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Author(s): Wayne Moore. Published on September 4, 2018.

In Compliance | NFPA 72

Balancing school security and fire protection systems use during hostile events


Ever since the Columbine school shootings in 1999, the fire protection industry has been concerned with a hostile person or persons using the fire alarm system to generate easy and multiple targets. Perhaps because the school shooting incidents immediately following Columbine did not utilize fire alarm systems, however, the industry did not focus its concern on this issue as quickly as it might have.

The shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in February certainly re-focused that concern. Unfortunately, some of the reactions to this event, such as the code-permitted allowance to remove certain fire alarm system components like manual fire alarm boxes, did not offer a comprehensive response. (See the May/June 2018 “In Compliance.”)

That said, what is the correct approach to balancing security and fire protection systems in a school environment? School officials and authorities having jurisdiction (AHJs) can begin by referencing both NFPA 72®, National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code®, and NFPA 730, Guide for Premises Security. NFPA 72 uses a risk assessment method to determine the voice messages to be used with a mass notification system (MNS). Balancing security and fire protection systems in a school environment involves conducting a security vulnerability assessment (SVA) as outlined in the 2018 edition of NFPA 730. The SVA should assess the current status of the school’s vulnerabilities, including but not limited to threat exposures, security features, and preparedness.

Additionally, the integration of the building fire alarm and security systems will become easier using the SVA as a planned approach. Stakeholders can then take several steps to make a building more secure without affecting the level of fire and life safety provided to the occupants. These steps include controlling or restricting access to the school and using intercoms, along with cameras, to ensure front desk administration personnel only allow building access to known individuals.

The next step involves coordination with the local police and fire departments to develop appropriate training of your staff to ensure they understand what to do—and what not to do—in the event of a hostile intruder. One of the what-not-to-do scenarios suggested by many police departments is to not pull a manual fire alarm station to “warn” others in the school of an intruder. Not only is the design of the fire alarm system intended to warn occupants of a fire so they may evacuate, but once actuated, the noise level caused by the notification appliances throughout the building can make it difficult to issue verbal warnings or instructions. You should advise your staff of these types of issues through training exercises.

Additionally, if you have decided to upgrade your fire alarm system, you should consider upgrading to a fire alarm emergency voice evacuation system (EVACS). The building codes now require this type of a fire alarm system in all new education occupancies. The fire EVACS enables school management to provide voice instructions to all occupants to ensure they take the right action during the hostile intruder emergency. Again, the risk assessment and SVA will help you make the right decision regarding the operation of the fire alarm system and MNS and how it will interface with the security system.

NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code®, establishes locking criteria for classroom doors. The code requires that the emergency action plan for the building address the use of the locking and unlocking means from within and outside the classroom. Also, NFPA 101 requires that all staff be drilled in the engagement and release of the locking means, from within and outside the classroom, as part of the emergency egress drills.

In addition to classroom doors, the SVA should consider other areas, such as administrative offices, gymnasiums, teacher lounges, libraries, auditoriums, and cafeterias. Should a fire alarm system unlock all doors when actuated? It depends. This choice, if known by the perpetrator, would prove an unwise one.

An “easy” button does not exist for this issue. That’s the bottom line. But a clear risk assessment and emergency plan will go a long way to improving the balance of security and fire alarm integration, as well as improving overall safety to the children and staff using your facility.

WAYNE D. MOORE is vice president at Jensen Hughes. Top Photograph: ISTOCKPHOTO