News, Press & Publications

Managing Conflicts Between Fire Protection and Building Security Systems

Press, Articles & Publications

Envision a large office building in the heart of a major city.  At 10:30 a.m. on a Monday morning, the fire alarm sounds, causing two immediate and concurrent actions to take place.  First, the fire department is notified and dispatches personnel and equipment to the site.  Second, per the building’s emergency plan, the mass evacuation of the building’s occupants begins.

As people pour from every exit, the fire trucks arrive, only to be blocked by recently installed security barriers at the building’s front entrance. This entrance happens to be the access point closest to the building’s main fire hydrant.

But, that’s the least of the building manager’s concerns, as the alarm turns out to be false.  There is no fire.  Instead, a heavily armed, disgruntled ex-employee of a tenant firm on the 12th floor pulled the fire alarm, and has now gained unimpeded access to his target area.

Have we chosen an example that highlights an unlikely scenario?

In light of daily life in these challenging times, the sad answer is “no.”  It’s precisely the same tactic that 19-year-old former student Nikolas Cruz used when he set off the fire alarm at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School before he started a mass shooting spree less than a year ago.

In fact, there is a growing potential for code compliance conflict between two critical disciplines, i.e. fire protection and security.  This conflict is rooted in the very definitions of what each discipline was designed to accomplish.

A conflict of methodologies between fire protection and building security systems

Before we can resolve the conflict, we need to understand how each discipline approaches the common objective: to keep people, property and assets safe and secure while insuring business and operational continuity.

The science of life safety is based upon the fire triangle.  Fire occurs when the three elements of the triangle – fuel, oxygen and heat– are present.  To provide proper fire protection for any type of occupancy, the fire protection engineer must analyze what types of fuel sources will be present in every area of the building – from paint lockers in the basement and wall coverings in offices to plastic coated wiring in data centers.  Once the fuel sources are identified, construction materials and fire protection systems can be designed, modeled and specified for their capabilities to resist heat, prevent the spread of fire, suppress flames and control smoke… until the fire department arrives.

Since this country’s earliest experiences with devastating fires, the body of practical fire protection knowledge has grown exponentially.  This knowledge base is manifested in the form of building and fire protection codes and best practice standards covering virtually every facet of a building’s design and construction.  The challenge of the fire protection engineer is to follow these prescriptive codes or demonstrate meeting the intent of the codes through performance-based design.  The responsibility of fire and building officials is to make sure these codes and standards are enforced.

Bottom line: fire protection professionals want building occupants removed from a real or potential fire situation as quickly and completely as possible.  They also want free and open access to the building enabling the fire fighters to do their jobs with maximum efficiency, speed and effectiveness.

The art of security is to create a safe, secure environment for each building or facility based on the specific security objectives of the owner, the threat environment, identified risks and/or the insurance company underwriting the risks.  Since each building structure presents unique security challenges, there are no Federal, state or local codes currently in place to govern security in specific types of occupancies.  Since 9/11, many industries, associations and government agencies have developed recommended security guidelines.  Yet, due to the unpredictable nature of human beings, it is unlikely any “codified” approach to security requirements can be developed and implemented consistently.

Security designers, like their fire protection engineer counterparts, rely on a type of “triangle.”  The security triangle includes three design elements, which when balanced together can create a very effective and sustainable security program.  These three elements include architectural security, technical security and operational security.  Each element must be designed to complement the other elements, when balanced properly, a comprehensive security program is the result.

  • Architectural elements range from building construction with layered zones of protection, traffic flow controls and physical barriers to force protection and bomb defense, precautions that can be taken to strengthen a building’s ability to withstand an attack.
  • Technical elements include the systems – access control, intrusion detection, video surveillance, command, control and communications and information security – which provide specific levels of security.
  • Operational elements pertain to having good security policies supported by appropriate procedures and response plans, emergency action plans and ongoing security training established and followed by well-trained and qualified on-site security and public safety personnel to enhance security.

Bottom line: security professionals want access to and egress from the building tightly controlled at all times so as not to create vulnerabilities, to delay a perpetrators progress so security has time to respond and prevent breaches of the building’s security program.

Can the codified science of fire protection and the non-codified art of security coexist effectively?  We believe they can with the help of good planning practices, integration efforts and open communications between the diclipines.

Resolving the conflicts between fire protection and building security systems

Any type of code compliance conflict between fire protection and security, taken on a one-at-a-time basis, can be resolved.  Here are several examples:

How physical security measures impact fire safety

Conflict. For many properties – particularly Federal buildings – a 100-foot security set-back is created to reduce the building’s vulnerability to car or truck bombs.  In order to establish this set-back, it is necessary to build an anti-ram wall around the perimeter of the property.

In addition, security entry guard posts are created with anti-ram gates and barricades. The security personnel at the guard posts inspect all vehicles entering the facility to ensure they are authorized to visit the site and that the vehicles do not contain any contraband in the form of explosives or CBR (chemical/biological/radiological) materials.

From the fire department’s point of view, these physical security features could hamper fire fighters’ access to the facility in an emergency situation.  In some cases, even a slight delay in arriving at the fire scene could enable the fire to grow in size and intensity, thus putting human lives and assets in danger and hindering the fire department’s ability to effectively fight the fire.

Resolution. Resolving this apparent conflict depends on a series of action steps being taken:

  • Installation of state-of-the-art fire detection, alarm and suppression systems in the building to catch and suppress fire in its incipient stages.
  • Improvement of the means for reporting a fire and summoning assistance in a timely manner. This step would include providing the responding fire fighters with procedural information on where and how to enter the site and facility while protecting the security integrity of the site and facility.
  • Formation and training of an emergency response team, made up of people trained and tasked to function as first response operators of the fire extinguishing equipment on site.
  • Inclusion in the operational security plan of a procedure, which provides security officers with permission to drop the anti-ram barricade at the main entrance and/or other strategic site emergency access points, allowing emergency vehicles faster and controlled access to the fire scene.

All of the above actions would help to save time in a fire emergency while protecting the integrity of the facility’s security perimeter.  Create the plan and then work the plan.

Balancing fire safety and physical security in elevator lobbies

Conflict.  The majority of existing high-rise buildings were originally designed for what might be called “floor-by-floor” security.  When a visitor exited the elevator at any floor, they were greeted by a receptionist or security personnel in the floor lobby area who determined if the visitor was expected and then allowed access through controlled doors onto the floor.

Once it became too expensive to maintain personnel on every floor to control proper access, security was achieved by a combination of locked gates/doors and electronic access control systems which provided automated access through those doors. These physical and technical security measures essentially locked the people who got off the elevator into a confined space, i.e. the floor elevator lobby.  They were only able to access other areas of the floor by using a special phone to call someone inside the secured area or by inserting an authorized access control card into an electronic reader.  If denied access, they could simply call the elevator and leave the floor.

Unfortunately, in a fire emergency, the elevators are immediately recalled to the street level and taken out of commission.  Life safety codes mandate that building occupants trapped in a secure lobby area on a floor must be given a minimum of one – and often two – means of egress in the form of emergency exit stairwells leading to the street level.  In buildings where those exits are located within the secured area, the access control systems must be disabled to allow people to get to the stairwells. This breaches security and enables unauthorized people to gain access to the entire floor.

Resolution. In new construction projects, architects should consider the security situation when designing emergency exit stairwells.  If the stairwells are located in close proximity to the elevators and within the confined space of the security perimeter, people getting off the elevator can be given access to the exit stairwells without compromising the security of the floor by creating non-secure corridors that lead to those exit stairwells.

In projects involving retrofit of existing buildings, where the exit stairwells are located away from the elevators, security designers can equip the area with alarmed doors and surveillance cameras.  Although unauthorized visitors will be given access to the secured area in the event of a fire emergency, their presence in the secured area will be detected and their movements tracked by the building’s security personnel. Creating non-secure corridors from the floor lobby to the exit stairwells can also be considered, if feasible.

Atrium lobby smoke control solutions

Conflict. Fire protection engineers base their designs of smoke control systems for atrium lobbies on the fact that all doors will be opened in a fire emergency. This enables the smoke control system to function properly by drawing make-up air from the outside through the doors.

But, in a secured building, just the opposite may occur.  The security protocol may call for all the doors in the lobby area to lock in the event of an emergency.  This action may render the smoke control system inoperable.

Resolution. Working closely with the security designer, the fire protection engineer can specify special shutters installed in the walls or ceiling of the atrium.  The net result is that the smoke control system gets the necessary fresh air supply and the security of the building remains intact.

Managing the fire safety and physical security conflicts of emergency exits

Conflict. To achieve maximum life safety in the event of fire – particularly in a school building – the main ingress/egress points are supplemented with multiple alarmed emergency exit doors.  The mission is to get as many people as possible out of the school in the shortest time possible.

The basic premise of security is to limit the number of normal entry and exit portals, with the optimum number being “one”, i.e. a single entry and exit portal.

The presence of emergency exit doors, even equipped with alarms, poses multiple security risks.  For example, a student can open an emergency exit, receive weapons, drugs or other contraband from an outside accomplice and escape undetected back into the school facility.

Resolution. There is a simple two-step resolution to this situation. First, minimize the number of main entry/exit points and implement access control procedures at these points.  At each vestibule only have a single set of active entry and exit portal doors, while all other emergency exit doors in the vestibule are equipped with exit only hardware, i.e. no exterior door hardware.

Second, install alarms on all of the vestibule doors along with local alarm devices and video surveillance cameras at each emergency exit vestibule.  When the exit door alarm is activated, security personnel can be notified immediately so that appropriate actions can be taken.  Where appropriate, local alarm devices can be activated to locally draw attention to the breach.

In addition, video servers and storage arrays can be set to continuously record the video camera images at each emergency exit for evidentiary purposes.  Alternatively, the video servers and storage arrays can be automatically activated to begin recording upon alarm activation.

Resolving the conflict between fire safety and physical security protocols during a building evacuation

In most public buildings today, security has been upgraded with the positioning of security officers and screening technology at main entry and exit portals on the ground floor.  Funneling people through a “choke-point” enables security officers to observe people entering the building, perform inspections and verify the visitor’s identity and purpose for the visit.  Reducing the number of entry/exit points together with the increased scrutiny slows the flow of people in and out of the building. In the eyes of the building security manager, this is an acceptable price to pay for a secure building environment.

Fire officials, however, view it from a different perspective. When a fire alarm is activated, they want people evacuated immediately from the building.  In addition, their main concern is gaining rapid access for fire fighters into the building for the purpose of locating and extinguishing a fire.  In their minds, breaching security is a necessary cost of possibly saving lives.

Resolution. Working together, building management and fire officials should develop a plan whereby trained first responders are required to inspect the area of alarm prior to building evacuation.  The response time for this verification process can be reduced significantly through the use of digital IP video cameras providing surveillance of alarmed areas to the building management and remotely to the responding fire fighters. Once a fire situation has been verified, the evacuation alarm can be sounded.

In addition, building management should also develop an exiting strategy based on exiting models created for each floor of the building.  These studies are critically important in the creation of exiting procedures that will help ensure an orderly evacuation of the building.

The Keys to Success

Success in terms of building fire and security protection is achieved when a safe, secure environment for occupants can be maintained on a 24×7 basis. This type of environment will be realized only when the building meets all life safety and fire protection codes, as well as, the proven best practices and fundamental principles of good security. The keys to establishing such an environment include:

  • Early involvement by fire protection and security professionals. Architects and engineers should involve both the fire protection engineer and the security design professional in the earliest stages of building design.  Not only will this provide a safer, more secure building, it will save time and money for the building owner by minimizing the amount of post-construction modifications needed to accommodate heightened security measures.
  • Integration of fire protection and security. What comes out of an atmosphere of cooperation between fire protection engineers and security design consultants is an integrated master plan that results in higher levels of both safety and security and better cost efficiencies. Codes and standards for fire protection are met and, at the same time, the security expectations of the building owner and tenants are realized.
  • Understanding by the AHJs. As is the case with security, not every aspect of building design, operation and maintenance can be codified.  Therefore, just as performance-based fire protection design is proving to be an effective alternative to prescriptive code compliance, proven methods of architectural, technical and operational security design should be recognized and understood by the Authorities Having Jurisdiction. Whether it’s a code, a best practice standard or a proven principle, the intent is the same: to provide an environment of safety and security.      

William Sako is the Vice President and Corporate Practice Leader of Security Risk Consulting for Telgian Engineering & Consulting, LLC.  Telgian is a worldwide provider of comprehensive security, fire, life safety and emergency management consulting and engineering services.  Mr. Sako is one of the most experienced security consultants in the United States.  His work, which spans over five decades for government, private companies and educational facilities, demonstrates a common-sense approach to security without the emotion that arises when dramatic events occur.

Share This Post: