BUILDINGS - Smarter Facilities Management


Safety First: 2 of 2

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

Safety First

Reliable Technology

New life safety and fire protection systems today are considered far more reliable and give end-users more information and feedback than systems installed even five years ago.

Steve Wolk, vice president of Florida State Fire and Security in Davie, FL, says with the use of  computer software technology,  initiation devices are processing intelligent information where immediate decisions are being made by the system and then implemented into immediate actions. “Addressable modules can monitor and control other systems like sprinklers, hood systems, elevators, HVAC, and more,” he says.

They even can control formerly passive devices such as fire extinguishers. A Rockville, MD, company, MIJA Industries, introduced EN-Gauge™, a multi-patented, active monitoring capability for fire extinguishers and extinguishing systems in March at the International Security Conference (ISC)/Expo West in Las Vegas.

This new technology allows fire extinguishers to become a fully supervised component of a monitored fire alarm or security system, providing constant monitoring for pressure. The system also uses sonar to determine whether there is an obstruction to extinguisher access, as opposed to the standard, labor-intensive monthly physical inspections. EN-Gauge also signals an alert the moment a fire extinguisher is removed from its proper location, giving security system monitors awareness of a potential life safety situation.

“Electronically monitored fire extinguishers are brand new,” says Bill MacDonald, vice president of sales and marketing at MIJA Industries. “They’re no longer a passive device just hanging on the wall. They connect to any building system just like any other intelligent device. You know it’s there. You know it’s ready to be used. You know it’s going to work. If it doesn’t, you’ll know that, too.”

The only stumbling block to all of these new integrated technologies is that of proprietary systems and compatibility, facilities professionals say.

“I like addressable systems because they make it easy to pinpoint where an alarm signal came from in the building and what might be the cause of the problem if it is an equipment failure rather than an actual fire alarm,” says Kurt Padvano, chief operating officer. “It’s critical that today’s fire and life safety systems be easily integrated with other building systems. Manufacturers claim they can interface systems and have communication between them, but even then it sometimes takes a couple of tries to get it right. There’s a lot of finger pointing as to whose fault it is. It’s a frustrating process.”

J. Leo Kinney, property manager at the Cash America international headquarters building in Fort Worth, TX, agrees.

“A BACnet protocol is truly necessary,” he says. “There could be standards for fire protection equipment so it wouldn’t make a difference as to what system you have. You would have a standard way of doing things. The fire department could go into any property and know exactly what kind of commands to enter into the system.”

But before automation and compatibility become an industry-wide issue, the simple fact is, many facilities first need to update their existing systems – or even add a system.

Unfortunately, some experts note, fire systems usually are replaced or upgraded only when they fail, can’t be expanded to handle additional devices, or code changes require it.

“Once a building is built, it is built to a code. If you don’t make any changes, you can stay with that code,” explains John Gallagher, senior vice president for commercial real estate at Polinger, Shannon & Luchs Co., Chevy Chase, MD. “There is no code on the books as to how often you have to upgrade your fire protection system. In reality, it’s done as part of an ongoing, normal renovation in a life-cycle plan. As codes have changed over time, and as individual requirements in jurisdictions change, you reach a point where it is no longer cost effective to band-aid the existing system.”

Wolk says building managers need to look at the reliability of their existing systems and assess them with an open mind.

“Early warning is an issue that managers always should look at,” he says. “Does the existing system protect the property in all areas? Is the system audible in all occupied areas? Is it monitored off-site so that the fire department is dispatched immediately when an alarm occurs? Do they have a service agreement to maintain the system 24/7? Are inspections done when required? Are repairs done immediately?”

Don’t just install to meet code, Wolk says. Move beyond basic responsibility and look at all options of life safety. Examine how these options will benefit the facility, look at the costs, and then make an educated decision whether or not to install above code.

“Make sure that any system you install has the capacity to expand for future needs,” Wolk adds. “It is cheaper to spend a few dollars now for a better system than it is to replace the system three or four years later because it no longer has the capacity to meet your needs.”

Real Life Emergencies

Besides the people inside a building, a good plan also should protect the property itself

When a tornado struck downtown Fort Worth in May 2000, it severely damaged Cash America’s international corporate headquarters building. In the initial aftermath, fire officials deemed the nine-story, nearly 165,894-square-foot structure uninhabitable. The downside: The company did not have a disaster recovery program in place so it had to work on the fly.

“We went into auto-pilot and starting asking ourselves what do we do next,” says Property Manager J. Leo Kinney, who had started working at Cash America about six months before the twister touched down. “I volunteered to take control of things in terms of taking care of the building. I suggested the following morning that [the company] acquire a warehouse nearby and start emptying workspaces out into areas divided by floors. It was the best way to do it. It was almost automatic. You really can surprise yourself in an emergency.”

While it is possible to react quickly without a plan during an emergency, safety experts urge facility management pros to get a plan in place immediately. It will make things much easier and calmer if an emergency does occur.

Elliot Powers recalls a situation with a Los Angeles-area office property that recently faced two separate bomb threats. “Both turned out to be false events. However, because an organized, clearly planned set of procedures was in place, and the occupants of that building were properly trained by a professional emergency preparedness consultant, the emergencies were handled confidently and flawlessly,” he says.

About five years ago, Advance Realty officials had to put the company’s life safety plan into action. The main electric service transformer and switch gear in a 250,000-square-foot office property in northern New Jersey exploded and started a fire.

“Fortunately, it was at the end of the business day when it happened, and it was  a Friday, so we had time to get things back together,” Padavano says.

The evacuation went smoothly, and the property management staff responded and got everyone out, according to its pre-designed plan. The fire had affected the main electrical room, which also included the building’s emergency generator, all of its telephone equipment, and many of its automated controllers for such systems as lighting and HVAC.

“It all was destroyed in the fire that followed the explosion, causing $1.2 million in damage,” Padvano says. “But because of our plan, we went from no power, no transformer, and no switch gear to having the building back up and operating in five days.”

Robin Suttell, based in Cleveland, is contributing editor at Buildings magazine.

Life-Saving Defibrillation

Much like other standard building safety equipment, a growing number of automated external defibrillators (AEDs) are being installed in commercial office buildings and government facilities. Although purchasing and installing AEDs are important first steps in reducing the number of deaths from sudden cardiac arrest (SCA), facilities executives should establish a formal AED action plan to ensure proper procedures are followed, says Tracy Byers, director of marketing, at the Cardiac Resuscitation Unit of Bethell, WA-based Philips Medical Systems (, located in Andover, MA.

According to Byers, SCA is actually an electrical malfunction in the heart – much different than a heart attack – with no associated risk factors; unfortunately, SCA strikes more than 250,000 people each year. Although defibrillators provide treatment for cardiac arrest, they must be used within 10 minutes from SCA onset for any chance of success. “So Philips has a mission of supporting early public access to defibrillation programs,” notes Byers. “That means putting defibrillators that are safe, effective, and easy to use in the hands of what we refer to as minimally trained or lay-responders.”

Knowing there are different types of users and frequency of training, Philips has spent significant time in offering products and services that help expand people’s confidence in using a defibrillator. Smart technology and voice prompts “guide” users through the process. Philips also has four clinically trained implementation specialists on staff that can assist commercial customers.

Byers recommends the following approach:

  • Choose a device(s) that is comfortable to users.
  • Locate the device(s), based upon who will be trained.
  • Make sure appropriate training resources are available, and are delivered frequently.
  • Determine a company-wide response time (OSHA recommends responding to medical emergencies within three to five minutes).
  • Create an awareness program among company personnel.
  • Know local EMS regulations, and communicate closely with your local EMS.

— Linda K. Monroe, Editorial Director



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