Integrating Fire Safety and Security Solutions in the Campus Environment

Integrating Fire Safety and Security Solutions in the Campus Environment

Navigating the line between fire safety and security to create a safer learning environment

Integration of security and fire alarms in facility design and emergency response planning is vitally important in today’s threat environment. In the Parkland high school shooting, a fire alarm was activated during the attack (it is not known if the fire alarm was activated by the shooter or was automatically triggered by smoke from the firearm used in the attack) and briefly funneled students and teachers toward the danger before they became aware of the security threat. As a result, questions have been raised about how we can ensure that our fire protection systems, such as fire alarms, are not used for malicious intent.

When the fire alarm activated, those unaware of the danger began the required emergency evacuation procedure which was drilled regularly throughout the school year. Shortly thereafter, the principal issued a Code Red (the school’s code for an active shooter), but those already in the process of evacuating in response to the fire alarm found themselves stranded in hallways, as teachers began locking down classrooms. In the confusion, some students made the decision to flea for their lives instead of sheltering in the locked classrooms they’d already evacuated. The fact is that the creators of the Code Red drills had likely not anticipated a fire alarm evacuation occurring during an active shooter scenario.

Historically, fire and life safety features and security features tended to be at odds in facility design and emergency response planning. Huge efforts have been undertaken to dictate how facility fire alarm and life safety features should operate in the presence of physical security controls in order to ensure occupant life safety for egress. However, these efforts focused primarily on ensuring security controls didn’t block egress or hamper fire response.

In today’s environment, the threats are changing, and integration of security and fire/life safety features must go far deeper than relays to release door locks and permit egress. In today’s world of active shooters and terrorist threats, the integration between security and fire/life safety has to begin at facility concept design, and extend through the life of the facility, to incident response and pre-planning at all phases of facility lifecycle. In this article, we will seek to identify the conflicts and opportunities that exist to integrate security and fire and life safety planning, as well as the conflicts that we must overcome. And, we will lay out a stepby- step strategy to accomplish these goals within the campus environment.

Parkland is a prime example of why preplanning cannot presume that fire and security threats will happen independently of one another and offers a terrifying real life view of how emergency response planning must be inclusive of both. The fact is that fire safety and security share one common objective: to keep people, property, and assets safe and secure. However, there is a growing potential for code compliance conflict between these two critical disciplines. This conflict grows from the fundamentally different approach each takes to this common objective. Among these differences is the codification of design, construction and maintenance standards for fire safety. Alternately, security design, construction, and maintenance is largely unregulated and are generally not enforceable by authorities having jurisdiction. In an attempt to overcome this challenge, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has undertaken the development of a new standard, NFPA 3000, Standard for an Active Shooter/ Hostile Event Response Program. The goal of this provisional standard is to establish a unified planning, response, and recovery program for shooter/hostile events to reduce confusion and make better use of resources to save time and ultimately to save lives.

Another fundamental difference between security planning and fire and life safety planning is that security planning is based in behavioral sciences, while fire and life safety are based in physical sciences. Security planning seeks to detect, deter, assess, delay, and limit damage through operational, architectural, and technical design elements. Fire safety seeks to control the fire through active and passive systems, such as sprinklers and compartmentation, with the goal of allowing occupants adequate egress time before an environment becomes untenable. Secondary and tertiary goals are to limit damage to buildings and assets and to provide protection for first responders. However, despite the differences, fire safety approaches and security approaches often utilize the same types of systems to suppress, compartmentalize, and support response operations, so there is crossover that often goes unexploited in the facility planning phase.

One of the most powerful opportunities to maximize this crossover is through campuswide notification. Many campus environments have been slow to upgrade older emergency reporting systems making them fully compatible with campus notification, forgoing both the benefit for potential fire and life safety, as well as for security and threat response. One of the most important aspects of fire or threat response is communication with the occupants, so they understand what they need to do, so as to not hamper emergency response, and to ensure that they don’t put themselves in harm’s way.

Similarly, security and life safety systems often both use notification devices of different types to alert occupants to an emergency. Options such as dynamic egress signage that can direct occupants away from a threat from fire or security issue is one such option to marry the notification requirements of both systems in order to maximize the congruity for the maximum protection benefit. Both may also utilize similar, or even identical, technologies in order to detect threats.

While there is not a spot type threat detector similar to a smoke detector available (at least not to my knowledge), video detection is commonly used to detect security threats, and can also be used for fire detection. While this technology may be cost-prohibitive, for certain occupancies it can offer benefits, and when utilized for both security and fire alarm it may be more financially feasible. However, this kind of planning is best incorporated at the design phase to ensure there are no redundancies that drive up costs.

However, there are ample challenges to overcome as well. For example, security often focuses on deterring access, not just with locked doors, but even traffic access via perimeter security such as gates and bollards which may also slow down emergency response. Even considerations such as crowd control during special events, and temporary traffic and parking patterns for occupancy surges (for events such as graduations or athletic events), can impact both security and fire safety response.

To satisfactorily integrate a complete emergency response plan that incorporates both security and fire safety, it is vital to begin as early in the facility lifecycle as feasible. A step-by-step approach can help to guide decisions and identify opportunities in order to maximize crossover technologies, reduce costs and develop workable solutions to overcome conflicts. This step-by-step approach is as follows:

Define threats. What could happen, when and where could it happen?

Investigate infrastructure. What fire and life safety systems do you have in place or are required to be in place (for new facilities), what communication systems are provided or planned, and how do these systems interact?

Planning. The planning must include:

  • Life safety plan including fire alarm, evacuation, suppression, monitoring systems and alerting systems as well as emergency responder plans.
  • Security plan including campus-wide security, surveillance, and control systems.
  • Communication plan including voice, text, and graphical messages and their delivery method(s).
  • Emergency response action plan to define what you want occupants, traffic, and emergency responders to do for each possible scenario.

Implementation. Includes a phased plan with budges, specifications, timelines, training, and gaining necessary approvals.

Operational Readiness. Periodic reviews because your campus and risks will continue to change

Periodic Testing. Campuses must test their fire and security drills regularly and with changes in how they operate to keep those in the drill on their toes.

In the future, we expect that there will be some degree of codification of security requirements, as the code writing bodies begin to fully grasp the vital importance of integration of fire and security systems and emergency response. In addition, as technologies for both advance, there will be future technologies to continue capitalizing on integration of the two features. Similarly, future trends are likely to begin integrating security and fire safety emergency response and oversight duties as the two fields continue to converge.

One emerging technology is the Physical Security Information Management (PSIM) Software which provides a platform and applications created by middleware developers to integrate multiple unconnected security system applications and devices and control through a single comprehensive user interface. We predict the future of this technology will cross over to include fire protection systems, such as alarm and mass notification, as well.

While growth will continue to erase the conflicts between security and fire safety design and planning, the important takeaway is that we begin now. Parkland was just one example of how security and fire safety can be at odds with each other in a real, life-threatening situation. Failure to develop a plan for integration of these two vitally important systems opens the door for intolerable risks. While conflicts still exist, they are surmountable with proper planning and early planning is always preferable. After all, the old saying about an ounce of prevention being worth a pound of cure still holds true.

This article originally appeared in the May/June 2019 issue of Campus Security & Life Safety.

Digital Edition

  • Campus Security & Life Safety Magazine - May / June 2023

    May / June 2023


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