A New Era of Life Safety

Feb. 21, 2013
Go beyond fire protection to safeguard against a growing list of threats

Take an inventory of your life safety responsibilities – what do they include?

If you're like most FMs, you thought of fire protection: sprinklers, extinguishers, and alarms. Few will consider that life safety is far more extensive and complex than preventing fires. Take a look at this morning's headlines and it's clear that buildings play an active role – for better or worse – in crisis situations.

Occupants are relying on you to shield them from a growing list of possible threats: domestic assault, terrorism, civil disturbances, shootings, workplace injuries, suspicious packages, medical emergencies, and carbon monoxide. Less deadly but still prevalent hazards such as inclement weather, power outages, and water leaks also fall under the jurisdiction of FMs.

As buildings have become more complex, it's become apparent that FM is the one department centrally positioned to have its finger on the pulse of life safety. But most organizations don't see the connection yet and struggle to stay on top of routine fire protection, much less comprehensive life safety. When was the last time you ran a fire drill? Established a relationship with the fire department? Tested whether you could shut down your ventilation system in the case of a chemical spill?

No longer can fire protection and life safety be viewed as separate endeavors – it's time to take building safety to the next level. PageBreak

Weigh the Risks
If you're busy monitoring your energy consumption or attending to sustainability goals, it's easy to become complacent about life safety. Code compliance can only spurn so much motivation if your department is stretched thin.

Far too often, it takes a public tragedy to motivate real change in building protection practices. Deadly fires draw national attention to gaps in life safety (see sidebar), but so do events like 9/11, Hurricane Sandy, and school shootings.

Beyond saving lives, there's a strong business case – the damage from even a small fire can amount to thousands of dollars and a lawsuit stemming from an incident can be a major drain. A poor life safety program not only decreases occupant safety and increases legal liability, but it tarnishes your business reputation as well.

Think of a well-appointed emergency plan as an opportunity to attract prospective clients. "Corporations looking to lease space are being proactive in their due diligence and are evaluating the status of building protection systems, safety procedures, and emergency management programs in prospective locations," says Jason Reid, founder and principal of the National Life Safety Group. A potential client could say "no thanks" if they don't feel your life safety measures are up to par.

Fines for code violations may also hit your pocketbook. A broken fire door may not look like a pressing concern, but something as small as a damaged hinge or malfunctioning latch is a serious matter. If a fire door doesn't work properly, it will enable, not deter, smoke and fire migration. Not only will this increase the extent of the damage, but it also compromises your insurance coverage.

"An inspector will want to see proof that inspections were performed and the door was properly working," Reid explains. "If you can't provide documentation, the insurance company may deny portions of a damage claim."

Plagued by false alarms? Many fire departments are starting to charge properties for response calls, much like an ambulance ride to the hospital. Depending on your location, you could be billed for nuisance alarms.

"For example, the city of Toronto charges $500 a truck for every nuisance or malicious alarm," Reid observes. "In a high-rise tower, a minimum of three trucks respond – that's $1,500 just for a false alarm."

The cost of a false alarm also affects business continuity. You can calculate lost productivity by taking the length of a false alarm and multiplying it by the number of employees affected and their hourly wage. A mere 30 minutes of disruption could be hundreds of dollars lost when workers have to evacuate.

You can even think of life safety in terms of energy and water conservation. If a fire door is ajar, your HVAC could be working harder to condition an area it wasn't designed to cover. A blown sprinkler head could shed hundreds of gallons of water before its shut off.

While it can be difficult to get funding for life safety improvements, make the case that proactive investments protect future dollars and ongoing operations. PageBreak

Beware Common Mistakes
Talk to any fire consultant and they'll tell you stories about egregious breaches in life safety, such as painted sprinkler heads, locked or unmarked emergency exits, and water piping blocked from corrosion.

But it tends to be the small oversights that blossom into the biggest problems – measures like regular emergency drills, maintenance and inspections, and risk assessments. Are you guilty of any of these oversights?

1) Lazy Fire Extinguisher Inspections – Many organizations are passing this responsibility onto security guards or janitorial staff. Are you confident they know what they're looking for? Many have not received the necessary training to do so, yet their inspection reports are a legal record of your due diligence.

"This not only represents a gap in required training and the inspection process, but it's simply frightening from a corporate liability aspect," stresses Reid.

To make inspections more efficient, try using digital sensors. The device uses a smart pressure gauge to continuously check for pressure fluctuations and can also detect tampering or obstructions. You can also use bar codes – staff scan the extinguisher and inspection data is uploaded directly in your CMMS.

2) Forgotten Emergency Procedures – Review and test emergency procedures on an annual basis to ensure they reflectsdesign or occupancy changes, reminds Joshua Elvove, a consulting fire protection engineer and president of the Society of Fire Protection Engineers. They may also need to be expanded so they cover more than traditional plans do for fire or earthquakes.

"Any fire safety plan should include detailed instructions for occupants on fire and emergency procedures, including actions to take if there is an evacuation order or the need to shelter in place," says Reid.

Most owners forget that life safety plans are also used by building management during an emergency. Facility managers will brief emergency personnel on the nature of a crisis, provide occupant evacuation details, convey building access information, or help manually shut off key system components. An active life safety plan ensures details won't get overlooked.

"A properly completed emergency plan provides tactical information to help the fire department in rescue operations, property conservation efforts, and dealing with hazardous materials," Reid explains.

Your plans should also have a list of persons requiring assistance (PRAs) in the building – those who have mobility issues, cognitive limitations, or sensory impairments. This includes a pregnant woman, someone recovering from surgery, or an employee who temporarily has an ankle brace, Reid says.

Not only should you have a firm headcount each day of your occupants, but you should also be aware of any outside contractors who are in the building. In the case of the Imperial Foods Plants fire, one of the victims was a man resupplying a vending machine – it wasn't until his company reported his truck missing that the connection was made. PageBreak

3) Compromised Passive Fire Protection – Simple building renovations can create gaps (literally) in fire barriers. IT wire or piping is commonly run through walls or ceilings, but the penetrations are rarely sealed. These openings, which can be inches in diameter, create additional paths for combustion and smoke to travel within the building.

"One proactive measure you can take is to identify fire barriers with stencils or labels," suggests Elvove. "It reminds workers that specific measures are required in that area to maintain fire protection."

You can also conduct a fire-life safety inspection after any retrofit project, Reid recommends. Even a simple light fixture installation could impact a fire or smoke barrier, so make inspections a habit.

The same vigilance is applicable to minor renovations. Remember that changes to layout configurations, walls, ceilings, and partitions have an effect on the sprinkler system, Elvove stresses. Make sure fire protection is included in any design considerations and properly documented.

4) Reluctance to Adopt Technology – Life safety systems are designed to last for years on end, but keep an eye out for retrofits that can enhance what you already have in place.

"Many companies take a 'code minimum' approach and won't consider anything that's not mandated. Others are going beyond to provide an extra level of care for their occupants," notes Charles Riley, a sales managers for NOTIFIER, a division of Honeywell that manufactures fire-life safety solutions. "There are many newer technologies that can provide advanced solutions, such as multi-criteria detectors, touchscreen interfaces for first responders, addressable fire alarm systems, maintenance alerts, bar code inventory tracking, and voice annunciation."

For example, mass notification is not required by any code, says Elvove, but many owners incorporate it into their fire alarm system because they want to relay additional emergency messages. It gives them the flexibility to tell occupants what to do or not do.

If you're looking at fire protection for a new project, consider using building information modeling (BIM), which creates 3D models of your facility. Use it to ensure that any conflicts with the placement of life safety components are ironed out before construction.

"BIM software is starting to include fire protection components within the models," Elvove explains. "Traditionally, many life safety components aren't seen until the contractor submits shop drawings. Now they can be incorporated into the design itself."

You can also integrate your fire-life safety systems, creating intelligent communication between individual components. Make sure that you test these pathways and ensure that any sequence reactions initiate properly.

For example, a smoke detector is responsible for shutting off an air handler, but have you verified the unit shuts down when prompted?

You may have done separate maintenance and inspected the air handler and alarm, but you need to confirm they work together, notes Elvove. Coordinating fire alarm testing with elevator recall and operating emergency lighting are also commonly missed tests. PageBreak

5) Overlook The General Public – The recent nightclub fire tragedy in Brazil where over 230 people died raises an important point – routine fire drills will do nothing to protect guests who have never been in your building before.

In the event of an emergency, visitors will naturally flee the building using the entrance they are familiar with – the one they came through. Even building occupants will become creatures of habit and seek out whatever pathway they use at morning and night.

But what if that known exit is blocked? Signage, emergency lighting, and unblocked egress options become paramount in such a situation and may be the only backup measures leading guests to safety.

Know How to Operate Your Building
Even if you're vigilant about life safety, system malfunctions may test the limits of your own knowledge, cautions Reid. Your ability to respond and recover from equipment and system failures can be invaluable in crisis or even prevent one from happening. Are you prepared to handle:

  • Elevator entrapments or system failures
  • CO gas detection alarms within parking garages
  • Emergency generator manual start-up procedures for power failures
  • Manual shut down of fire pumps, sprinkler systems, HVAC units, and building air intakes
  • Minor chemical spills or leaks

"If the operator is not prepared, there will be delays in response," notes Reid. "A slow return to business operations may negatively impact the reputation of both the building and management personnel."

Robust life safety and fire protection start with an awareness of your risks and concrete plans to mitigate them. There's no stronger return on investment than keeping occupants safe and protecting your building from damage.

Jennie Morton [email protected] is associate editor of BUILDINGS.

About the Author

Jennie Morton

A former BUILDINGS editor, Jennie Morton is a freelance writer specializing in commercial architecture, IoT and proptech.

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