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Fire Protection and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act
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Issue 36: Fire Protection and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act

By Dave Frable

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act

The Recovery Act was intended to create and save jobs, increase domestic renewable energy capacity, invest in U.S. infrastructure with long-term economic benefits, stabilize state and local government budgets, and assist those most impacted by the current recession. The U. S. General Services Administration (GSA) has the opportunity to stimulate the real estate, construction, and manufacturing sectors of the economy and help put people back to work.

GSA & Recovery Act Projects

The GSA is the landlord of the civilian government for over 400 federal agencies, bureaus and commissions. GSA has a portfolio of over 33 million square meters, which houses in excess of one million federal employees in approximately 2,100 communities throughout the 50 states, 6 U.S. territories, and the District of Columbia. The building inventory consists of over 1,500 government-owned and 8,100 leased assets.

GSA is one of 28 agencies responsible for distributing Recovery Act funding through 277 specific program plans. Of the $787 billion allocated for Recovery Act funding, GSA was appropriated $5.55 billion to convert federal buildings into high-performance green buildings and to build new energy-efficient federal buildings, courthouses, and land ports of entry. GSA's focus has been to modernize the nation's existing infrastructure, reduce the federal government's energy and water consumption, and increase the use of clean and renewable sources of energy. Project examples include installing renewable energy systems such as photovoltaic systems, green roofs, lighting and window replacements; and installing high performance buildings systems such as high-efficiency HVAC systems.

Not only will these projects use state-of-the-art green technologies and improve the energy performance of federal buildings, they will also provide opportunities to install new fire suppression and fire detection systems in existing buildings and update existing building exiting systems to reduce fire risks and improve the overall safety for building occupants.

GSA selected the best projects for accomplishing the goals of the Recovery Act based on two overarching criteria: Ability of the project to put people back to work quickly, and transforming Federal buildings into high-performance green buildings. To date, GSA has awarded over $2 billion for projects at over 292 buildings across the country. GSA's goal is to award another $2 billion by the end of March 2010, with a total of $5.05 billion by the end of September 2010. The remainder will awarded by September of 2011.

 

GSA Fire Protection Engineers & Recovery Act Projects

GSA fire protection engineers play a vital role in ensuring all Recovery Act projects are reviewed, designed, constructed, and maintained in accordance with the GSA Facilities Standards for the Public Buildings Service (PBS-P1001) as well as national codes and standards.

The PBS-P100 establishes design standards and criteria for all new buildings, major and minor alterations, and work in historic buildings in GSA's inventory, and includes a chapter specifically dedicated to fire protection and life safety. The PBS-P100 also requires a fire protection engineer to participate on the design team for each phase of all GSA projects -- from concept through design, construction, and occupancy. This provision extends to Recovery Act projects.

GSA fire protection engineers serve as the agency's Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ) for their respective region. As the AHJ, their role is to review projects, witness final fire protection systems acceptance testing, and issue certificates of occupancy.

The addition of Recovery Act projects has both increased the workload and accelerated the project schedules for GSA fire protection engineers. GSA has responded by adding full time or temporary staff, contracting with third party fire protection engineering services or finding ways to adapt to the changed workload with existing staff.

Broad Range of Opportunities & Challenges

GSA is establishing itself as the "green proving ground" of the American building industry. With this noted distinction, both the GSA and design team fire protection engineers have the opportunity to integrate new and potentially unique fire protection technologies into designs that promote water conservation and sustainability in fire suppressions systems. For example, one could incorporate a system that re-circulates the water within the pipe of the water flow switch to simulate the flow of one sprinkler in operation without discharging water from the system. Another example might be to configure a fire pump to re-circulate test water back to a tank or to collect fire pump test water into a grey water reuse system.

However, with each opportunity come some challenges. Though fire protection engineers should embrace "green" technologies, they must also ensure the "green" technologies being incorporated into projects do not compromise fire safety, especially in instances where such technologies have yet to be incorporated into national building and fire codes. Because of the unique aspects of these types of projects, a fire protection engineer should be involved to ensure there is a balance between the risks and benefits of new "green" technologies. Fire protection engineers not only need to be cognizant of all the normal fire protection concerns (i.e., fire suppression, fire detection, exiting, etc.) associated with a project, but they also should understand how to analyze and mitigate the potential adverse impact "green" technologies may have on the overall safety of the occupants, fire department operations, as well as any unintended consequences that may be created.

To address these emerging trends, GSA fire protection engineers have recently developed guidelines that address two roof-related issues: application of bituminous asphalt and photovoltaic systems.


Roofing and waterproofing systems often utilize a hot application process for tar, asphalt or other similar material and can pose a fire risk given the proximity of combustible materials to the heating flame. GSA's new guideline2 permits the use of diesel-powered rubberized asphalt melters, so long as the flame is properly enclosed and separated in the assembly, thus limiting the potential ignition of combustible materials and mitigating the associated risks to an acceptable level.

Photovoltaic systems convert solar energy into electric energy suitable for connection to a utilization load. However, these are high voltage systems and could impact fire fighting operations. Therefore, based on existing reference material,3 an installation guideline was developed. This guideline addresses several factors affecting safety (e.g., energized equipment, trip hazards, etc.) and fire fighting operations (e.g., marking requirements, venting locations, pathways, etc.).

GSA is also exploring the emerging and unique energy-saving trend of vegetative facades. One of GSA's cutting edge "green" modernization projects proposes a vegetative facade curtain wall system on a 17-story high-rise building. The vegetative facade can respond to seasonal changes, providing shading in the summer and heat and light during winter months. GSA and the design team fire protection engineers are evaluating the fire protection and suppression alternatives to use with this cutting edge facade approach.

Additional Information on Recovery Act Projects

Anyone interested in obtaining the latest information on ARRA projects should visit websites www.recovery.gov and www.gsa.gov/recovery. These sites also include information pertaining to getting a contract for ARRA work, prerequisites for becoming a Government contractor, and obtaining a GSA Schedule contract. It should also be noted that GSA also advertises all federal contracting opportunities at www.fedbizopps.gov.

Any firm that currently does not hold a GSA contract can still participate by seeking subcontracting opportunities with current companies that are under contract. Subcontracting opportunities currently exist within the Blanket Purchase Agreements covering GSA's own ARRA spending.

Dave Frable is with the U.S. General Services Administration

  1. "Facilities Standards for the Public Buildings Service," U.S. General Services Administration, Washington, DC, 2005.
  2. "Rubberized Asphalt Melter Guideline Fire Safety Element," U.S. General Services Administration, Office of Energy and Environment, Washington, DC, October, 2009.
  3. "Solar Photovoltaic Installation Guideline," California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection – Office of State Fire Marshal, Sacramento, CA, 2008.
  4. "Fire Safety Guideline for Photovoltaic System Installations," U.S. General Services Administration, Office of Energy and Environment, Washington, DC, October, 2009.

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