Clinic design for fire protection

When it comes to designing clinics and hospitals, it is best to prepare for “worst case scenarios”

A large, accessible treatment area can be encapsulated in fire-rated and smoke-inhibiting walls to create a “safe zone.”
A large, accessible treatment area can be encapsulated in fire-rated and smoke-inhibiting walls to create a “safe zone.”

Bright flashing lights! Alarms sounding! Automatic sprinklers! Smoke! Imagine being a dog or cat locked in a kennel and all this commotion is happening around you! Chances are you’d feel confusion, fear, and panic. There’s no one around and no escape. The outcome is tragic and heartbreaking to contemplate.

In situations where an animal is in a state of stress, it becomes difficult to predict their behavior. Staff will naturally be motivated to help any animals in their care, but it may not always be safe for them to do so, considering current code regulations for animal care facilities (e.g. dog daycare facilities, pet boarding, and animal hospitals). By law, protecting human life takes precedence, and our building codes reflect this.

From our early years in grade school, we are taught through endless repetition what to do in the event of a fire or other emergency. Even children who are too young to read are able to navigate their way to an exit or safe place. In the building industry, exit signs, fire alarms, and sprinklers are commonplace and recognizable, even if you are new to a building. These elements have all been designed for humans. What we hear and how we respond take advantage of our instincts, common sense, and training. An animal exposed to the same conditions, on the other hand, responds in a completely different manner.

Defining the minimum

The design process for any building project is a network of decisions pertaining to aesthetics and desired functionality, while remaining grounded in building codes.

Established by the International Code Council (ICC), the International Building Code (IBC) sets minimum requirements in the U.S. for health and safety in the built environment. These may vary slightly from state to state. Further, each city within a state might have its own specific set of guidelines. That said, IBC remains central in the design process.

To determine required health and safety conditions for a project, IBC categorizes different uses and occupancies that identify specific needs in each category. Safety features may include:

  • fire alarms;
  • sprinkler systems;
  • smoke barriers;
  • the number and size of exits, as well as the type of doors used;
  • the distance between exits;
  • the width of escape routes to these exits;
  • travel distance on these safety routes;
  • no dead-end corridors longer than 20 ft (6 m) in an un-sprinklered building, and 50 ft (15 m) in a building with a sprinkler system installed; and
  • construction methods that ensure buildings or spaces remain safe while occupants evacuate.
Shorter dog runs and alternative access points can reduce travel distances, allowing emergency responders to evacuate animals more quickly.
Shorter dog runs and alternative access points can reduce travel distances, allowing emergency responders to evacuate animals more quickly.

According to IBC, animal care facilities are classified as a business occupancy, which is designated a low risk to life safety and carries less restrictive design parameters. In comparison, sec. 308.1 of IBC’s “Code and Commentary, 2012, Volume 1” classifies a human care facility, a hospital, or nursing home as an institutional occupancy:

“Institutional Group I occupancy includes, among others, the use
of a building or structure, or a portion thereof, in which care or supervision is provided to persons who are or are not capable of self-preservation without physical assistance or in which persons are detained for penal or correctional purposes or in which the liberty of the occupants is restricted.”

This classification identifies the special conditions existing in these spaces and ensures minimum requirements allow for the preservation of human life.

Once a building has been categorized into an appropriate occupancy, architects determine the number of occupants expected to use a space at any given time and incorporate the required safety features into the design. As per current building codes, this number does not include animals.

Classifying veterinary hospitals

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) is an organization focused on preparing and protecting the public from fire hazards in coordination with IBC. NFPA 150, Standard on Fire and Life Safety in Animal Housing Facilities offers guidelines and recommended practices when designing animal care facilities. It also classifies occupancy for animal care facilities into Class 1, Class 2, and Class 3. These are differentiated based on public access (Chapter 6.1 NFPA 150).
A Class 1 facility is one that houses animals and has no general public access (e.g. a farm), while a Class 3 facility offers regular public access (e.g. a zoo). Veterinary hospitals are classified as Class 2 facilities, which offer restricted public access. This classification system helps to streamline building design as it pertains to an emergency.

Further to this classification, NFPA 150 addresses the handling of dangerous animals in an emergency and categorizes them as the following:

  • Category A, which comprises animals potentially dangerous to rescuers; and
  • Category B, which refers to agricultural animals and those not within Category A. Veterinary hospitals and mainstream animal care centers have predominantly domesticated animals in their care, which pose a lesser threat to rescuers in an emergency.

NFPA guidelines highlight the importance of coordination among local authorities in an emergency, and more importantly, before an emergency, to ensure prevention or adequate preparation. Item 5.2 “Safety-from-Fire Goals” in NFPA 150 requires creating an environment in which rescue efforts can be carried out safely. There also is emphasis on fire safety drills (Section 4.3.5) so that employees and caregivers react appropriately in an emergency.

Designing animal care facilities

Operating rooms where animals are incapacitated can be made safe zones by including sprinklers and designing them to withstand fire and smoke for at least two hours.
Operating rooms where animals are incapacitated can be made safe zones by including sprinklers and designing them to withstand fire and smoke for at least two hours.

When designing an animal care facility, the architect must be cognizant of the fact employees in these centers will be compelled to rescue animals in danger. NFPA 150 recommendations exist to ensure animal safety and well-being in the event of an emergency; it is important to consider these in conjunction with the safety requirements of the individuals that will risk life and limb to rescue patients, boarders, etc. While we are aware building codes do not fully include animal occupants in building safety requirements, recognizing how staff will respond in these situations should guide design.

As a best practice approach to the design of these animal care facilities, architects and service providers are able to identify aspects of our human safety guidelines that can be adapted to benefit our four-legged friends and their caregivers. Solutions exist in current codes, and although not specific to animals and animal centers, the regulations addressing places with largely incapacitated or confined occupants (e.g. hospitals, prisons, and recovery centers) can inform how we approach designing an animal care center.

To a degree, these places resemble the situations one may encounter in a veterinary hospital or animal shelter, such as the presence of sick patients, some on operating tables completely dependent on the caregivers around them, or confined animals.

The goal for emergency responders is to protect human life, stabilize the situation (e.g. put the fire out or control the emergency at hand), and conserve property. In the event of an emergency, hospitals, nursing homes, and other such institutions generally employ three different approaches:

1) Evacuate everyone able to leave the building on their own safely

2) Wheel anyone unable to move on their own to a safe area in the building for emergency responders to finish helping them to safety (some stair landings are designed especially large for this reason).

3) Move anyone not in immediate danger into a fire-protected treatment area within the building so they can remain on life support or other life-saving machines.

Building codes regulate these human facilities be designed to allow for the above scenarios to take place safely. Unfortunately, none of these provisions are required for animal hospitals. Just like in a human care facility, animals in veterinary hospitals, animal shelters, or pet boarding accommodations require human assistance to escape a dangerous situation. One might argue cats and dogs have natural instincts that will help them get to safety. This may be true when these animals are roaming free, but it is certainly not the case when they are confined to a kennel or incapacitated. If we truly want to protect the lives of veterinary patients or boarded pets, this philosophy should extend to how we plan for emergencies.

Designing clinics for animal safety

Is your staff trained to assist the pets in your care to the exit in the event of an emergency? This is a requirement of NFPA 150 guidelines; most animal care centers will have training and strategies in place to aid animal rescue and self-preservation in an emergency. For staff or emergency responders to successfully lead animals away from danger, the spaces containing them must be designed to allow safe evacuation. With the current minimum code requirements for animal care centers, even when leashes and animal crates are made available and are easily accessible to secure and transport animals to safety, they become redundant if the spaces fill with smoke and fire so quickly that no one can enter.

It might be a long time before building codes reflect any changes specific to animal care in an emergency beyond what is outlined in NFPA 150. That said, it is possible to incorporate small changes to improve animal and human safety in these centers. How possible solutions are implemented will vary from project to project as scope and budgets differ. Figures 1, 2, and 3 illustrate simple scenarios to improve animal safety in the facilities that care for them. The following should also be considered:

  • Improve accessibility—design hallways, doors, or windows to reach spaces containing animals quickly will aid the rescue process. Also, the ease with which an animal can be moved from a fixed kennel to a mobile crate or with a leash minimizes the time it takes to carry out any rescue efforts.
  • Install quick-response sprinklers that are triggered by smoke or can be activated manually can mean the difference between life and death. NFPA 150 does not make this a mandatory requirement for all animal care centers and building types, although it limits their size (i.e. a wood-framed non-sprinklered building cannot exceed 12,500 sf [1161 m2] [NFPA 150 Table 7.2.2]).
  • Ensure smoke detection and isolation—smoke causes harm before a fire reaches a space. Without proper isolation of areas, smoke spreads quickly.
    A wall reaching to the roof deck creates a smoke barrier (i.e. safe zone) and allows rescuers time to reach those areas.
  • Minimize travel distance to safety: Keeping the lengths of dog runs to 20 ft (6 m) or less in un-sprinklered buildings reduces travel distance to safety. In a sprinklered building, this distance can increase to 50 ft (15 m) as per IBC. NFPA 150 states exit travel distances shall not exceed 75 ft (23 m) from any point in the facility in un-sprinklered spaces, and 100 ft (31 m) in sprinklered spaces. Figure 1 shows a long run configuration with a dead-end hallway in a sprinklered space. This should not exceed the recommended lengths. If a fire occurs near Zone 1, the remaining zones have been configured so they can be sealed off from smoke and fire for one to two hours. Figure 2 illustrates smaller zones that can be considered where budget allows for it.
  • Construct walls along exit routes and around safe zones to have a fire rating of at least one hour, preferably two hours. Walls in animal care spaces typically extend to the roof deck for acoustics. Turning these sound barrier walls into fire-rated walls may be as simple as adding fire-rated caulking to areas where ducts and openings penetrate the wall. An additional hour of isolation may be all that is needed for a successful rescue.
  • Ensure exit routes are wide enough to allow animals on gurneys to be wheeled out safely. The width is determined by the number and size of occupants using the exit route; however, a reasonable starting point is to allow for a minimum clear width of
    60 in. (1.5 m) in main hallways. Figure 3 illustrates the option of designing an emergency route from a compromised safe zone to an adjoining safe zone. This solution can eliminate a dead end and presents options for safe evacuation.
  • Design door widths wider to allow animals on gurneys to be quickly wheeled to safety. A standard width of 36 in. (0.90 m) may be considered a minimum starting point, with 42 in. (1.07 m) being ideal. These doors would have a fire rating to match that of the wall they are in.
  • Design floors for slip resistance for paws and not just for shoes. Epoxy resin floors and sheet vinyl floors are typically favored for their cleanability, durability, and resistance to paws slipping.
  • Install signage at emergency access points to indicate where animals are located in a building, as well as how many animals they are looking for in any particular section of the facility.
  • Initiate dialogue—regular communication with emergency responders in your area that go over and above the mandatory site inspections helps them develop positive familiarity with your staff, space, and operations. In an emergency, this knowledge is invaluable and may aid the rescue process.

Advocating for better design solutions

As architects, we relish any opportunity to design beyond code minimums; however, we appreciate each project has its own budgetary constraints. Further, it is important to consider that caregivers at these centers will readily risk their lives to save any animals that may be in harm’s way. The following is a design ideal to strive toward:

  • Step one—Dogs and cats can escape without assistance: Set off by smoke detection, the fire alarm triggers a master switch, allowing gates to kennels and cat condos to open up to a safe corridor where able and alert animals safely navigate themselves to a secure area that is easily accessible to rescuers. This allows caregivers a safe opportunity to rescue these animals. Openings from safe zone to safe zone would need to be carefully considered so they do not pose additional hazards.
  • Step two—Caregivers move immobilized animals to a safe zone: This can mean something as simple as an enlarged vestibule, a lobby, or any room on the safe path with an automatic sprinkler system. It must be readily accessible and designed to withstand fire and smoke for at least two hours.
  • Step three—Protect in place: This is made possible by designing more durable safe zones that are sprinklered and are able to withstand fire and smoke for at least two hours. They may include operating theaters and recovery rooms where animals may be incapacitated.

In each, the animals may not be calm, but at least they’d be safe.

As veterinary design professionals, we try to incorporate best practices wherever possible, and push to go beyond the minimum. A consolidated effort from all in the animal care community (e.g. veterinary professionals, animal welfare organizations, business owners in the animal care industry, advocates in the building industry, emergency responders) will go a long way to creating safe environments for these animals and those that care for them.
A middle ground between budget and safety is always possible and should be a conscious goal for those participating in the design process. Animal lovers everywhere like to declare that “pets are people, too.” However, when it comes to minimum building code requirements, that is not the case. Animals present unique responses in a crisis, which must be factored into the design of their spaces.

Rumbi Kawadza and Adela Groth are part of the MD Architects (MDA) team and have worked on numerous animal care projects, including dog daycare facilities, pet boarding, and animal hospitals. They have more than a decade of experience designing veterinary spaces, as well as human medical centers. They can be contacted via email at

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