Equivalencies for Exit Enclosures

Q: We have a hospital with a number of exit enclosures. These passageways have a large number of unrelated utilities running above the ceiling. Modification will not only be very expensive, but very difficult. Can we use NFPA 101A FSES equivalencies for alternate compliance?

A: Section (10)(h) of the 2012 LSC does say “Existing penetrations protected in accordance with 8.3.5” as an exception regarding utility penetrations into an exit enclosure, so the undesirable utility penetrations in the exit enclosures may be acceptable if you can prove they are ‘existing’ conditions. According to CMS, anything designed or constructed prior to July 5, 2016 is considered existing conditions as far as the 2012 Life Safety Code goes, but not all other authorities agree with this concept entirely. Ever since the 1988 edition and all of the subsequent editions of the LSC, it has said that penetrations of ductwork, conduit, pipes, etc., that do not serve the exit enclosure are prohibited.

Many authorities having jurisdiction enforce this to present day…. Meaning if the utility was installed in 1992 in the exit enclosure but does not serve the exit enclosure, then it still can be cited today because it was not installed correctly ‘back then’. But the 1985 edition does not say that. So, any utility installed in an exit enclosure that does not serve the exit enclosure before the 1988 edition was adopted would be considered ‘existing’ and since it wasn’t prohibited when it was installed, it would be permitted to remain, provided it met the requirements of 8.3.5. For CMS, they were on the 1985 edition until March 11, 2003.

But Joint Commission had been adopting the new editions of the LSC shortly after they were published. So, they were on the 1991 edition back in 1992, which is as far as my memory goes. It’s all a crap-shoot…. Some surveyors will recognize the July 5, 2016 date as the only threshold between new and existing and will allow the existing utilities in the exit enclosure, and then some surveyors will be more scrutinizing and try to determine when the utilities were installed. But to answer your question, if you get cited, you could always go for an equivalency (NFPA 101A FSES) as part of your Plan of Correction, but you would have to prove a significant hardship in complying with the LSC.

One can assume it will be costly to install a 2-hour fire-rated ceiling in the exit enclosure to cover-up the utilities, but the CMS Regional Office is the entity to make the decision to approve the FSES equivalency or not, and you need to convince them whether or not it is a significant hardship. CMS does not accept equivalencies unless the deficiency is first cited, so you will have to wait to get cited by your accreditor or state agency surveying on behalf of CMS. And don’t forget to conduct an assessment for ILSMs now of the deficiency… most authorities will expect you to do so. But equivalencies are only valid until the next triennial survey, so it would be best to make long-range plans to resolve the issue, rather than continuously presenting equivalency requests.