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By Paul Flannigan
Published in the April 2009 issue of Today’s Facility Manager
The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) estimates that the more than 1.5 million fires in 2007 (most recent data available) caused nearly $15 billion in property damage and killed more than 3,500 civilians and firefighters. While a need for more product innovation and education is cited as the best way to improve fire safety, the effectiveness of a facility’s fire protection equipment depends on the quality of its most recent inspection, maintenance, or repair.
Fire protection systems are designed to minimize the loss of life and property. Often, ensuring that a property and its fire protection system meet the minimum requirements of these codes is the responsibility of the facility manager (fm). These requirements are not only part of code compliance, but most insurance policies also stipulate regular inspections and maintenance. The bottom line is that the requirements are mandatory, not discretionary.
NFPA has created more than 300 standards that have been adopted by federal, state, and local jurisdictions as part of building and life safety codes. Its NFPA 25: Standard for the Inspection, Testing, and Maintenance of Water-Based Fire Protection Systems contains nationally recognized minimum requirements for the periodic inspection, testing, and maintenance of water based fire protection systems, including land based and marine applications. NFPA 25 assumes fire protection systems have been properly installed in accordance with generally accepted practices. It is intended to ensure that fire protection systems perform in a satisfactory manner.
Fms must be aware of the codes and regulations taken into account when developing programs for the inspection and maintenance of fire protections systems. In addition to NFPA 25, relevant codes include NFPA 10 (extinguishers), NFPA 13 (sprinklers), NFPA 14 (standpipes), NFPA 17 (dry chemical), NFPA 20 (fire pumps), and NFPA 2002 (clean agent). These are just some of the many national standards used.
It is important to note that many states and local authorities not only adopt these standards as code, but they also make changes and additions to them. Fms are wise to contract with fire protection providers familiar with these requirements in their state. The issue of jurisdiction often varies by municipality, county, or state.
Fms should check with their fire protection company to learn if the company will assist or manage code compliance related to installation, inspection, and repair. Otherwise, the local fire marshal should be contacted to confirm how local codes and standards are enforced in the designated area.
Vetting A Service Provider
Fms looking to partner with a fire protection service provider should consider those who meet all of the proper state and local licensing requirements. Many states require fire protection contractors to be specifically licensed for the work performed from design and installation to system inspection and maintenance, as well as permitting and licensing for technicians that perform the work.
In addition, fms should work with a company that uses professionals who have extensive training, certifications, and experience in fire equipment design, installation, service, and consulting. A service provider should also have expertise in key areas of fire protection equipment such as fire sprinklers, fire extinguishers, emergency/exit lights, kitchen suppression, special hazards, and fire alarms.
Some organizations that train, test, and certify technicians include: NFPA, National Association of Fire Equipment Distributors (NAFED), National Institute for Certifying Engineering Technologies (NICET), Society of Fire Protection Engineers (SFPE), and local colleges and other professional training groups.
NICET, for instance, offers certifications in fire sprinklers, fire alarms, special hazards, and water-based suppression system inspections. These certifications range from level I up to level IV for the most experienced and qualified. Many states license fire protection companies based on these certifications.
Upon meeting with a fire protection company representative, fms should be prepared to answer questions about the history and location of their fire protection system components. Detailed information about the system provided by the fm helps in developing a comprehensive program. It also helps ensure the facility will implement full fire protection systems as mandated by code and insurance requirements.
The fire sprinkler system is one of the most integral components of a well balanced fire protection plan. Compared to properties without automatic extinguishing equipment, damage per fire is lower by 45% to 70% in sprinklered properties, according to NFPA statistics.
The types of sprinkler systems and components that require servicing include: wet and dry pipe systems; pre-action, foam, and deluge; ESFR; fire pumps; backflow preventers; and fire hydrants.
All parts of the system are required to be inspected annually by a licensed fire sprinkler contractor. Inspection of a sprinkler system’s internal pipe and valve inspections should be conducted every five years. Dry, deluge, and pre-action systems must have full trip tests at least every three years. Tanks are required to have annual inspections and five year internal inspections, while backflow preventers are required to be certified each year.
The fire protection service provider should inspect and test the fire system to ensure it meets all NFPA standards. Sprinkler heads, control valves, and other components must be checked for condition, accessibility, and signage. Inspections will be done on fire department connections, visible piping, hangers, drain valves, and gauges. And testing is conducted on required water flow devices, air compressors, pre-action valves, pilot lines, solenoid valves, pressure alarms, supervisory circuits, and auxiliary functions.
Fms should request a detailed inspection report that identifies deficiencies, recommends corrective action, and provides an estimated cost for repairs. Some fire protection service companies also offer Web based software that can alert fms to required inspection and testing intervals.
For sprinkler systems that have been in service for 50 years or more, NFPA 25 requires the sprinkler heads be replaced, or representative samples from one or more sample areas should be tested to determine how they are operating. Furthermore, sprinkler equipment manufactured prior to 1920 must be replaced.
According to NFPA 25, dry sprinklers that have been in service for 10 years should also be replaced, or representative samples tested then retested, every 10 years. Sprinklers that are subjected to harsh environments (e.g., corrosive atmospheres and water supplies) may need replacing after five years.
A representative sample of sprinklers for testing consists of a minimum of: not less than four sprinklers or 1% of the number of sprinklers per individual sprinkler sample, whichever is greater. If one sprinkler within a representative sample fails to meet the test requirement, all sprinklers within the area represented by that sample must be replaced.
There are additional requirements for the inspection of fire protection systems covered in NFPA 25. These include the testing of electric and diesel fire pumps, standpipe systems, and many other specific inspection and testing requirements. It is important that the fm be familiar with these requirements, so that all are addressed with the fire protection provider.
Portable Fire Extinguishers
Portable fire extinguisher inspection, testing, and maintenance fall under NFPA 10: Standard for Portable Fire Extinguishers, as well as code stipulations and regulations. Inspectors and service technicians in this area must also be licensed and certified in most jurisdictions.
Fms should be aware that various fire extinguishers have very specific inspection and maintenance procedures. In addition, there are varying inspection intervals and services that the fire protection provider should be able to explain and perform.
There are several extinguishing agent types to protect against different classes of fire, such as Class A, B, C, D, and K. These fire extinguishers include such agent types as water, CO2, dry chemical, and other clean agent gas extinguishers (such as Halotron) and may range in size from small handheld units to larger wheeled units. The service provider should be able to assist in selecting the proper agent and equipment tailored to the specific hazard and facility.
Fms should look for a provider that demonstrates knowledge and expertise in fire extinguisher inspections (required monthly and maintenance annually), six year maintenance programs, and hydrostatic testing (required every 12 years), as well as maintenance that includes recharges and repairs. It should be noted that some requirements vary based on extinguisher type, and the provider can assist with specific requirements. The fm should also be instructed on issues, such as the proper type, number, and placement of extinguishers.
Exit Signs And Emergency Lighting
Exit signs and emergency lights are required to be inspected annually (includes lamp tests and emergency power testing). In the event of power failure or loss of electricity due to fire, facilities should adhere to NFPA 101 Life Safety Code and OSHA standards that require approved emergency and exit lighting.
In addition to ensuring proper positioning of emergency lighting and signage, fms can look to the fire protection provider for inspection, testing, and instruction on how to implement exit and emergency lighting as part of an evacuation plan. This step will help keep the building up to code and in compliance with requirements for signage requirements (such as being flame retardant and housed in high impact thermoplastic).
Fire Suppression Systems
A number of NFPA standards require that fire suppression systems, such as those found in commercial kitchen hoods, be inspected every six months. Other systems, such as Halon 1301 and FM 200 found in computer or data rooms, are to be inspected semi-annually, while foam systems require annual inspection and testing.
Fire suppression systems detect and suppress fire directly at the source. Design, installation, and a follow up program can be adapted from a number of fire suppression technologies, including:
- clean agent suppression;
- CO2 systems;
- foam systems;
- pre-action systems;
- water mist systems;
- UL 300 compliant kitchen suppression; and
- dry chemical systems.
Planning for alarm systems, which require annual inspection, involves determining how many initiating and notification devices are needed. A key element of a fire alarm system is its ability to notify occupants of the need to evacuate.
Most systems provide an audible and/or visible alarm signal as the result of the actuation of a fire alarm pull station, automatic operation of a fire detector (e.g., smoke or heat detector), or the automatic operation of a protective system, such as a fire sprinkler or suppression system.
Another important element of a fire alarm system is continuous monitoring that notifies the local fire department in an emergency. As with other system component inspections, the fm should work with the service provider to ensure the alarms meet national, state, and local fire codes.
System Repairs And Facility Alterations
The NFPA 25 standard for corrections and repairs states that the property owner or occupant “shall promptly correct or repair deficiencies, damaged parts, or impairments found while performing the inspection, test, and maintenance requirements of this standard.” The standard goes on to state that corrections and repairs “shall be performed by qualified maintenance personnel or a qualified contractor.”
Property owners or occupants also are not permitted to “make changes in the occupancy, use, or process, or the materials used or stored in the building without evaluation of the fire protection systems.” This evaluation considers factors such as the conversion of office or production space into warehousing, changes in process, or material such as metal stamping to molded plastics, and building revisions such as relocated walls. It also covers added mezzanines, ceilings added below sprinklers, and any removal of heating systems in spaces with piping subject to freezing.
If any changes in occupancy affect the installation criteria of the fire protection system, the fm must immediately make arrangements to have it evaluated by a qualified fire protection system contractor, consultant, or engineer. Any deficiencies that are discovered must be corrected in keeping with requirements of the authority having jurisdiction. (This same approach should be used with any fire protection system.)
Knowledge Is Power
Keeping people and property safe is a prime responsibility for fms. Just a few of the requirements have been mentioned, but there are many others such as weekly testing of fire pumps and monthly inspections of extinguishers and emergency and exit lights. Knowing about the codes and standards and working with a qualified service provider go a long way toward meeting the requirements.
Flannigan is vice president of operations for Integrated Fire Protection (www.integratedfireprotection.com) in Atlanta, GA. He has been in the fire protection industry for more than 35 years. Flannigan is a NFPA-Certified Fire Protection Specialist, NICET Certified in Sprinklers, Alarms, Special Hazards and Inspections, and has worked worldwide as a consultant on fire protection projects that have included the public fire protection sector, education, contracting, and service industries.