Fire safety system failure and the impact on your business

by FM Media
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The dangers of failing to maintain a building’s fire protection system and associated equipment has been in the media spotlight of late.  Paul Angus discusses the significance of fire and life safety and how it may impact your business.

The facility manager spends the majority of his time putting out fires. When I say fires, I’m referring to hot topics in the day-to-day operation and maintenance of a building. It may be the air conditioning has stopped working on a hot summer’s day, causing discomfort to the tenants. Call out the facility manager. Hot water is suddenly not available in the end-of-trip facility in the basement, again call out the facility manager. Blocked toilet on level 5 and currently overflowing into the corridor. The phone never stops for the facility manager who is at the heart of the buildings operation.

However, the most significant item the facility manager is involved with is fire and life safety for the building and its occupants. This requires a great deal of knowledge covering a wide range of topics in regards to the fire protection system, including operational considerations, monthly and annual testing and inspection requirements, preventative maintenance, as well as various policies and procedures. To overlook or not have a good understanding of how the fire sprinkler and fire alarm system operates can have catastrophic consequences in ensuring the safety of the buildings occupants. The element of risk, duty of care and responsibility for fire and life safety is a big burden, but who does the facility management team turn to for professional and independent advice?

Typically, the team will have their own staff to undertake weekly inspections and spot checks, however quarterly and annual inspections are outsourced. As with many other facility systems and components, the correct inspection and maintenance requirements often combine with misrepresentation and misunderstandings to challenge the team’s best efforts at efficiency and safety. Even if facility managers oversee the appropriate inspections of fire-safety systems, complications can arise that impair the systems’ effectiveness as well as endanger occupants and operations. In order to overcome this, it is recommended that a third party for fire-safety inspection is conducted as a way to avoid possible conflicts of interest and ensure successful compliance. It is recommended to have a third-party that does not directly benefit from the inspection, for example an independent fire-protection contractor or engineer.

Main risk factors
Common issues resulting in tenant fitouts or modifications to parts of the fire protection system include failures resulting from valves that have been closed or partially closed. Other common failures involve tenant fitouts which always have the token painted sprinkler heads, painted smoke detectors, painted heat detectors, even alarm systems where the loud speaker horns are taped over due to the occupant’s annoyance when activated for testing purposes. Other factors that are common issues may consist of tenancies that have amended the internal layout without notifying the facility manager or consulting with a professional engineer. For example, an unused area of an office becomes a storage room, changing the area class from a light-hazard space and subsequent level of fire protection necessary.

The reality is that a fire can occur in a building any time and any place, most often occurring out of hours. Fires don’t occur on a regular basis, and as a result fire safety measures tend not to be high on the priority list of daily to-dos for facility managers or building owners. It’s important that all parties understand the short and long-term effects of a fire.

There are plenty of obstacles to achieving best practices in fire and life safety management, however there are also ways to overcome those obstacles. For one, there’s complacency. Management and tenants may view a fire as highly unlikely when there has never been one in a building.  Another is a change of priorities by building management, perhaps pushing fire and life safety further down the list and replacing it with another item that has a more physical impact to the building that can be justified to tenants paying rent.  On the subject of money, allocation of capital budgets utilised for maintenance and upgrades can become an issue. For example, if a fire hydrant or sprinkler pump needs replacing, it is difficult to convince management that the replacement purchase is absolutely necessary.

Prevention is key to protecting lives and minimising building in the event of a fire. However, no matter the degree of preventive measures implemented, there are factors out of the facility manager’s control – human error, electrical faults, etc. – that spark in the dark requires early detection.

Preventative measures
Fire Detection plays an important component in any building.  Having the ability to detect and pinpoint with a high degree of accuracy at an early stage the early stages of a fire outbreak is important. Furthermore, detection plays an important role in life safety evacuation efforts. Smoke and heat detectors are the two most common choices for fire detection systems. However, these rely on the building being well maintained and monitored 24/7, to help identify exact locations of fires, to notify the building occupants, and most importantly the fire brigade.

Newer commercial buildings are designed to have longer performance life. Buildings can undergo various upgrades in its lifespan and it is important to ensure existing fire protection system is as effective as it was new; that it meets current conditions; and complies with relevant standards and BCA requirements.

Testing and inspection play a key role in fire and life safety management. For example, though it may seem obvious, a building’s fire alarm system has to be regularly tested to make sure it works. In addition, it shouldn’t be assumed that the fire brigade is simultaneously notified as the alarm sounds, this should be tested and appropriate measures implemented. Perform regular testing, inspection and maintenance of crucial fire protection systems, such as sprinkler systems, fire dampers, alarms and the operation of fire doors.

When testing a building’s fire protection system, the most common reaction from building occupants is to ignore or complain about being inconvenienced by a fire drill. Communicating the importance of fire protection testing and policies is critical. Having an evacuation plan, as part of a fire and life safety plan is a crucial operational consideration, as is practicing the plan with a building’s staff and day-to-day occupants.

In order to build confidence with tenants and investors alike, it is paramount to implement a fire strategy plan that is reviewed and tested. It is vital to keeping records of testing, maintenance and daily operations. The facility manager has a duty of care to ensure all steps are made to protect the building and its occupants in the event of a fire.

It is important that any changes to the internal layout of the building or within the tenancies be incorporated within the fire strategy and evacuation plan. This may include any change of use, for example, where an open plan office is sub-divided or converted to a new conference room or where a new laboratory or test facility has been constructed and storage of chemicals has been provided, which can affect the type and level of fire protection required for these areas. The facility manager is responsible for ensuring building occupants know how to respond to a fire and evacuate the building in a safe manner, particularly in buildings that people don’t typically occupy every day, ie. storage areas, server rooms, etc.

Lastly and often overlooked is the safety of people with disabilities during a fire and their passage to safety. Are safe areas or rescue assistance areas provided to aid and assist in evacuating disabled individuals? Protecting lives and minimising damage to property in the event of a fire are critical to the ongoing operations of your business.

Paul Angus is the associate director of the Hydraulic and Fire team at Erbas & Associates with extensive experience of plumbing systems in the UK, Europe and the Middle East. Erbas has a key focus on reducing water consumption in Victoria, Queensland and New South Wales.

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