- By Michael Fickes
- June 1st, 2011
About 17,000 students, almost 1,000 professors and instructors, and hundreds of employees show up on the huge campus of the University of Texas–Dallas (UT–Dallas) every day, moving into, out of, and around the school’s 40 plus buildings.
That’s a lot of people and property to look after if the weather turns destructive, a fire breaks out, or any of the dozens of other possible natural and human-made disasters occur.
Like virtually all colleges and universities today, UT–Dallas uses technology to monitor conditions and to send an alarm to the appropriate people when something out of the ordinary happens. Technologies include a card access control system for buildings, campus lighting, emergency call stations for people crossing the campus on foot, emergency power systems, fire alarm and life-safety systems, mass notification systems, panic alarms for receptionists, and video surveillance.
Because they rely so much on technology, all college and university facilities directors, fire and life-safety managers, and police and security officers have the same nightmare: something bad happens and the technology fails to perform, allowing disaster to spin out of control.
“We work together to reach our common goal, which is taking care of our kids,” says Mark Pace, the UT–Dallas fire marshal and life-safety manager.
In fact, Pace’s department, the Facilities department, and the Campus Police department share the responsibility for inspecting and testing critical life-safety and security technologies to make sure that each will work when it must work.
Sometimes to keep things working, you must replace existing systems. William M. Elvey, P.E. (and past president of APPA), the director for Facilities Management at UT–Dallas, is managing the installation of a new campus-wide card access control system. “The existing card access system grew up over the years as the departments each installed and managed its own system,” Elvey says. “None of those systems work with each other. In some cases, we can’t get parts. So we’re replacing them all with one integrated system.”
When the installation is complete in August, the Campus Police will manage it. “We recently hired an Access Control administrator,” says UT–Dallas Chief of Police Larry Zacharias. “He’ll be responsible for maintaining the system, training, and setting up the system in new buildings.”
“In addition, many of our major buildings already have electric strike locking,” adds Elvey. “The Campus Police department can open and close those buildings remotely. In the near future, we’ll be adding remote automated locking and unlocking technology for all of our buildings.”
The UT–Dallas Police department looks for lamps that have gone out for one reason or another while on nightly patrols. Patrolling officers also carry light meters and check the amount of light reaching the ground — to make sure that the landscaping hasn’t begun to block out too much light. The officers report their findings to the Facilities department. The reports include lamp specifications, which are recorded on the light poles.
Because adequate lighting is so important, the Facilities department has instituted additional inspections. “We turn on the exterior lights and check them monthly, quarterly, semi-annually, and annually,” Elvey says.
Another check: once a semester, Elvey assembles a survey team, including a student, police officer, and Facilities department employee. The group tours the campus looking for dark spots caused by landscaping or new structures. The Facilities department acts on the findings.
Emergency Call Stations
The UT–Dallas campus has 30 emergency call stations. Fourteen are distributed across the campus, and 16 are located in campus housing. While the Housing and Student Affairs department buys and maintains the stations in its facilities, the Campus Police inspect all of the stations.
“Every Tuesday night, the guard shift checks each station,” says Chief Zacharias. “A patrolling officer picks up the phone, presses a button, and talks to the dispatcher, who makes sure the right location comes up on the call screen.”
In the event of a power outage, UT–Dallas relies on a network of large and small emergency generators strategically placed around campus. Most are small and designed to keep the life-safety systems in certain buildings on line. Some buildings have battery backups for the life-safety technology and don’t need generators.
The main research building has a 1.2-MW generator, and the central energy plant has a 3.5-MW generator that can pick up the chillers. “Keeping the emergency generators up and running is all about preventive maintenance,” Elvey says. “We test every generator every month. We check the fuel and turn it on to make sure it operates. Once a year, we test each generator under an actual load.”
Fire, Life-Safety, and Mass Notification
Certified third-party specialists typically inspect and test the fire alarm, smoke detector, and sprinkler systems once a year as required by the code.
“I have a workstation in my office that looks at every panel and every device on the fire and life-safety network,” says Fire Marshal Pace. “The Campus Police department has the same display.”
According to code, an end-of-line resistor helps monitor every signaling circuit in the system. If a construction team cuts a wire and a signaling circuit goes down, the monitoring system notices the absence of resistance in the circuit and alarms. Pace assigns the repair to a certified maintenance vendor.
The fire alarm system contains a voice evacuation notification system that uses large speakers mounted on three towers spaced across campus. This system undergoes annual testing during the fire alarm test and the audio is adjusted if necessary.
The voice evacuation system also aids in mass notification during other events. “Severe weather is the most common threat we face,” says Pace. “We’ve tied the outdoor voice notification system into the city’s emergency management system. On the first Wednesday of every month, at noon, the city tests their system and activates our system.”
The mass notification system has two more tiers: LCD screens in the lobbies of the buildings and blast text and email messaging.
Pace’s department recently set up a web-based mass notification system that blasts text messages to cell phones and posts messages, by way of another piece of hardware, to the LCD screens. That system has since been conveyed to the Police department, which is currently working out how to test the system and whether to test monthly or quarterly.
Zacharias wants to test the system more often than the annual fire system test because of the human interaction required — accessing the website, selecting messages, sending texts to cell phones and scrolling banners to the lobby screens. “The tests ensure the operations people are familiar with the system,” he says. “The tests also enable new students to see how it works.”
Still another system, operated by the IT department, sends out mass notification emails.
One of Chief Zacharias’ upcoming projects will expand the campus network of video cameras. Currently, cameras set up by individual departments monitor entrances to buildings and some interior spaces. “We’re bringing the existing video into our shop,” Zacharias says. “As that happens, we’re going to expand the exterior coverage.
“The control system we use can tie the cameras into events — if there’s an alarm, the system will turn a nearby camera to the event.”
To ensure the performance of those cameras, Zacharias will test and service each with another preventive maintenance routine.
Anyone can tell you that any fire and life-safety or security technology requires regular preventive maintenance and testing. Complications arise with the sheer number of complex systems required to protect a college or university campus. Effectively testing and inspecting each piece of equipment requires an efficient division of labor among the interested parties. That’s how the Facilities department, Fire and Life Safety department, and Campus Police department at UT–Dallas have made their system work.
The Next Step: Setting Standards, Rationalizing Costs
At UT–Dallas, the Facilities department, the Security department, and the campus fire marshal look after key campus safety and security systems. The organizational approach keeps the technologies working.
But it isn’t enough just to keep the technologies working.
There are other questions. How well must these systems work? How often must they be tested to ensure that they are indeed working as well as possible?
In many cases, no formal standards answer these questions. “Fire alarm systems are code-regulated by NFPA (National Fire Protection Association),” says Richard J. Davis, P.E., college engineer with The Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA. “Other systems, such as the (mass notification) speaker system installed on a campus tower, are not regulated. There is a standard for maintenance of the voice notification technology, but we have no standard for audibility.”
What does that mean? “Codes set minimum standards,” continues Davis, who is a lawyer as well as an engineer and sits on the Code Advisory Task Force created by APPA, the association for campus facilities directors. “Technology that functions below a standard may imply negligence. A system that functions above its standard is good. It means you have met the minimum.”
When there is no standard or minimum, you decide what is reasonable, continues Davis. What level of audibility should a speaker system meet? Is your campus engineer, facilities manager, or security director qualified to make that determination?
Maybe, maybe not. If a lawsuit claims the system was inaudible during an emergency and caused harm, how can you prove the system was audible?
Without standards, the argument is difficult to win. Today, security equipment manufacturers are working with standards development organizations such as the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) to develop standards.
In recent years, the APPA has added its voice to this effort.
“We’re looking at the Fire Alarm code and 30 other standards,” says Michael Anthony, P.E., senior electrical engineer at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and a member of APPA’s Code Advisory Task Force (CATF).
Anthony also holds a seat on the National Electrical Code and participates in code development and revision efforts as a representative of the facilities industry.
“We want to rationalize the costs imposed by standards,” Anthony continues. “For instance, in developing the 2011 edition of NFPA 25 (Standard for the Inspection, Testing, and Maintenance of Water-Based Fire Protection Systems), the CATF worked with other like-minded groups to reduce the cost of testing electric fire pumps by changing the standard to permit testing once per month — instead of once a week.
“That’s a 70 percent reduction in testing cost with, we believe, little change in fire safety. In general, the CATF wants manufacturers to invest in product development that reduces the total cost of ownership.”