Consider the Firefighter in Building and Fire Protection System Design

By James Knox Lathrop

This story originally appeared in the Spring 2000 issue of Fire Protection Engineering.

Fire protection engineers need to understand some of the problems faced by firefighters with fire protection systems during an emergency. For some engineers, especially those that are, or were, in the fire service, this is second nature. For others, it may take a little extra work. Unfortunately, it is not at all unusual to find fire protection systems that are very difficult for firefighters in the field to interface with. This may become critical to the firefighter who is working under stress during fire conditions and does not have the time to learn or to recall how a sophisticated fire protection or mechanical system works, or to even find important system components.


During code development discussions regarding performance-based design over the past several years, one aspect that was not frequently discussed was the role of the fire service. Recently, this has begun to be addressed and has revealed that not everyone was considering the same thing when discussing the involvement of the fire service in building and fire protection system design. Is it the role the fire service may play in providing input in developing the design? Is it the role of the fire service in making the design effective (e.g., there is a fire station across the street, therefore response will be less than two minutes)? Or is it the poor, out-of-district firefighter who, at three in the morning, after two other working fires that night, has to figure out how to deal with the smoke control system?

In reality, considering the fire service is not new. However, as this article will point out, this is going to be affected, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse, by performance-based design. How often has a building owner or designer said, “We don’t need to do that; the fire station is right across the street”? In the past, the authority having jurisdiction did not need to give a detailed explanation, other than “the Code requires it” (although more explanation would have been helpful). Such simple explanations will not be possible with performance-based design. However, many of these issues do arise even with prescriptive codes.

Also performance-based designs will lose the “similar” or “typical” arrangement that firefighters rely on in many cases. An example of this may be the exit enclosure in a building. With a two-hour fire-resistance rating no longer being specified, can the firefighter count on the exit stair landing as a safe area to initiate fire attack? This article begins with some of those issues that apply with prescriptive codes and then goes further with those that are likely to develop or become more problematic with performance-based designs.


Much of what will be discussed in this article can be argued against with a very simple “That’s why fire departments have preplans.” (Although truly a “prefire plan,” or “preemergency plan,” most fire departments simply refer to them as “preplans.”). Firefighters should visit buildings, especially those in their first-due area, to become familiar with the building and fire protection systems in the building. These visits should result in “preplans” on how to handle fire incidents in each building. However, preplanning does not replace the need for fire protection engineers to consider the firefighter.

Even with the best preplanning, what happens when the first-due company is not first in or, worse yet, is not coming at all because of another fire? Second- or third-due companies and maybe even second-alarm companies may be familiar with the building, but they will not have the same intimate knowledge of it. What if the battalion or district chief is from another district or is new to the district?

An incident was described to me where a very sophisticated emergency power system was overridden by a battalion chief covering from another district. The emergency power system was critical to the performance-based fire protection design of the structure. The first-due chiefs were aware of this; the covering chief was not.

Many fire departments have poor or no preplanning programs. Some may say that the lack of preplanning is the fire department’s problem and that they should do their jobs. However, that does not change the fact that many fire departments lack effective preplans. Others have a very difficult time keeping preplans or in-service inspections current. This applies to all types of fire departments but is especially true of volunteer departments that have a difficult time attracting and maintaining volunteers. Also, many of the intricacies of some building systems will easily be forgotten even with frequent refreshers. Trying to make all shifts intimately familiar with every building in the first-due area is time-consuming and simply not realistic.


Automatic sprinkler systems are relied upon to provide a minimum level of fire safety for many buildings. The effectiveness of sprinkler systems is reduced when the fire department is not able to quickly locate key sprinkler system components or the system is so complicated that it takes too long to figure out how the system works.

Keep sprinkler system layout simple. Sometimes it appears that the goal of some sprinkler system designers is to make the systems a challenge to figure out, such that it takes anyone not familiar with the system, including fire department personnel, an inordinate amount of time to determine what is going on. I recently stood in a fire pump room with another fire protection engineer, and it took more than 10 minutes to decipher the system. That was without the pressure of an ongoing emergency. This apparently is not just my opinion. A recent article by Russ Fleming, vice-president of engin-eering for the National Fire Sprinkler Association, ends with: “Most of all, we must seek simplicity. Simple wet-pipe systems should be used whenever possible, and sprinkler and valve design should be kept simple as well.”1

Properly locate and identify sprinkler valves with the firefighter in mind. NFPA 13, Standard for the Installation of Sprinkler Systems, requires valve identification. Some valves may be properly identified when the system is first installed; however, over the life of the building, signage is often lost or becomes misleading or inadequate. It would be better if the systems were designed so that the location of the valves and their function are obvious regardless of signage, although signage would be beneficial. Fire protection engineers should consider whether it would be obvious to someone who may have some training on sprinkler systems but was not involved in the design. While it might cost a little more to arrange it that way, the cost of water damage caused by water flow while it takes the fire department an extra five or 10 minutes to shut down the system could compensate for the added cost. The consequences could be worse if the valve was closed and should have been open and could not be found fast enough. Recently, hidden control valves were a possible factor in a fatal residential high-rise fire in New York City.2 If the valves were not hidden, in-service inspections may have found the closed valves. Proper supervision of the valves could also reduce this problem.

A fire protection engineer serving as a firefighter in a large U.S. city provided another example. Recently, during a fire in a large home improvement store, he was assigned to locate the main sprinkler valve and shut down the sprinkler system, as the fire had been extinguished. He undoubtedly got this task since the officer knew he was a fire protection engineer. Unfortunately, the building still had extensive smoke in the upper layer of the building. It was finally discovered that the main sprinkler valve was at the roof level up in the smoke. The valve was difficult to close because it had to be closed by a chain, which jumped off the wheel when it was used. Was it really necessary to locate the main sprinkler valve at the roof level where smoke would obscure it and a chain was needed to close it? Probably not, but it apparently was done by someone not thinking of the needs of the fire department—or anyone else who needed to work on the system, for that matter.

When planning sprinkler risers and siamese locations, take the firefighter into consideration. When not familiar with a building, many firefighters will look for the fire department connection as an indicator of where the sprinkler riser may be. When it is not nearby, valuable time can be lost. However, this must be balanced with a need to carefully analyze where the fire department connection should be located. NFPA 13 requires that the location be approved, which means acceptable to the authority having jurisdiction. Unfortunately, the authority having jurisdiction is not necessarily the fire department. It should be a requirement that the fire department approve the location, not just the authority having jurisdiction. Examples where the authority having jurisdiction is not the fire department are building officials, state fire marshal offices, and local fire marshal offices that are independent of the fire department. This does not mean that these types of authorities having jurisdiction never check with the fire department. Many do; but according to NFPA 13, they are not required to. It is not at all uncommon to find fire department connections behind bushes, on the back of the building with no vehicle access, too high, or in some cases on another building. Again, the argument against locating fire department connections in obvious locations will be aesthetics and some added cost. But if the fire department were considered from the very beginning of the design, some of the added cost and aesthetic problems could be avoided.

There are several questions to answer when determining where to place a fire department siamese connection. Where is the nearest fire hydrant? Where is the fire apparatus going to come from most of the time? What does the landscape architect have planned? Or if there is no landscape architect, where is the owner likely to plant bushes? How will snow or other weather conditions affect access to the fire department connection for the sprinkler system? Should a freestanding connection be used? But most important, the fire department should be contacted regarding fire department connection locations. Some smaller fire departments may need assistance in determining an appropriate location. The designer can assist by taking into consideration the above questions. Most larger fire departments will know exactly where they want the connection.

An example of a recently encountered problem, a situation involved fire department connections for buildings in a prison. The designer specified the fire department connections in the “usual place”—i.e., without regard to fire department needs but which involved the shortest amount of pipe (the cheapest way). The fire department was given a courtesy review of the plans and noted the amount of hose that would have to be laid inside of the compound to hook up to the connections. Fortunately, prison officials were supportive of the fire department’s concern since they did not want large quantities of hose within the compound. Revisions were made so that the fire department connection location for each building was standardized on the end of each building closest to the fire hydrant. In fact, the private fire service mains and fire hydrants were rearranged so that every building had a fire hydrant, and it was located near the end of the building most convenient to the approach of the fire apparatus. By doing this, very little hose would be required within the secure compound. This reduced security concerns for the prison administration and reduced time for the fire department to connect to the sprinkler system, as well as increased the overall level of safety.

Another consideration with regard to fire department connections for sprinkler and standpipe systems is the potential for using freestanding fire department connections (fire department connections not mounted to the building but usually out near the street). Falling glass in high-rise buildings is a serious problem for firefighters. Although most of the experience with falling glass shards has been in nonsprinklered or partially sprinklered buildings, this does not mean that it could not occur during fires in sprinklered buildings. Also, there is at least one case that the NFPA investigated3 where a firefighter was killed because of a wall collapse while working at a fire department connection. A freestanding connection may not be needed and in fact may be undesirable in some situations (freezing, corrosion, and vandalism are some undesirable aspects); however, they should still be considered. Prisons again are another good example of where freestanding connections installed outside the fence lines could be a benefit. Keeping hoselines, fire department vehicles, and firefighters outside the fence line improves firefighter safety and prison security.

Admittedly, it is not always going to be possible to put the fire department connection in a convenient location and at the same time have it near the risers. Many designers strive for an efficient and cost-effective system. Sacrificing some short term cost-effectiveness for more efficiency and user-friendliness may be more advisable and in the long run may be more cost-effective.

Assure fire department connections are compatible with fire department threads. It is amazing that, to this day, threads in fire department connections (the siamese for sprinklers and standpipes, as well as for fire department hoses on standpipe systems) are occasionally incompatible with the threads of fire department hoses. One of the important lessons learned from the major conflagrations of the past century was the need for standard fire department hose connections. NFPA 1963, Standard for Fire Hose Connections, provides for standard fire hose threads. Although there have been improvements, there are still numerous types of threads in use. It is imperative to determine local threads before installing couplings for fire department connections. Also, the type of cap on the connection is important. With extensive vandalism to these connections, some fire departments are using caps that provide security. It is important that these be standardized.


Modern fire alarm systems can greatly improve life safety. But these same systems can be designed to be either very firefighter-friendly or decidedly unfriendly. Here is one area where working with the fire department, or at least having an understanding of the concerns, can have a significant benefit to building fire safety. Trying to predict what the fire department wants is almost impossible. One example is the location of fire alarm controls and annunciators.

Locate control and annunciator panels where they will best serve the firefighter. At least one model building code4 requires that in high-rise buildings, fire alarm controls be located in a one-hour rated room. Many chief officers would rather have such equipment in the lobby. This does not make the requirement wrong; it just points out that not all fire departments operate in the same manner. Therefore, the fire alarm designer needs to confer with the fire department first. Fortunately, all three major model building codes (4)5, 6 in the United States do require that for high-rise buildings the central control station with fire alarm controls be in a location approved by the fire department. NFPA 101, Life Safety CodeT, requires that such controls be at “a convenient location acceptable to the authority having jurisdiction.”7 If the authority having jurisdiction is not the local fire department, the designer could be missing important input for a user-friendly design.

An example from a small town with a combination paid-volunteer fire department can be used to illustrate this point. A new building protected by automatic sprinklers was being built. When the fire department was asked about the fire alarm system, it requested a remote weather-resistant annunciator outside, adjacent to the fire department sprinkler connection. The logic was that during the day when staffing was low, the first crew could connect to the sprinkler system and determine the alarm location at the same time, saving both time and, in this case, personnel.

Arrange and identify fire alarm zones so that the firefighter can understand them quickly. With regard to annunciators, two additional issues are often a problem for fire departments: zoning and identification of zones. Zones sometimes appear to be created in buildings for the convenience of the fire alarm installer or designer. However, these people are not the ones that are called upon to fight a hostile fire in the building. Zones should be established that are logical to someone that might have little or no familiarity with the building. The NFPA Life Safety CodeT (7) has a useful provision that allows fire alarm zoning to coincide with sprinkler zones, even though NFPA 13 and NFPA 72, National Fire Alarm Code, have different area requirements. The Life Safety CodeT also allows both of these systems to be zoned to coincide with the smoke compartment requirements of health care facilities. This makes finding the alarm zone much easier. This kind of forethought on the part of the fire protection engineer can save precious time during an emergency as well as get firefighting equipment back in service quicker from false or nuisance alarms.

The identification of zones can be a big problem, especially in smaller buildings that use “simpler systems.” Here the zones are only identified by a light on the panel or a number. Determining where in the building the number corresponds may be difficult. Originally there may have been a piece of paper with a legend, but that may be either gone, out of date, or faded. Building or tenant space renovations can make the legend inaccurate. Zone identification should be simple and be able to withstand possible renovations—for example, “third floor east wing” rather than “XYZ Company.” XYZ may move, but east is east, and rarely does the third floor move. It may be beneficial to indicate north if compass directions are used. As noted earlier, first-due companies may be aware of where north is, but they might not be first in. Also, winding roads can easily confuse one’s “internal” compass.

Markings for the annunciator must be durable. Sometimes annunciators appear to have been prepared by a fire alarm contractor who used disappearing ink to indicate the zones. The light may be on but it tells nothing as to the location of the fire.

Keep controls and annunciators simple and consistent. Another problem for firefighters is the difference in fire alarm control panels. Even with extensive preplanning, the numerous fire alarm systems in any company’s first-due area (and don’t forget, the first-due company might not be there) combined with the fact that almost no two fire alarm control panels operate the same create a nightmare for firefighters. One saving factor is that the more complex the system is, the larger the building and the greater chance that there is someone there 24 hours a day. Hopefully, that person is well trained on the operation of the fire alarm system. In fact, at least one major city in the United States does require that larger buildings must have a fire safety director on duty within the facility 24 hours a day. This person must be certified and be familiar with all the fire protection features within the building. This fire safety director mandate recognizes the problem with building/systems complexity, and few fire departments have this benefit. Again, when designing fire alarm control panels, remember the firefighter that will have to interface with it. Make it obvious how the various functions work and label the panel with clear instructions.

A former county fire department fire protection engineer provided information about an instance where the design of a graphic annunciator for a seven-story building was far too complicated to expect responding firefighters to interpret the annunciator effectively. The nomenclature used to describe the zones was logical to the engineer and the systems designer but was essentially meaningless to a firefighter since it did not relate well to the firefighter’s perception of the building layout. The zones were not sufficiently descriptive of the building and did not reflect the sprinkler system zone boundaries, fire pump location, or location of the fire command station. Integrated into the graphic panel was an overwhelming smoke control graphic. The graphic was very impressive from an engineering perspective but was not at all user-friendly.


Smoke control systems are used to limit the spread of smoke beyond the area or floor of fire origin. Each smoke control system is designed for a specific building. Therefore, of all the systems in the area of fire protection for buildings, smoke control systems could easily be nominated for the one that could cause the most problem for firefighters.

Make smoke control systems understandable to those that must use them—the firefighters. The lack of consistency with these systems and the resulting dangers that could result are significant. Probably the biggest contributor to this problem is the lack of standards that can be referenced. Although there are several good references, most are guides or recommendations. As a result, there is little consistency between systems. Both Ford and Colt demonstrated the advantages of interchangeable parts. In fire protection, there are advantages of consistency between systems of the same type. Although it can be argued that each smoke control system is unique to the building, there are many items that could be standardized to make it easier for the firefighter to use. One example that was recently debated at the 1999 ICC hearings in Costa Mesa, California,8 involves the color of indicator lights on the smoke control panel. When does one use—green, yellow, red? Does green mean normal or does green mean open? This may not be important on an individual project since the designer and the building owner know what it means. A firefighter may have a dozen smoke control systems in his first-due area and they all are different; consistency could be very important. And if the first-due company is not the first arriving, they will have to learn the legend very quickly. Here is where standards would be very beneficial. However, when performance-based codes are used, a standard may not be followed.

In general, smoke control systems tend to be too complicated and susceptible to adjustment by unqualified people. With many systems, it is very easy for the firefighter to make simple mistakes that result in big problems. It is not uncommon to hear firefighters say that the first thing you do with a smoke control system is disable it. It is not very beneficial to design a system, spend the money to install it, have it part of a fire safety plan, and have the very people who respond to the emergency not use it (or worse, abuse it) because it is too complicated.


The day of performance-based codes and standards is here (or rapidly approaching depending upon how you look at it). Almost every publication dealing with fire and building safety standards has recently had articles discussing performance-based codes and standards. To some people, this is long overdue; to others, it is a disaster waiting to happen; to still others, it is another way of doing “equivalencies.” The merit, or lack thereof, of performance-based codes and standards is not within the scope of this article. However, the possible effect on the firefighter doing his job is.

There are already some architects/engineers who want to use the fire department as part of the design. In other words, “we don’t have to put XYZ in the building because the fire station is only two blocks away.” This can generate numerous problems depending on what the XYZ is. There are so many questions that must be answered. What if that station is empty for any number of reasons (another fire, training, repairs, inspection duty) at the time of a fire? What if an out-of-district company is in the station during a major emergency? One major U.S. city takes less-busy companies and puts them in busier stations a couple of times a week to keep up their skills. They are not in familiar territory at that time. What if response patterns are temporarily changed because of street work? What if the station is closed (some may remember the 1970s, when num-erous fire stations were closed during severe municipal budget cuts, and this issue continues to this day)? It would be interesting to see a major building shut down or have to make major renovations because the city council closed a fire station. (This might be a new approach to keep stations open—have at least one performance-based design building in each district based on fire department response.) What if the fire department in general is delayed because of weather, numerous calls, or another reason? What if permanent street closures or re-arrangements alter response patterns? These and more must all be answered satisfactorily before any such consideration can be given. There may be cases where it is warranted, but in my opinion, they will be relatively rare and not for any significant fire protection feature.

A fire protection engineer for a major U.S. government agency related one example of using the fire department in this manner. This involved the use of a federal fire department in the evaluation of a building. In this case, there is more control on the existence of the fire station. However, many of the questions above would still need to be addressed.

Earlier, this article discussed problems with systems based on prescriptive codes and standards with regard to user-friendliness. Performance-based codes and standards will magnify almost everything discussed before (sometimes for better, sometimes for worse). This is not intended to be a doomsday type of warning. But it is intended to alert fire protection engineers to the fact that the needs of the fire service must be a factor in performance-based designs.

Up to this point, many of the “performance-based” designs that have been described in various journals and discussed at various conferences have really been a performance-based approach to address one or two issues in an otherwise prescriptive-based design. Some may refer to this as “performance-based equivalencies.” This may address the need to reduce structural fire resistance, increase travel distance, reduce the number of exits, and similar issues. With these types of issues, there is little impact on the fire service. Note that I did not say no impact, since there can be some. For example, if there are fewer exits or longer travel distances, firefighter access must be considered. The paths that civilians use to get out are the same paths that firefighters must use in most cases to get in. Standpipe connections are usually required at exits. Longer travel distances would impact fire department operations since the distance from standpipe connections might also be longer. If the design stays with connections at the exits, there could be significant problems with the amount of hose a firefighter will have to carry as well as put in service. With standpipe connections at the horizontal exits or exit stairs, firefighters have an area of protection to make connections and prepare the hose for water. Locating connections out on the floor could decrease the protection afforded to firefighters setting up the hoselines. Although this can be an issue with some prescription-based designs, it could be even more of a problem if travel distances are increased in performance-based designs.

Many of these buildings have “standard” fire alarm systems, sprinkler systems, standpipe systems, exits, emergency lighting, and so on. One of the issues mentioned earlier is that the fire service takes many actions based on “typical” scenarios. This may just be based on an individual’s experience or on more rigorous standard operating procedures or a combination of the two. If nonstandard systems are used, the impact should be considered.

If a “performance-based” high-rise building was constructed with one-hour rated (or even nonrated) exit stair enclosures, protection is still necessary for firefighters using the stair to attack the fire. (Note: The need for fire-rated exit enclosures was specifically addressed during the Report on Proposals and the Report on Comments for the 2000 edition of the Life Safety CodeT (7); the committee removed any specified minimum fire-resistance rating for exit enclosures in the performance-based option.) A model may have shown that all the civilians got out of the building fine. If the design uses only one exit stair, it might be necessary for people to exit the building while the fire department is trying to gain access.

One of the problems discussed earlier dealt with smoke control systems. One of the reasons that smoke control systems can be so difficult for the fire service is that there really is no “standard” design. But, many system designs have been guided by standards. Many features required in the installation standards today are based on experience (usually bad experience), and much of this cannot be modeled using the tools available today. Or if it can be modeled, it will also be necessary to consider the effect on the fire service.


It is not the intent of this article to be critical of performance-based codes and standards or to criticize anybody’s specific design. However, as performance-based designs become more prevalent, fire protection engineers should become more aware of the needs of the fire service. Not all firefighters are going to be able to spend countless hours studying a design. Even if they could, they will not usually have the opportunity to stay constantly refreshed on it. The firefighter, assigned to the closest station may be transferred tomorrow or might be at another call when the building you are working on needs the fire department. Remember, the engineer worked on the project, usually from the beginning, and therefore it all makes sense to him. The firefighter might be arriving at three in the morning, not having been in the building for months (maybe years), and is expected to make rational decisions with the systems. Don’t count out the firefighter. If the engineer does, the system may be shut down, overridden, or worse—misused.

One of the best ways to help is to keep it simple, keep it logical, consider all variables, and remember the person who has to use the system during an emergency.

With regard to performance-based design, getting the people out is the first part of the battle, and the firefighter might be present long after initial evacuation. Lessons of the past must not be forgotten because a model demonstrates that the minimum required egress time is provided. There is almost no part of building fire safety that can be altered without some impact, good or bad, on the firefighter in the building.

When all is said and done, engineers should put themselves in the shoes of a person who was not at all part of the planning and design meetings and needs to make decisions under great stress.


1. “Improving Sprinkler System Performance,” NFPA Journal, Vol. 93, No. 4, July/August 1999, pp. 24 & 108.

2. “What Went Wrong?” NFPA Journal, Vol. 93, No. 3, May/June 1999, pp. 84-88.

3. “Wall Collapse Kills Captain,” Fire Command, Vol. 43, No. 6, June 1976, pp 28.

4. “Uniform Building Code, International Conference of Building Officials, Whittier, CA, 1997, Par. 403.6.1.

5. “Building Officials and Code Administrators, International, Country Club Hills, IL, 1999.

6. “Standard Building Code, Southern Building Code Congress International, Birming-ham, AL, 1999.

7. “NFPA 101, Life Safety Code, National Fire Protection Association, Quincy, MA, 1999.

8. “1999 Proposed Changes to the International Fire Code F508-99, F510-99, F511-99, F516-99.

James Knox Lathrop is vice-president of Koffel Associates, Inc., a fire protection and building code consulting firm headquartered in Ellicott City, Maryland. He previously worked for the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) for almost 18 years and was the editor of four editions of the NFPA Life Safety Code Handbook. He is assistant chief of the Niantic (CT) Fire Department. Lathrop has a B.S. degree in fire protection engineering from the University of Maryland.

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