The Constantly Changing Landscape of Risk in Campus Environments

The Constantly Changing Landscape of Risk in Campus Environments

Change is inevitable, here’s how to assess risk in the face of it

One of the most pervasive enemies of risk mitigation protocols and features is change. One of the most pervasive features of any facility, but especially campus environments such as universities and colleges, is constant change. For this reason, risk control is not a “once and done” effort concluded upon the opening and occupancy of a newly constructed or remodeled facility. In fact, changes to the landscape of risk happen often, even in the absence of such obvious modifications. Some changes happen so slowly and innocuously, such as changing research goals that result in different equipment or procedures, that only the most vigilant process would identify the resulting impact on facility risk. As a result, risk assessment studies, risk mitigation features, and emergency response preplanning require periodic review and update.

Campus environments for colleges and universities present a unique challenge. Innovation and growth are necessary in these environments, but one must not overlook the increased risk these changes introduce. It seems many such campuses are constantly in a state of flux, with construction projects ranging from new construction, to renovations, to additions. Legacy facilities may be readapted for different uses with vastly different risk profiles. Occupants of campus environments also tend to be transient, and populations may vary drastically from day to day, or even hour by hour. Special events can also induce significant population increases, many of whom may be completely unfamiliar with the facility and their expected response during emergency procedures.

Construction, Renovation, and Additions

Design phase services for new construction, renovations, and additions will include risk mitigation features such as sprinkler protection, fire alarm, mass notification, and possibly even smoke control or specialized alarm and suppression requirements. Likewise, passive risk mitigation is designed into these facilities as mandated by the applicable codes and insurance providers in features such as fire rated construction, compartmentation, and egress features.

However, consider a facility renovation that requires a portion of the building to remain open and operational during construction. To separate occupants from the hazards of a construction zone, previously available egress pathways may be blocked off and building features, such as fire suppression and alarm, may be temporarily disabled. In a campus environment, even completely new construction could affect egress routes from adjacent buildings or limit access to a public way due to construction zones, staging areas, and construction traffic. Existing exit signs may lead occupants toward exits that are inaccessible due to construction activities.

In order to ensure that new construction and renovation projects do not negatively affect egress features or other safety features, construction phasing exercises must include egress studies, emergency responder access planning, and safety system impairment plans. It is not enough to verify that remaining egress routes are adequate for the expected occupant loads, or that fire department access is maintained. Instead, careful and detailed assessment is necessary to address all risk-mitigation considerations such as emergency system impairment, existing exit sign locations, changes in egress routes, access to public ways, and hazards introduced by construction.

For example, hot works such as welding could introduce unacceptable risk if conducted in an area near floor refinishing or involving flammable liquids. In addition, pre-incident planning with the local emergency responder organizations is necessary to address plans for dealing with temporary impairments including fire hydrants that are out of service, or access to building fire department connections due to construction staging, and re-routed building egress that could hamper emergency responder access.

Changes in Use

Less obvious than new construction is the risk of changing use over time. Research laboratories are just one example. As technology and new research initiatives move forward, the equipment, tools, processes, materials, chemicals, and even occupants may change. The laboratory that may have been adequately designed for yesterday’s research may have woefully inadequate protection as these considerations change over the life of the building. New research projects may require the use of more hazardous chemicals or materials. Ventilation requirements may change if different chemicals are required. Yesterday’s laboratory full of microscopes might house industrial ovens tomorrow, depending on research needs.

Retrofitting new research goals into legacy laboratory space could require researchers to adopt a “make due” attitude when things such as counter space or storage access are not designed to support the current research efforts. This can lead people to inadvertently render risk mitigation features less effective or even useless.

For example, adding a table to the room to hold equipment too large for the available work benches could result in secondary egress doors becoming blocked in order to make room for a table to hold necessary equipment. Lack of storage space may result in researchers storing different chemicals together. Convenience may inspire users to store larger quantities of chemicals in the laboratory storage cabinets, instead of having to constantly retrieve them from hazardous storage areas. Finally, as researchers leave and new ones take over the space, they may be less knowledgeable about the active and passive risk mitigation features of the space, making them more prone to unknowingly subverting their effectiveness through their use of different procedures and methods.

Even a simple advance in research that requires the use of different materials or chemicals of a higher hazard than were anticipated during facility initial design and construction could render a once-appropriate fire sprinkler system ineffective. Products with higher heat release rates or increased combustible loads could potentially overwhelm a sprinkler system designed for lower hazards.

These are just a few examples of how facility change can impact risk mitigation, and they illustrate why periodic audits are vital to ensuring the facility complies with both code and the facility risk strategy. Because people tend to be one of the most unpredictable features of change, the risk assessment strategy should include educational efforts for users to help curb actions that could increase risk.

Security Threats

In today’s environment, the risk associated with outside threats such as terrorism, active shooters, and even simple negligence cannot be overlooked. These threats often introduce new security measures that may not have existing during building design. Security measures taken without consideration of the impact on fire protection and life safety can be detrimental to facility and occupant safety in a fire or other emergency. For example, a secure door fitted with an electronic lock and card reader access may unlock upon a fire alarm to allow free egress. However, if the card reader is later disabled in favor of a keyed lock, the free egress feature initially designed into the system will no longer operate as designed. The resulting impact on emergency egress could be detrimental.

Likewise, traffic bollards installed to prevent vehicle traffic from accessing areas around a facility could affect fire department access to the facility. Even removable bollards can slow down fire department response times. The addition of screening equipment such as metal detectors or turnstiles could decrease exit access or increase required egress time. Video monitoring equipment installed to increase safety and security may have resulted in penetrations for conductors through fire rated enclosures, thus impacting passive fire protection features. Even something as simple as hanging blinds for security on an interior window that is protected with window sprinklers to achieve required fire ratings can prevent water from reaching the glass and render the window sprinkler useless, thus negating the required fire rating and compartmentation goals.

While many other examples exist, the important point is that these concerns can only be addressed if they are known. The only way to know is through periodic audits, security and use assessments, and constant updates to emergency protocols and procedures.

The People Factor

Finally, populations in campus environments can drastically vary from day to day. Events such as graduations, concerts, and sporting events can introduce occupant load surges. When these events are held in facilities that are designed for such high occupant events, the risk that the occupant load increases will impact egress is minimal. However, facilities may host smaller events that were not designed for assembly use. Areas such as building atriums, vacant lecture halls or classrooms, or libraries may be used to host assemblies such as career fairs and networking events, for example. In a building not designed for assembly purposes, these gatherings could overload the available egress and the transient nature of attendees could compound the problem by filling the facility with those unfamiliar with alternative egress routes.

Traffic associated with campus events may create a campus-wide traffic issue. Even small concentrations of increased traffic in specific areas may impact fire department access. The need for overflow parking can also contribute to temporary situations where parking could limit building access for emergency responders.

Best Practices

Due to of the constantly changing landscape of risk on a college or university campus, risk assessment and evaluation must be an ongoing process. Periodic audits and reviews of facility use, hazards, and security concerns are vital to ensure that the progress and change that is so prevalent in campus environments maintain the expected level of protection and risk mitigation.

These assessments must look beyond just fire protection systems such as sprinkler protection and fire alarm systems to include an in-depth review of changes in hazards and life safety considerations, with due consideration of other systems that may impact these features. Construction and renovation phasing must include a complete risk assessment and egress review to ensure occupant protection and egress access through all phases of construction. Finally, these ongoing efforts must include preplanning with emergency responders.

Change and innovation is inevitable. However, it requires a vigilant eye to ensure that these continuous and sometimes unnoticeably slow changes do not increase risk to unacceptable levels, or decrease the level of protection for occupants and facility assets.

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2019 issue of Campus Security Today.