSA) regulation. This option can be considered as the equivalency option for the equivalent level of safety option. The third option allows for the use of any other technical analysis procedures, approved by the responsible agency head.
Equivalent level of safety evaluations must be performed by qualified fire protection engineers Engineers conducting these analyses must have thorough understandings of the principles of physics and chemistry governing fire growth, spread and suppression. Each analysis should include a narrative discussion of the features of the building structure, function, operational support systems and occupant activities which impact fire protection and life safety. The analyses should describe potential reasonable worst case fire scenarios and their impact on building occupants and the facility's structures. Specific issues that must be addressed include rate of fire growth, type and location of fuel items, space layout, building construction, openings and ventilation, suppression capability, detection time, occupant notification, occupant reaction time, occupant mobility and means of egress.
Analytical and empirical tools, including fire models and grading schedules such as the fire safety evaluation system, should be used to support the life safety equivalency evaluations. If fire modeling is used as part of an analysis, an assessment of the predictive capabilities of the fire models must be included. This assessment should be conducted in accordance with the American Society for Testing and Materials Standard Guide for Evaluating the Predictive Capability of Fire Models (ASTM E 1355).
Building owners, facility professionals and fire protection engineers should become familiar with the regulations and procedures for determining an equivalent level of safety. Fire protection engineers can be called upon to assist private sector building owners and facility management professionals in evaluating space that has been proposed as a lease space for the federal government.
Some buildings are excluded from the requirements of the Act, such as buildings that become federal employee office buildings before enactment. However, if these buildings are renovated, the requirements of the Act are triggered and sprinklers or an equivalent level of safety must be provided as part of the renovation.
Ironically, systems and analysis innovations developed in the United States are used as the basis for objective decision-making everywhere in the world but not in the Untied States itself. Hopefully, performing fire safety analyses will further the practice and acceptance of analytical methods in assessing fire safety within the United States.
While no one is advocating the elimination of sprinklers from building designs, there is a need to evaluate buildings that do not contain complete sprinkler protection. Often, local jurisdictions either prohibit or do not require full sprinkler protection. Fr example, the city of Boston does not allow sprinklers in telephone and electric rooms. GSA research in the 1970s showed that shock hazard was minimal and was significantly less than the potential for fire damage in these areas. However, the fact remains that many buildings lack these protective systems in some of the likely fire locations.
The need for fire protection engineering analyses requires a systems approach. All building systems and components must be considered (e.g., sprinklers and fire retardant materials to slow fire growth, interior finish limitations to slow or inhibit fire spread, fire detection and alarm systems to provide time for escape, and exits and fire rated construction to separate occupants from the fire area) and their impact on fire hazard assessed. The relative contributions and reliability of these systems and components must be measured. The National Institute of Standards and Technology is working to quantify this information as part of its charge under the Act.
Because a capital expenditure is equated with maintaining a long-term asset, it is expected that, due to its overall protection reliability and life-cycle cost, the full sprinkler protection option will compete favorably with equivalency options in federally owned or leased space. Where full sprinkler protection is not possible or practical, primarily in retrofit situations, the equivalent level of safety analysis done by a fire protection engineer or other fire expert can provide some technical basis for deciding what the impact of incomplete sprinkler protection would be and whether the building owner or manager should install other countermeasures to ensure safety.
Within the fire safety compliance arena, fire protection engineers and other fire experts are important partners for building owners and facility managers. Facility professionals and building owners must understand the requirements of the Federal Fire Safety Act of 1992 in order to institute federal provisions for fire safety in buildings. However, facility professionals and building owners have an additional responsibility. They need to join forces with fire protection experts to draw upon each others' knowledge of the statutes of the Federal Fire Safety Act and come to a more complex, scientific understanding of fire and fire prevention to ensure that safety provisions not only save buildings but also save lives.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: David W. Stroup, PE, has been employed by the General Services Administration (GSA) for the last five years. He is responsible for initiation and implementation of various fire protection policies; assessment of fire protection program effectiveness; and application of the latest developments in the field of fire protection engineering to the needs of GSA. Prior to joining GSA, Stroup worked for the Center for Fire Research (now the Building and Fire Research Laboratory) at the National Institute of Standards and Technology for nine years. Stroup has a bachelor of science degree in fire protection engineering and a master of science degree in mechanical engineering, both from the University of Maryland.