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Published on January 2, 2019.

In Compliance | NFPA 13

NFPA 13, NFPA 101, and smoke compartments in health care occupancies


Understanding terminology is important when applying codes and standards. Equally important is understanding the relationship between different codes and standards that apply to a single building. These two factors are demonstrated in the application and use of quick-response sprinklers in health care occupancies and the requirements of NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code®, and NFPA 13, Installation of Sprinkler Systems, as well as in the difference between the terms “compartments” and “smoke compartments.”

Quick-response sprinklers are designed with a thermal sensitivity that allows them to operate faster than a standard sprinkler in the same fire situation. This reduced time to operation provides additional life safety and property protection compared to standard-response sprinklers. For over 20 years, NFPA 13 has required quick-response or other fast-response-type sprinkler systems in light-hazard occupancies. Building and life safety codes have also recognized the added life-safety benefits of quick-response sprinklers and provide for additional design flexibility where these sprinklers are installed. Many existing systems still have standard-response sprinklers in light-hazard occupancies but are not required to be replaced unless major changes occur to the building or sprinkler system.

An important provision of NFPA 13 addresses the use of quick-response sprinklers in compartments, where that term is defined as essentially any space that shares a common ceiling where heat will collect. NFPA 13 says that, where quick-response sprinklers are used, all sprinklers within the same compartment need to be quick-response. This is because the thermal sensitivity of those sprinklers could result in a sprinkler further from the fire activating prior to a standard-response sprinkler that’s closer, therefore delaying the operation of the sprinkler nearest to the fire even further.

For health care occupancies, the Life Safety Code employs a defend-in-place approach and utilizes horizontal relocation of patients in a fire situation. This requires that each story of a building used by inpatients for sleeping or treatment be separated into at least two compartments by a smoke barrier—thus the term “smoke compartments.” This arrangement allows patients on the floor where a fire is taking place to be safely kept in their location in the compartment where the fire is not occurring, while those in the compartment where the event is occurring can be moved with assistance from staff to the adjoining smoke compartment through doors in the smoke barrier.

NFPA 101 requires that all new health care occupancies are provided with automatic sprinkler systems in accordance with NFPA 13, and that smoke compartments containing patient sleeping rooms have quick-response or residential sprinklers used throughout. For new construction, it’s usually not difficult to meet the requirements of NFPA 101 and NFPA 13.

Existing hospitals are not necessarily required to have automatic sprinkler systems. Additionally, many existing health care occupancies might have sprinkler protection but not quick-response or residential sprinklers. This is acceptable, but those facilities lose out on the opportunity to apply many code permissions that allow greater flexibility in the use of the space. For example, more stringent requirements must be followed for items permitted in the corridor, the size of suites, and areas that can open to the corridor.

The difference between compartments per NFPA 13 and smoke compartments in NFPA 101 can be utilized to the advantage of these existing facilities that plan to upgrade their sprinkler systems and the protected spaces. A phased approach could be taken to slowly change the standard- response sprinklers to quick-response sprinklers throughout the smoke compartment by ensuring that, as they are changed, quick-response and standard-response sprinklers aren’t mixed in the same compartment. At the completion of the phased project, when the entire smoke compartment is protected with either quick-response or residential sprinklers, the facility can take advantage of the allowances in NFPA 101.

Quick-response sprinklers are an important part of providing life safety to occupants in sprinklered buildings. NFPA 13 ensures that the installation is conducted in a manner that does not compromise the effectiveness of the system in a compartment. NFPA 101 utilizes them as part of the complete life safety system of active and passive protection throughout smoke compartments of health care occupancies.

JONATHAN HART, P.E., is a principal engineer at NFPA