During the commissioning of the life safety and fire protection systems for a hotel that was about to open, problems began to surface.

The following story is true. A hotel was scheduled to open the first week in December, just in time for the holiday season. After a nationwide advertising program, the rooms had been booked solid for the first three months following opening day, and the banquet halls and ballrooms were booked for holiday parties. Unfortunately, during the commissioning of the life safety and fire protection systems, problems began to surface. Contractors worked around the clock, and consultants were hired to solve the problems. As the days slipped by, most were successfully resolved, but deficiencies related to the smoke management system proved to be a challenge. The Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ) would not grant a Certificate of Occupancy (CO) until the fire protection and life safety systems were fully operational.

The day of the scheduled grand opening came and went, and still no CO, much to the embarrassment of the hotel chain which had to find alternative accommodations for its guests and alternate venues for the parties that had been booked. The hotel finally opened three weeks late.

What went wrong? The short answer is lack of coordination between disciplines and building trades to ensure that the fire protection and life safety building systems required for the CO were designed, constructed, installed and fully commissioned before the AHJ arrived on site to conduct its final testing. As these systems are being designed and installed in increasingly complex building structures, this coordination role is critical in ensuring that the fire protection and life safety systems are operational and there are no delays in the granting of the CO. A description of the required coordination at each phase of construction follows.

Schematic Design Phase

It is during the schematic design phase that the fire protection and life safety program for any project is developed and negotiated with the AHJ. While most buildings are designed following prescriptive code requirements, this is not a simple matter. Prescriptive requirements include those found in building codes, fire codes, local bylaws, state and federal government legislation, and referenced standards such as NFPA, ANSI, ASHRAE, ASTM, UL, etc. In fact, all the relevant codes and standards for any project would fill a grocery shopping cart. In some instances, requirements between codes and standards are inconsistent or ambiguous. To further complicate matters, it has become increasingly apparent that many of the larger, multi-functional structures have taxed the limitations of current building codes.

Recognizing the complexity of the current legislative framework under which buildings must be designed and constructed and that many large, multifunctional structures are not adequately addressed in today's prescriptive codes, developers and architects are increasingly seeking professional assistance to ensure compliance with the prescriptive code requirements and to develop innovative design criteria that provide a level of life safety that meets or exceeds the intent of current codes. Specially trained professionals can review the applicable codes and standards to ensure that the proposed building design is in compliance, develop performance-based engineered solutions and assist developers, architects, or tenants in presenting these alternative methods to the AHJ.

The fire protection and life safety programs, which may include performance-based engineered solutions, developed by these professionals are based on the use of a comprehensive, holistic approach to fire and life safety within the structure. These programs ensure a full and harmonious integration of all systems and design features within buildings that can impact fire and life safety. These fire protection and life safety systems include, for example, construction type, compartmentation, interior finish, combustible loading limits, sufficient exiting, fire alarms, sprinkler protection, smoke management, etc.

Using a smoke management system as an example, a fire protection/life safety program may require a smoke exhaust system or a pressurization system due to prescriptive code requirements. On the other hand, a performance-based design may be offered to permit building occupants sufficient time to exit the area of fire hazard. Either way, the fire protection and life safety program should specify how the smoke management system is activated, and what effect the system would have on the life safety of the building occupants once initiated.

Design Phase

Once the program is negotiated with the AHJ, the fire protection and life safety systems are ready to be designed. There are many disciplines involved in the design of the fire protection and life safety systems and preparing the documents submitted to the AHJ for a building permit. Each discipline is responsible for a well-defined scope of work. It is, therefore, imperative that the drawings, specifications and bid documents be reviewed to ensure that the fire protection and life safety systems are properly designed, fully integrated and conform to the fire protection and life safety program developed for the project.

Again, using the example of a smoke management system, initiation may involve the activation of a smoke detector (electrical or fire alarm contractor), sprinkler waterflow (mechanical or sprinkler contractor), or duct type smoke detectors (mechanical). The activation of the system may cause doors to automatically close (architectural or electrical), vents to open (mechanical or electrical), fans to operate (mechanical or electrical), hvac system to shut down (mechanical). The system must be fully integrated with the fire alarm system (electrical or fire alarm contractor) and with planned emergency power features (electrical). The material used for the dampers and ductwork may need to be suitable for elevated temperatures (mechanical). In addition, the area protected with the smoke management system may require baffles and draft stops (architectural). With so many technical disciplines, one can begin to see that there should be someone to review all the drawings and specifications to ensure that nothing has been overlooked and the proper interface has been provided.

Construction Phase

Once the bid documents have been released and the contracts awarded, it is important to ensure that the installation complies with the design drawings and specifications. An area of critical construction coordination is the review of the contractors' shop drawings and equipment submittals. The contractors' obligation to submit shop drawings and equipment submittals and obtain approval in advance of construction should be steadfastly enforced. Contractors should be obliged to submit the drawings for each system in its entirety to permit a complete review of each system to ensure thoroughness and component compatibility. Shop drawings and equipment submittals that are incomplete should be rejected.

It is imperative that only technically competent individuals who understand the interdependencies of the various components that make up the fire protection and life safety systems perform the document review. Lack of this technical knowledge could result in incompatible devices, non-compliance with contracts, and a system that does not work.

Since there are many trades involved in the construction of the fire protection and life safety systems at the project site at various stages, the appropriate scheduling of each trade is critical to ensure that installation conflicts do not occur. In this way, the project will not be held up due to disruptions, and the likelihood of any change order is minimized.

A common example is the potential for conflict between the pipe fitting trades and the sheet metal ductwork installers. A sprinkler crossmain may be installed in the same joist space as the hvac ductwork. If the sprinkler contractor is at the job site first, he may install the crossmain in the center of the joist space, leaving no room for the ductwork. If the ductwork exceeds 4 feet in width, the required sprinkler protection below the ducts might be omitted, since the sprinkler contractor has already completed his installation.

Visits to the job site to observe the installation progress should be made regularly. These visits will allow early identification of non-complying construction and necessary remedial actions without delaying the construction.

Commissioning Phase

The issue that most jeopardizes obtaining the CO and the opening of a facility is the commissioning of the fire protection and life safety systems. A misconception from which many projects suffer is that the commissioning of these systems occurs at the same time the AHJ conducts the site inspection and testing. Waiting until the AHJ is on site to learn that there is a problem with a system will delay granting the CO, causes the loss of credibility to the entire project team, and may create scheduling problems with the AHJ for retesting the system. As opening day looms, the level of desperation with the project team raises exponentially as they try to solve their commissioning problems. Not only does this cause undue pressure on the project team, it also creates unanticipated costs.

Commissioning of the fire protection and life safety systems must be placed in proper perspective. A CO can be issued if the building's interior finishes (e.g., painting, carpeting and cabinets) are incomplete. However, one will likely not be issued if the fire protection and life safety systems are incomplete. The key is to test and fully commission each integrated fire protection and life safety system in its entirety before the AHJ arrives. This requires that all the features needed for the system to operate be completed before testing begins. For example, if a stair requires pressurization, it is impossible to commission this system until the stair shaft is completed; i.e., the doors have been installed with door closers and latches, dampers have be provided, and all openings have been sealed. Unfortunately, when a project is behind schedule, it is usually the time available for the commissioning of the fire protection and life safety systems that is compressed, jeopardizing the issuance of a CO before the project's scheduled opening day.

The role of a project manager on any project, no matter what size, is to deliver a completed building to the client on the date needed. The project manager needs to fully understand that the fire protection and life safety systems often jeopardize meeting this commitment. He must determine if the project team (design and construction) have the specific training, experience and creative skills to address complex fire protection and life safety issues. If the team is lacking these skills, the project manager should take action to add this talent to the team. Doing so will smooth out the design and construction process, and eliminate opening your building three weeks late.