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Fire Safety in Health Care Facilities Is Now Cause for 'Alarm'

Helping fire safety officers and building managers at health care facilities achieve cost-effective compliance with a widely accepted fire safety code is the goal of ALARM, a personal computer software tool developed by researchers in the National Institute of Standards and Technology's Building and Fire Research Laboratory in cooperation with the U.S. Public Health Service.

ALARM, which stands for Alternative Life Safety Analysis for Retrofit Cost Minimization, generates a set of alternative compliance strategies (and each strategy's estimated cost) to meet the National Fire Protection Association's Life Safety Code. LSC is a widely used, voluntary code for identifying the minimum level of fire safety in buildings. The first version of ALARM—designated 1.0—is now available for analyzing buildings with health care occupancies such as hospitals and nursing homes.

The basic LSC is prescriptive, since it requires specific solutions for fire safety. For example, it might require a minimum fire retardancy rating for interior finishes and the presence of manual fire alarms. However, the LSC offers an alternative approach (NFPA 101A) where one can compare the level of safety provided by combinations of a building's fire safety features with the level that exactly conforms to the prescriptive code. If these combinations provide safety at a level as high as the prescriptive requirements, an acceptable performance-based solution is created that is equivalent to (and therefore, compliant with) the prescriptive LSC.

NFPA 101A looks at 13 safety features for each zone (a zone being building spaces separated by floors, horizontal exits or smoke barriers) of a building, with up to seven levels of safety for each feature. This translates to a total of 56 possible safety levels for each zone. Zones are assigned points for each fire safety feature corresponding to their levels of safety. Point totals earned across the fire safety features in a zone are then compared with point requirements for the following four performance measures: containment, extinguishment, people movement, and general safety. If the zone's point total meets or exceeds the requirements for all four measures, the zone achieves equivalency. Each zone must make the grade separately if the building as a whole is to do so.

The strength of ALARM, say its developers, Stephen F. Weber and Barbara C. Lippiatt of NIST's Office of Applied Economics, is that it allows the user to find the most economical performance-based solutions for a health care facility. Key to the software's success is a mathematical optimization method for minimizing code compliance costs. Trade-offs among the 13 fire safety features are how a building manager or fire safety officer can optimize a building's safety features, retrofit an LSC-equivalent safety level and minimize the cost of compliance. Less expensive fire safety features may be substituted for more costly options, without jeopardizing overall fire safety. For example, in exchange for more widespread automatic sprinklering, less smoke control may be permitted.

With many zones to analyze and 56 possible safety levels requiring analysis in each zone, creating and implementing the best performance-based solution for an entire health care facility is an unwieldy and difficult task. ALARM 1.0 uses a mathematical optimization technique called linear programming to quickly evaluate all possible code compliance solutions and design the least-cost means of achieving compliance. Also listed—for both individual zones and the entire building—are up to 20 alternative, low-cost compliance plans and the prescriptive solution for benchmarking purposes.

Since 1985, the approach used in ALARM has been field tested by the USPHS in nearly 100 military, public and private hospitals. The cost savings have been substantial; ALARM's economical performance-based solutions saved hospitals between 30 and 35 percent of the cost of implementing prescriptive codes. In 1993, ALARM was applied to the largest hospital yet, the 60-zone, 62,710 square meter (675,000 square foot) Wright- Patterson Air Force Base hospital in Ohio. ALARM could be tailored to other building occupancies in the future, such as office buildings, schools and prisons.

ALARM 1.0 runs on an MS-DOS personal computer with a 386 or higher microprocessor, a numeric co-processor, at least one high-density floppy diskette drive (3.5-inch or 5.25-inch), and MS-DOS Version 5.0 or higher. At least 525 kilobytes of conventional memory must be available for running executable programs.

ALARM 1.0 is available from the National Fire Protection Association. Cost is $8.96 prepaid for NFPA members and $9.95 prepaid for non-members. Checks should be made payable to "NFPA"; MasterCard or Visa charges are accepted. Orders should be addressed to:

One-Stop Data Shop
Fire Analysis and Research Division
Attn: Nancy Schwartz
National Fire Protection Association
#1 Batterymarch Park, P.O. Box 9101
Quincy, Mass. 02269-9101
Phone: (617) 984-7450
FAX: (617) 984-7056

For technical information, contact Stephen F. Weber, B226 Building Research Building, NIST, Gaithersburg, Md. 20899-0001, (301) 975-6137, e-mail: webers [at] (webers[at]enh[dot]nist[dot]gov) (via Internet).

An agency of the Commerce Department's Technology Administration, NIST promotes economic growth by working with industry to develop and apply technology, measurements and standards.

Released April 13, 1995, Updated January 8, 2018