Safety First: 1 of 2

04/30/2003 |

The Critical Issues – and Planning – of Fire and Life Safety

Firefighters continue to sift through smoldering debris at the scene of the nightclub fire in West Warwick, RI, February 2003.

The recent fatal inferno at a Rhode Island nightclub brought to light the hazards of fires and other non-terrorist-related disasters in commercial facilities.

The lethal combination of highly flammable, exposed foam insulation used as soundproofing and pyrotechnics set off inside a closed space sparked the blaze at The Station nightclub in West Warwick, RI. The building, which was built prior to 1976, was not required to have a sprinkler system because it was covered by previous, pre-sprinkler codes. Sprinklers were not introduced into the state’s codes until 1976. Fire investigators say the lack of a sprinkler system increased the tragedy’s casualties, which included 99 deaths and more than 150 injuries. The state of Rhode Island is now reviewing its codes in the aftermath of this tragedy.

Meeting the bare minimum in codes and standards doesn’t let building owners and managers off the hook, experts say. Good life safety planning falls under the building management umbrella and should cover not only emergency evacuation plans but also the building’s fire detection/suppression/containment systems.

While building codes might not have required sprinkler installation at the destroyed nightclub, both facility and fire safety professionals say building owners and managers have a responsibility to provide their employees, tenants, guests, and patrons with the highest level of safety possible.

“Codes are a minimum. They are things that you absolutely have to do. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do more,” says Bill MacDonald, a 25-year veteran of the fire protection industry and vice president of sales and marketing for Rockville, MD-based MIJA Industries, a manufacturer of fire extinguisher pressure gauges. “You could buy a car that has a seat, a steering wheel, tires, and brakes and go down the road, but are you going to be happy with it? If you’re just meeting codes, you’re probably not doing enough, particularly when the public is involved. You have not done your job.”

Plan Components

Fire and life safety planning is a critical component of any building. How it is approached, however, depends on the types of building for which plans and equipment are being designed.

In developing an effective plan, you need to take a building’s construction and function into consideration. Is it a concrete, steel-reinforced structure or is it framed in wood? How many floors does it have? And what is its function? Is it a hospital with a critical care unit? Is it a storage facility where hazardous materials are kept?

“A fire in a warehouse would certainly be different than one in an office building,” notes John Gallagher, senior vice president for commercial real estate at Polinger, Shannon & Luchs Co. in Chevy Chase, MD. “You have to account for that in your planning.”

Any life safety plan should describe the types of emergencies that could occur in a facility, not just fires. In fact, many companies have turned their “fire and life safety plans” into “emergency management plans.” While the name has changed, the primary focus of saving lives and reducing the risk of injury has not.

Training is crucial, says Elliot Powers, executive vice president of Building Safety Solution, a multi-disciplined, emergency preparedness and fire/life safety consulting company in Pasadena, CA. Key personnel must be properly trained according to their specified responsibilities. When required by appropriate jurisdictions, this training must be document, filed, and forwarded to the proper agencies within those jurisdictions. Training should include CPR, first aid, and disaster recovery, Powers notes.

“We have made a big push in the last year to make sure our staff is fully trained,” says Dave Carter at Moses Tucker Real Estate in Little Rock, AR. “We have brought in our local representative from SimplexGrinnell to hold an in-house seminar for our building engineers. It was helpful in educating our team on exactly what we should be doing on a daily basis.”

Only recently, he says, did Moses Tucker begin to educate its tenants on planning and procedures during an emergency. This education includes providing them with evacuation maps, floor monitors, and after-hours contact information.

You also need to account for visitors in a plan, says Kurt Padavano, chief operating officer at Advance Realty Management/Advance Realty Group LLC in Bedminster, NJ.

“This only can be accomplished if the flow of daily visitors is controlled each and every day by the reception personnel and/or security staff,” Padvano points out. “Visitors are not familiar with the facility and do not know the proper procedures in the event of an emergency. In addition, your regular staff of fire deputies is not necessarily looking for visitors as they search and exit, either.”


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