Hotel doorway

Transient occupancies have elevated risk given the number of people they serve – and thus have unique fire sprinkler and alarm requirements

With the rise of remote work opportunities and lodging sites like Airbnb and VRBO, people living the transient lifestyle are on the rise. And as a manager or owner of a facility classified as a transient occupancy, there are fire sprinkler and fire alarm needs that must be met to ensure the safety of your guests and meet regulatory requirements.

What exactly is a transient? Let’s define the terms according to the International Fire Code (IFC) and the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA):

From the 2015 edition of IFC

[BG] TRANSIENT. Occupancy of a dwelling unit or sleeping unit for not more than 30 days.

From the 2018 edition of NFPA 101

A.3.3.151. Transients are those who occupy accommodations for less than 30 days.

Before we delve into the specific requirements, it’s necessary to first clearly determine what type of transient or perhaps permanent establishment you have. NFPA and IFC each have several categories and requirements for transient lodging establishments.

The National Fire Protection Association has two broad categories into which transient lodging can fall within: lodging or rooming house, or hotel or dormitory.

Lodging or rooming houses are those facilities that provide sleeping accommodations for less than 17 people on either a transient or permanent basis, without independent cooking facilities.

From the 2018 edition of NFPA 101

26.1.1.1* The requirements of this chapter shall apply to buildings that provide sleeping accommodations for 16 or fewer persons on either a transient or permanent basis, with or without meals, but without separate cooking facilities for individual occupants...

A dormitory is slightly different, and larger, at more than 16 people:

From the 2018 edition of NFPA 101

3.3.66* Dormitory. A building or a space in a building in which group sleeping accommodations are provided for more than 16 persons who are not members of the same family in one room, or a series of closely associated rooms, under joint occupancy and single management, with or without meals, but without individual cooking facilities.

Hotels are also larger and transient lodging is considered their primary use:

From the 2018 edition of NFPA 101

3.3.151* Hotel. A building or groups of buildings under the same management in which there are sleeping accommodations for more than 16 persons and primarily used by transients for lodging with or without meals.

The International Fire Code, in contrast, classifies these occupancies as residential, or Group R. These can be either Group R-1, R-2, or R-3. The IFC also utilizes the term “boarding house” to apply to a broad range of occupancies.

From the 2015 edition of the IFC

[BG] BOARDING HOUSE. A building arranged or used for lodging for compensation, with or without meals, and not occupied as a single-family unit.

To determine which of these categories your facility may fall into, there are three things you must know:

  • Are the occupants transient or permanent?
  • How many people are there accommodations for?
  • What type of structure is this?

If the space primarily serves a transient population and contains sleeping units for more than 10 occupants, it will be defined as a Group R-1 occupancy. When the facility primarily serves a non-transient, or permanent, population, then the structure will most often slide into the Group R-2 category. Group R-3 occupancies are those boarding houses and congregate living facilities with sleeping accommodations of more than 16, for non-transient persons. If the boarding house or congregate living facility houses 10 or fewer occupants on a transient basis, then they are classified as a Group R-3 as well.

After you have correctly defined the type of establishment according to the model fire codes, it’s time to look to the fire protection requirements and exceptions. Regardless, all types will require some form of fire alarm and fire sprinkler system. What may change are exceptions, installation standards, and levels of coverage.

Rooming house

A rooming house, one of “History’s Affordable Living Quarters.” Source: Sightline

Fire alarm and sprinkler requirements for lodging or rooming houses

If an existing lodging or rooming house has a smoke detection system that is properly maintained and tied to a fire alarm box that can activate the system, then a complete fire alarm system does not need to be installed. Some exceptions and allowances within the code allow the installation of only smoke detectors, or only a single manual pull station. However, all new construction of lodging and rooming houses will require a full fire alarm system. A complete, or full, system would meet all the requirements of NFPA 72, which would typically include the installation and interconnectivity of pull stations, detectors, and horns/strobes.

A fire sprinkler system is also required throughout all new lodging and rooming houses. The code allows for the installation of these systems to be in accordance with either NFPA 13, NFPA 13R, or NFPA 13D:

NFPA 13: Standard for the Installation of Sprinkler Systems

NFPA 13D: Standard for the Installation of Sprinkler Systems in One- and Two-Family Dwellings and Manufactured Homes

NFPA 13R: Standard for the Installation of Sprinkler Systems in Low-Rise Residential Occupancies

An NFPA 13R system can only be utilized if the lodging or rooming house is four or fewer stories in height and is no taller than 60’ above grade. Due to the fact that the expected fire exposure and its challenge to the fire sprinkler system in lodging and rooming houses are no different than that of a single-family residence, an NFPA 13D system would also be permitted.

A dormitory

A dormitory. Source: Amidhara Resort

Fire alarm and fire sprinkler requirements for dormitories and hotels

New dormitories and hotels require a fire alarm system. Functions of the fire alarm system specific to dormitory and hotel occupancies include requirements for the following features:

  • Manual fire alarm box, or pull stations.
  • Manual fire alarm box located at a continuously supervised location.
  • Required to be initiated by activation of the fire sprinkler system.
  • Visible notification appliances to accommodate the hearing-impaired.
  • Smoke alarms required within every guest room.

This section of the code allows a “positive alarm sequence” to be utilized.

From the 2016 edition of NFPA 72

3.3.195 Positive Alarm Sequence. An automatic sequence that results in an alarm signal, even when manually delayed for investigation, unless the system is reset.

Fahad Khan of the fire protection firm Jensen Hughes explains the positive alarm sequence:

“It provides an alarm delay of up to 180 seconds if trained personnel acknowledge the alarm at the control panel within 15 seconds. This action provides the responding personnel time to investigate an alarm before evacuating a building.

This delay is only permitted for automatic detection devices. If a second automatic fire detection device is actuated during the 180-second investigation phase, all normal building and remote signals shall be automatically activated. This is very common in large assembly occupancies where positive alarm sequence is used to reduce the number of unwanted or nuisance alarms. Evacuation of thousands of occupants, for instance, during a major spectator event is highly undesirable if caused by a nuisance alarm.”

For dormitories having an occupant load of more than 100 persons, mass notification may be required. Determination for this type of system will be based on a risk analysis.

From the 2019 edition of NFPA 72

3.3.90.1.3 In-Building Mass Notification System. A system used to provide information and instructions to people in a building (s) or other space using intelligible voice communications and including visual signals, text, graphics, tactile, or other communication methods.

Fire sprinkler systems are required to be installed throughout the building. As with lodging and rooming houses, an NFPA 13R system can be utilized if the building is four or fewer stories in height and is no taller than 60’ above grade. Only quick response or residential type sprinkler heads are permitted to be used within the guest rooms.

Alarm panel

Alarm panels that may require integrated testing. Source: Mutual Security Services

Transient establishments require integrated testing

A lodging facility, rooming house, dormitory, or hotel all require integrated testing. Integrated testing, introduced in the 2018 edition of the Life Safety Code, is required to ensure that all functions of a variety of intertwined building systems take place during system activation.

From the 2018 edition of NFPA 101

28.7.8 Integrated fire protection and life safety systems shall be tested in accordance with 9.11.4.1.

Integrated fire systems are those fire protection and life safety systems that "are required to operate together as a whole to achieve overall fire protection and life safety objectives." (NFPA 4) An example of an integrated system might be a fire alarm, fire sprinkler, elevator recall, and smoke control. When a fire is detected, each of these items has a specific code-required function to perform. Integrated testing ensures that these systems all work flawlessly together.

From the 2018 edition of NFPA 101

9.11.4.1 Basic Testing. Where required by Chapters 11 through 43, installations involving two or more integrated fire protection or life safety systems shall be tested to verify the proper operation and function of such systems in accordance with 9.11.4.1.1 and 9.11.4.1.2.

International Fire Code requirements for Group R occupancies

The International Fire Code requires the installation of a fire sprinkler system throughout all Group R occupancies. If the facility is a Group R-3, the IFC permits the installation of a less complex NFPA 13D fire sprinkler system vs. an NFPA 13 version.

From the 2015 edition of the IFC

903.2.8 Group R. An automatic sprinkler system installed in accordance with Section 903.3 shall be provided throughout all buildings with a Group R fire area.

903.2.8.1 Group R-3. An automatic sprinkler system installed in accordance with Section 903.3.1.3 shall be permitted in Group R-3 occupancies.

Fire alarm systems are also required to be installed throughout all Group R-1, and Group R-2 occupancies – though with some exceptions, including size and the presence of fire partitions, sprinkler systems, and ways of exiting the building quickly:

From the 2015 edition of IFC

Group R-1

907.2.8. Exceptions:

1. A manual fire alarm system is not required in buildings not more than two stories in height where all individual sleeping units and contiguous attic and crawl spaces to those units are separated from each other and public or common areas by not less than 1-hour fire partitions and each individual sleeping unit has an exit directly to a public way, egress court or yard.

2. Manual fire alarm boxes are not required throughout the building where all of the following conditions are met:

2.1. The building is equipped throughout with an automatic sprinkler system installed in accordance with Section 903.3.1.1 or 903.3.1.2.

2.2. The notification appliances will activate upon sprinkler water flow.

2.3. Not fewer than one manual fire alarm box is installed at an approved location.

Group R-2

907.2.9. Exceptions:

1. A fire alarm system is not required in buildings not more than two stories in height where all dwelling units or sleeping units and contiguous attic and crawl spaces are separated from each other and public or common areas by not less than 1-hour fire partitions and each dwelling unit or sleeping unit has an exit directly to a public way, egress court or yard.

2. Manual fire alarm boxes are not required where the building is equipped throughout with an automatic sprinkler system installed in accordance with Section 903.3.1.1 or 903.3.1.2 and the occupant notification appliances will automatically activate throughout the notification zones upon a sprinkler water flow.

3. A fire alarm system is not required in buildings that do not have interior corridors serving dwelling units and are protected by an approved automatic sprinkler system installed in accordance with Section 903.3.1.1 or 903.3.1.2, provided that dwelling units either have a means of egress door opening directly to an exterior exit access that leads directly to the exits or are served by open-ended corridors designed in accordance with Section 1027.6, Exception 3.

Additionally, smoke alarms are required to be installed in all Group R facilities, at the specific locations listed in IFC 907.2.11:

  • In sleeping areas.
  • Outside of sleeping rooms and areas.
  • On each floor within the room or sleeping area.
  • In each room in the path of egress from the sleeping area.

Know the standards and code – and keep your transient occupancy safe and compliant

Awareness of the requirements and proper installation and maintenance of fire protection systems will ensure the safety of transient dwellers who patronize your lodging, rooming house, hotel, or dormitory.

Fire sprinkler head

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