Building maintenance: a fire-fighter’s plea

by FM Media
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Excellent communication, attention to detail and the highest respect for human life should underpin the relationships between facility managers and fire services personnel, argues GRAEME THOM, one of Australia’s most distinguished fire-fighting professionals.
It was 3am on a Wednesday morning and, along with my fire crew and the building’s night watchman, I was going up in the building’s aging lift. We were there following the activation of an automatic alarm on the tenth floor. The building was built prior to1975.
It was our sixth call for the night, with previous attendance at a rubbish bin on fire in the city, a motor vehicle accident and four false alarms. Most of the crew had attempted to get some sleep after the call at 12.30am and so many were still sleepy when we arrived at the 14-storey building.
The nightwatchman said he had already checked the tenth floor and there was nothing to report. He said there’d been false alarms throughout the day, but he’d take us up anyway. I didn’t argue, I should have!
The lift came to a shuddering halt and the doors opened. The smoke rushed into the lift and caused confusion. We were in trouble. The lift doors seemed to take a long time to close but with repeated punches of the button they finally pressed together and kept out most of the smoke.
Even in 1983 I should have known better than to go straight up to an indicated fire floor with an unprepared crew and a civilian in the lift. Luckily, the nightwatchmen and fire-fighters survived. The nightwatchman, then in his 70s, required treatment for a suspected heart attack, while two fire-fighters suffered smoke inhalation after being trapped by a locked exit door.
The resultant fire damage closed the whole multi-tenanted building for three days and a number of floors were closed for a week or more. The damage was extensive and the insurance payouts considerable. There was significant smoke and water damage throughout, millions of dollars of damage.
Fire services now have very good systems, training and practices in place for when we arrive at and work in your buildings. What we never know, however, is how well you and your building are prepared for us when we do arrive.
As facility managers you need to know what our systems, training and practices are, what it is that we need from you and what will best help us help you to protect your occupants, their work, as well as your buildings and their contents.

The hose-reel system – We decided to use the building’s hose-reel while getting the fire hydrant system ready. Big fire, big hose. The hose-reel was not stowed properly and would not feed out smoothly, taking a long time to unwind and too many people to untangle the mess. We lost precious time as the fire continued to grow. Hose reels are generally for the occupants to use, but if not maintained properly they are useless for fire fighters or occupants alike.
The fire hydrant – The hydrant outlet had insufficient clearance to allow the hose to be connected, so we had to break away some of the wall. When connected and pressurised the angle where the hose came into contact with the floor was so acute that the hose kinked (bent) and markedly reduced the flow for fire-fighting purposes. A less effective fire stream means: less effective fire-fighting, fire-fighters less capable of protecting themselves, more danger, more damage, and greater recovery time for business continuity.
Power supply – The fire affected the power, which should have cut in the generators; they didn’t work, it was dark, and we had to set up our own lighting system… more resources, more time, more danger, more damage. Most of the emergency lighting and illuminated exit signs did not work; it was like fire-fighting blindfolded.
Alarm system – As the fire spread, the alarm panel should have shown the location of the fire and its changes of direction; it didn’t. The system was faulty and we there had been numerous false alarms and isolations.
These systems are in the building because they have to be there for legislated fire safety reasons (i.e. to meet and/or remove or mitigate the fire risk of the building or its use), or for insurance purposes (for the same reasons).
There are, however, two other reasons why they are there and need to be maintained. Your building is a workplace for fire-fighters. This is the considered view of each of the States’ and Territories’ fire services and the national council of fire and emergency services, the Australasian Fire & Emergency Services Authority Council (AFAC). It is also the legal view.
Overall, risk analysis and management, appropriate fire safety system maintenance, such as that outlined in Australian Standard 1851–2005, and each of the State and Territory legislation requirements, along with staff knowledge and training, are vitally important. Seven issues to consider are:
1. life safety of fire-fighters
2. life safety of occupants
3. protection of your building and its contents
4. protection of your business (its continuity and insurance)
5. getting what you pay for! (maintenance of systems and risk mitigation)
6. legal issues/costs, e.g. on-the-spot fines, court fines and costs, etc
7. coronial outcomes, which may lead to degraded business outcomes and opportunities and/or civil litigation.

In the future it may also be that there is a number eight on the list if legislation is enacted to ensure against avoidable environmental pollution from the effects of fire on certain types of buildings. Maybe it should be there now.

There are also seven key fire safety requirements that fire-fighters would like to see in all buildings, and which are required in some States and Territories.

The seven main fire safety requirements are:
1. a certificate of classification (or use). The terminology may differ between States but the intent of a single point of truth providing the classification of the building for the owner, occupier, facility manager and regulator remains the same;
2. clear information immediately available to fire-fighters listing what fire safety installations are provided in your building, when they were installed and any operating instructions or safety criteria identified;
3. identified and explained alternative solutions (other than standard or normal fire safety installations or systems in your building);
4. a fire and emergency plan outlining what staff and management should do in the event of an emergency. These should be well prepared, practised and integrated with the local fire service’s advice and attendance in the event of an emergency;
5. the owner/occupier/facility manager should be made aware of, and take appropriate action regarding, the occurrence of any critical defects in fire safety systems, e.g. the sprinkler system may be non-operational due to repairs. This issue is outlined in the Australian Standards Maintenance requirements of AS 1851–2005 and/or specific State/Territory legislation;
6. there should be at least an annual review of the building’s fire safety passive and active systems, staff preparedness and specific and overall risk rating of the building or parts of the building and its use, plus an assessment of the risk in the surrounding parts of the premises;
7. staff and/or a designated building delegate should be capable of identifying when a building’s fire risk alters, and what should be done to continue to manage that risk. This should be achieved either by reducing the risk to the level for which the building’s fire safety systems are installed, or ensuring the appropriate fire safety upgrade is implemented.

The requirement for this risk analysis to occur is often stipulated in a State’s legislation, but often it is not understood or followed up by the building owner, manager or occupier. For example, in Queensland it is covered under ‘a material change of use’ provision in legislation. This means that a building may have significantly increased its fire risk and therefore require an upgrade to its fire safety requirements, but it may not necessarily need a change of building classification. On other occasions it may require a change of classification of the building or a part of the building and a commensurate fire safety upgrade.

Face to face is always best. Keep in mind, however, that most fire services run a four-shift system, normally designated by A, B, C and D shifts. These shifts normally run from 0800hrs (8am) to 1800hrs (6pm). Therefore, you may have a particular fire station that looks after your building but four separate shift officers and their crews that could attend your building at any particular time.
These four shift officers will also have a more senior officer (normally on day work). If you have a significant building or face significant risk, it might pay to liaise with this more senior officer in the first instance. Keep in mind that these officers will be thinking of your building as their workplace and will have an expectation that your fire safety systems are being maintained, in part to protect their lives.
It pays to know your building’s risk and its risk rating, and to appreciate how and when that risk might change. It is helpful if these changes can be discussed with your fire service and, if necessary, a response strategy agreed.

When there is an emergency and fire-fighters have been called, facility managers should consider the following checklist of important points:
q know your stuff, your building, its systems, and relevant legislation;
q be there when they arrive. Be calm. The first responding officer will have a lot to do and a lot on his mind. In the first instance be prepared to answer his questions, and then add additional information that may also assist without being prompted;
q be ahead of the game, you can do this best by liaising with your local fire service and learning what it is they will do when they arrive and how you can best work together on their arrival;
q be aware of your legal and organisational role and also the fire service’s legal obligations as part of their role.

Even when not in thick smoke, fire-fighters can get lost in a building. Because you know your building, don’t assume that others do. Better on-site status reports and key directional information are important. Have someone attend the alarm if possible, but be prepared to stay behind if the officer judges that you are in danger.
I recall one occasion when as a young fire-fighter we responded to an alarm in a correctional centre. On arrival we checked the location at the alarm panel and we also obtained a compass point location and a map. The on-site person took us to where she believed the west wing was; it wasn’t there. In the meantime, the fire raged on in the area where we were supposed to be. You need to know your building.
Laminated A4 sheets of your building and/or floor layout are very helpful if maintained. If necessary, the fire officer can quickly use these to assist in implementing fire-fighting and/or rescue efforts.

Coroners, courts and shareholders don’t like it if you don’t plan. You need to have pre-determined staff responsibilities and designated roles in the event of a fire or other emergency, plus after-hours/holiday delegations of duty to other colleagues, as appropriate. You need to understand and implement your particular State’s or Territory’s legislation (such as AS 3745 or parts thereof) for fire and evacuation procedures.
I have attended a number of court and coronial cases. Those building owners and occupiers who have not thought through and implemented appropriate risk reduction strategies, including maintenance of fire safety systems and fire and evacuation plans, are at the very least portrayed in a lesser light. At the extreme, they may face civil and/or criminal court investigation. The implications of media coverage and contingent negative exposure should also never be underestimated.

In 1999 in Queensland, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), along with that State’s fire service, investigated a range of fire protection companies and the buildings they serviced, and the level of maintenance service carried out for those buildings.
A number of issues were uncovered. One result of the investigations was the imposition of fines in excess of $20 million. Infringements included the issue of invoices for fire safety systems maintenance that was never undertaken, or only partially completed.
If you are paying good money for something to be done, it should be done. The contingent obligation across a range of contractual links between parties does not diminish with the excuse ‘ignorance of the law’.
Likewise, it was clearly identified that some building owners/occupiers/managers – and I am pleased to say only a minority – had a full understanding of the law relating to maintenance of their fire safety systems and deliberately flouted the intent of the law, capitalising on perceived loopholes in the law. An example of this is the need for the three, five, 12 and 20-year requirements for testing/maintenance procedures, which generally take more time and cost more money. In other words, some practitioners choose to contract only for the standard annual or other minimum requirements. New contractor appointments often result in a lack of ongoing information for the incoming fire protection maintenance company.

I do, and so do thousands of fire-fighters. We want to protect life, property and the environment; that’s what we joined up for. The majority of building owners, occupiers and managers (facilities managers and others) also want to protect life, property and the environment. So do governments, which enact legislation to protect their communities and their economic welfare – unsafe buildings, for instance, can adversely affect tourism, as demonstrated by the Childers Palace Backpackers fire in Queensland and the resultant impact on tourism and the $4 billion backpacking industry.
I currently chair the Australasian Fire & Emergency Services Authority Council’s (AFAC) Built Environment Committee and am a director on Australia’s Fire Protection Associations (FPA) board. I can confidently state that those agencies also care, and will continue to ensure their associations’ goals of protecting life, property and the environment. So, too, does the ACCC from a compliance perspective.
If you need help or advice, ask. Fire service agencies exist and live for it, and fire protection associations such as the FPAA give assistance freely.
On behalf of the Fire Services of Australia and the Fire Protection Association of Australia (FPAA) I urge each of you as facilities managers to investigate how you can better protect the assets you manage, the built environment of Australia and the lives of fire-fighters.

Graeme Thom is Queensland Fire & Rescue Service’s Senior Fire Safety Officer and executive manager of Community Safety. He is a member of the Fire Protection Industry Board (FPIB) of Queensland and a member of the Executive Committee of the Fire Protection Association of Australia (FPAA) Qld branch. He is a former vice president and director of the Fire Protection Association of Australia’s national board. He is also an Australian committee member of the Confederation of Fire Protection Associations – Asia, and has been awarded the Emergency Services Minister’s commendations, the Australian Day Medallion, the Australian Centenary Medal and Australia’s highest fire service award: the Australian Fire Service Medal (AFSM).

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