Services & Maintenance: Fire Safety Check

By Steve Carter
Published in the April 2011 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

building fire system maintenance life safety
Standard maintenance methods of fire protection systems in many facilities have been established based upon applying proven technologies best suited for the contents and environments within those buildings. (Photo: John Foxx and Hemera Technologies)

When a building has a fire, its occupants rely upon the fire protection systems to perform successfully. However, all too often facility managers (fms) are faced with the consequences of a fire system that failed. What causes these failures? And what can be done to avoid another failure in the future?

Having a suitable program of inspection, testing, and maintenance (ITM) is one of the more important steps an fm can take to assure the success of the fire protection system. When an appropriate level of ITM takes place, this activity will directly contribute to the high level of reliability expected from a fire protection system. But how does an fm determine just what is an “appropriate” level?

First, the fm should understand the purpose of an ITM program, which is to discover failures of components that would prevent the fire system from operating as necessary during an emergency event. And of course, the goal is to discover and repair these failures prior to such an event.

When developing a program, fms should keep in mind that NFPA and other fire codes provide a minimum standard for ITM methods and frequencies. However, they may also want to consider other factors. For instance, a facility with increased risk or a history of fires should be considered for more frequent intervals of testing or preventive maintenance. Also, a facility which supports mission critical operations would require fire protection systems with a much higher degree of reliability than that of the average office building. Unfortunately, many fms will take a one size fits all approach when their decisions are influenced only by the minimum requirements of the applicable fire code.

Fire protection systems are the sum of many individual components, each one having the potential to fail. That’s why NFPA standards will prescribe a method and frequency of ITM for each individual component of the fire system. For instance, for a fire alarm system, the manual pull stations are required to be functionally tested annually, while the tamper devices supervising each sprinkler system valve must be tested semi-annually.

As might be expected, some components simply have the potential for a greater rate of failure than others. Not only are there differences in frequency for each component, but also for the various tests or maintenance activities required for a single component. One example is the common smoke detector which requires a visual inspection semi-annually, functional alarm test annually, and an additional sensitivity test protocol the first year after installation and every two years after that. This means fms must ensure a visit is made to each smoke detector every six months, with an understanding of which ITM activities are required at each visit.

Periodic Inspection

A periodic inspection is a visual examination of equipment to verify that nothing has changed from the initial design and installation that would affect its performance. Fms performing an inspection should be looking for any number of conditions which might affect the system’s ability to perform when called upon.

A proper visual inspection should consider whether building modifications or occupancy changes would have an impact. For instance, a fire alarm strobe light designed and located to disperse light throughout an entire room may now be obsolete due to a reconfigured floor plan. Another important consideration is a change in environmental conditions. Increased cooling systems to support greater heat loads might produce airflow rates which trigger the need to adjust the design spacing of the ceiling smoke detectors.

Fms should also ensure that a visual inspection of the equipment includes identification of changes such as physical obstructions, device orientation, physical damage, degree of cleanliness, and any other obvious problem that might not be automatically indicated by the control panel through electrical supervision.

Periodic Testing

Periodic testing is intended to validate the functionality of the fire protection system. Tests are performed by operating each component of the system to assure it functions as required in the case of an actual emergency event. A simple example of this sort of testing is activating the lever of each manual fire alarm pull station to ensure it performs as intended and initiates the required alarm condition.

A proper testing program should also include testing the operation of all emergency control functions in the system, such as elevator recall or HVAC shutdown. NFPA 72 (2010 Edition), the National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code, requires these functions to be tested at the same frequency as the device which initiates the action. For instance, if corridor smoke detectors activate the closure of fire doors, then this function must be tested annually to match the testing requirement of the smoke detector.

Beyond just a simple functional test, the test method for many components may also involve the use of calibrated diagnostic equipment. One example of this is a duct smoke detector used to control the spread of harmful smoke. A proper test of this device not only must verify smoke will initiate an alarm, but also confirm that the airstream of the ductwork is effectively being sampled. So in addition to the functional smoke entry test for the smoke detector, a pneumometer is used to measure the airflow from the sampling tube. This measurement is then compared to the acceptable range published in the manufacturer’s instructions to determine if the device is performing as designed.

The Third Piece: Maintenance

Maintenance is the work necessary to keep the fire system operating properly. One form of maintenance is simply a response to a failure identified by a visual inspection or a test of the equipment. Fms should insist that service personnel notify them immediately whenever deficiencies are found during routine inspection and testing procedures. Considering that life safety and/or mission continuity may be at risk, repairs should be made as soon as possible by qualified personnel. Whenever repairs are not made immediately, fms may want to make use of a temporary alternative means of protection until the fire system is returned to an acceptable level of readiness.

Another important form of maintenance is of a preventive nature. Many components in a fire protection system will require preventive maintenance at a prescribed frequency. These maintenance activities address components that degrade over time, have a finite lifespan, or require periodic resetting or calibration. For example, most fire alarm systems employ lead acid type batteries as a secondary (backup) power supply. Although NFPA codes require routine testing to verify voltage levels are at an acceptable level, a preventive maintenance requirement exists requiring their replacement at five years from the date of manufacture.

Another important preventive maintenance task involves regular cleaning of smoke detectors. Typically, the detector manufacturer’s published instructions will provide both the recommended frequency and method for cleaning, but fms may want to consider adjusting these based on the environment where they are located.

In a survey conducted by the California State Board of Fire Services, building owners were asked about the current operational status of their fire systems and the factors contributing to failures. In this case, 73% of the respondents cited a lack of maintenance as the cause for their systems’ failures. [Source: “Report to the Legislature in Response to House Resolution No. 14, Fire Alarm Systems,” December 30, 1983, Office of the State Fire Marshal, Sacramento, CA 95823.]

The truth is this: proper maintenance of fire protection systems should allow fms to realize the benefits of financial savings over time and even more importantly should minimize the organization’s risk of liability.

Properly functioning fire protection systems serve to detect a damaging event early on, and this equipment mitigates damage if a fire does begin to spread. A comprehensive ITM (inspection, testing, maintenance) program that checks the components are working properly on a regular basis ensures fms are doing their part to protect the people and property in their organizations.

With nearly 20 years experience in fire protection system design, installation, and service, Carter is vice president of engineering for ORR Protection Systems, Inc. Since 1971 ORR, based in Louisville, KY, has grown to be the largest privately owned safety and fire protection company in the country. Some of the largest and most successful companies in the world trust ORR to protect their mission critical business processes from failure due to fire.