The Right Glass Used the Right Way is Key to School Safety

By Annie Sherman

Fire-rated glass is among the “smartest,” most common-sense products to infiltrate the glass industry. Yet it’s mired in complications. First created in 1978, it’s relatively new, though its wired glass predecessor dominated the marketplace for generations. Manufacturers continue to experiment with and test new products, while architects and specifiers continue to learn how to integrate the materials into their design and construction projects.

However, in some cases, high costs coupled with lengthy and complicated building code requirements might hinder installations. So it’s not surprising that large spans of fire-rated glazing installations are just beginning to emerge in schools. Experts say this integration in educational facilities nationwide is slow, especially given schools’ common budget barriers.

While specific applications require some form of fire protection by code, another threat has emerged: violent attacks on schools. Protective glazing products exist, but the slow pace of use and adoption confounds some manufacturers, spurring additional debate about life safety products. Glass is a protector, experts agree, for everything from forced entry to fire to a combination of both. It’s essential to not compromise one life safety product category for another.

Ensuring Life Safety

“It’s not just the impact safety requirement, but also now there is a different element of life safety that needs to be considered,” says Devin Bowman, general manager with Technical Glass Products based in Snoqualmie, Wash. “Unfortunately, we live in a day and age where we have forced entry and active shooters entering schools and commercial spaces. If you were to separate different life safety product categories, fire-rated glass is one of the higher-priced products available, so it’s not as commonly used as traditional glazing products. The challenge with schools is what happens when you’re in a scenario where one life safety situation overlaps another (i.e., forced entry and fire protection)? The threat becomes larger and larger because the threat and instruments used (i.e., an active shooter) are unknown.”

Diana San Diego, vice president of marketing with Safti First in San Francisco, recognizes the common misperception that fire-rated glass is expensive. She counters that argument, pointing to safe, affordable, fire-rated products. For example, in corridors with a one-hour fire rating that typically have 20-minute doors, 45-minute sidelites, transoms and openings, she says, schools can use products that meet fire and safety glazing requirements and are more likely to withstand accidental impact. This reduces replacement costs over time.

“Sometimes schools have this notion that fire-rated glass is expensive, or is not aesthetically pleasing, because for the past 100 years, it was wired glass, and no one wants to look at that because it’s kind of like a prison,” she says. “So having fire-rated doors and windows helps bring lighting within the spaces, which is good for students and teachers in terms of learning and mood, but also from a security or safety standpoint to be able to see inside classrooms. There are all these benefits of glass, transparency and visibility between fire-rated spaces.”

Stronger Requirements

All types of buildings are subject to active shooters and forced-entry attacks, but the stakes are higher when children are at risk. Coupled with the versatility and potential of glass, manufacturers have increased their testing and production to meet these future needs and demands. Despite their efforts, however, manufacturers still need to do more, says Kevin Norcross, general manager of Vetrotech Saint-Gobain in Auburn, Wash.

“The market in North America is still not mature. The acceptance of fire-rated glass in any potential use in a building is generally becoming more accepted. In Europe, it is widely accepted and used,” Norcross says.

Industry code consultant Thom Zaremba agrees there is a glass for every scenario. “You want to prevent a shooter from shooting out the window? There’s a glass for that. You want glass in a window in a corridor that will protect the students in case of both a fire and an active shooter? There is a glass for that,” Zaremba says. “Virtually every type of fire-resistant rated glass is also bullet-resistant.”

But, he adds that as the laborious, three-year building code process tries to keep pace with modern demands, it forces some specifiers to forgo fire-rated glass as an option. He says there are ways to resolve these issues, but the industry must consider integrating active shooter and fire risks carefully and perhaps restore pre-2000 code levels. Before 2000, Zaremba explains, there were three different code groups: Building Officials and Code Administrators International, the International Conference of Building Officials and the Southern Building Code Congress International.

“Because each code body had different requirements when developing the International Building Code (IBC), they decided to go with the least restrictive requirements. So when the International Code Council came into existence, corridor walls were no longer required in most educational occupancies to be fire-resistance rated if the school had sprinklers,” says Zaremba. “We now have this dichotomy because you have sprinklers, but if a shooter is familiar with the school, like in Parkland … turns off the sprinklers and begins a fire, the people in lockdown [are] in a bind,” he says, explaining that in a lockdown everyone is told to ignore fire alarms and stay in place. “The hazards are going to increase as we go forward as active shooters adapt to new requirements,” he says.

Some jurisdictions, however, have since adopted stronger code requirements. As an example, in 2019, Chicago adopted an amended version of the 2018 IBC, requiring fire-resistance-rated materials in all school corridors, whether the school has sprinklers or not. “So there is some movement in that direction,” Zaremba says.

Meeting a Need

While manufacturers want to know and understand the regulations to design and produce products, regulators want to know what manufacturers can produce so they can craft requirements that builders can follow, says Jason Gehling, general manager of Fyre-Tec in Wayne, Neb. And since no two projects are the same, he adds, trying to create one regulation to cover multiple scenarios is like a game of chicken or egg.

“The sluggishness is in part the hesitation from not knowing what the future regulations are going to be or what will take precedence, causing school officials and design professionals to be at an impasse,” Gehling says. “They say, ‘If I redesign this space, and don’t know what the security assessment of this building needs to be in five years,’ they’re sluggish to use certain products that could be obsolete by then.”

Still, the conflict remains between budget constraints and sending kids to schools that districts can afford to build, Norcross says, pointing out that it’s worth it to have the ability to see what’s coming to react in situations where there could be a threat. “There is no reason not to use it,” he says. “And more design tools are on the way to harden the building. But those systems are only as good as the last person who left the door open.”

Another thing that’s worth considering regarding security, Bowman adds, is that, most likely, these threats won’t happen in every school, but every school must be prepared. What will be required is ensuring transparency and visibility daily, making sure students are safe. “So day-to-day, we still need the transparency [glass provides], and that’s where we place value. Designers often say, ‘it’s a higher price point, but because we need performance or we need high transparency, we’ll build that into the budget,’” he says. “The common theme, in addition to the benefits of daylight, comes down to the fact that it’s a safety product.”

Building Awareness

Unfortunately, possible safety concerns still arise in aging educational facilities nationwide where wired glass remains in doors and windows. Experts believe providing educational opportunities to architects, specifiers and others involved in school projects will showcase the potential of fire-rated glass across the academic marketplace and help make a difference in school buildings’ safety.

“I think school superintendents and facilities managers should familiarize themselves with building products that go in schools. Because the expectation is that when you drop off your kids at school, they’re safe. So if there are lingering dangers, they should familiarize themselves,” San Diego suggests, with the best products to meet those dangers. “When it comes to establishing a standard of care, it’s in the school’s best interest to do that. So when they do facilities upgrades, that’s the time to look into any lingering wired glass in doors, take an inventory, and replace it.”

Though the integration of fire-rated glass into school buildings has been slow-moving, protecting students while they’re in school is the most fundamental responsibility. Zaremba explains there are many types of glass in the marketplace, from energy performance to bullet-resistant to fire- and smoke-resistant. “What we need to do is find the commonalities between the identified risks in various building occupancies and the right glass to put in the right location to mitigate that risk,” he says, “then our buildings will be safer.”

A+ Chicago

In 2019, Chicago adopted the 2018 International Building Code (IBC) with some amendments, notably the requirements around fire protection in schools. The Chicago code requires school exit corridors to be one-hour fire-resistance rated, with or without a sprinkler. This compares to the base 2018 IBC, which requires a fire-resistance rating only when there isn’t a sprinkler.

Annie Sherman is a contributing writer for USGlass magazine

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