Fire Codes are an instrument designed to promote fire safety and to provide planning in order to minimise the affects of a fire. Fire Codes specifies the basic requirements for buildings such as the Fire Alarm system, Fire Suppression systems, Fire fighter’s access, Emergency lighting/power systems and means of egress. Some may see this as a legal document that allows local authorities to levy fines, without grasping the fact that it is there to enforce safety regulations. Think of it as a blue-print for safety!
So how do you know if all sections of the fire code are complied with in your building? If in doubt consult the Fire Code or request a Life Safety Audit from a reputable engineering firm. Check the requirements for your building – is it a simple stand-alone structure – or are there any unusual circumstances such as connections to other buildings through a shared underground parking facility?
Life Safety Systems include fire alarm systems (detection and alarm) and monitoring, sprinklers and standpipes (suppression), emergency lighting, emergency voice communications, elevator control, and basic building design related to fire ratings, fire fighting, exits and egress routes. For condominium buildings the Consulting Engineer that you normally use for your ongoing building requirements should be able to help – but for more complicated sites and shopping malls, etc, you should contact a consulting firm that specialises in the Fire Code and Life Safety Issues.
All buildings are required to have a Fire Plan to be kept in a lock-box in the lobby of the building for fire fighter’s access. How up-to-date is yours? Is it complete and approved by the Fire Marshall? Is the list of residents requiring assistance for evacuation up to date, and does it include notations such as where residents may be using oxygen?
The Fire Plan is the building’s handbook on how to help prevent fires from occurring, how to deal with them if they do, and how to evacuate the building safely. It includes data on the building personnel and survey hazardous substance locations that may change from year to year and so it should be updated on a regular basis. Put it on your calendar for an annual review and go over it with your staff so that they become familiar with it.
The Fire Plan will also outline the frequency of when maintenance measures are required for the fire equipment, including monthly checks of extinguishers and hose racks, and the requirements for the annual testing required by law.
At the start of a Life Safety Audit the first thing to look at are the most recent annual life safety systems test reports as they will outline any deficiencies found with the existing equipment and may provide input on areas that may not adequately covered. You should have annual reports on the fire alarm system, the fire suppression system, and the emergency lighting, plus an ongoing log of all testing and maintenance. Certificates of compliance are issued when all identified deficiencies have been corrected and the certificate (or a copy) should be displayed by each system’s main equipment location.
For the fire alarm system all input devices (detectors, pull stations) have to be checked annually along with all output devices (speakers/bells/strobes, annunciator display, etc). For fire suppression all extinguishers, fire hoses, standpipes and sprinklers have to be checked including flow tests for sprinklers and standpipes (hoses). If you have an emergency generator then a full-load test (requiring the contractor to bring test bank resistors on site) is required annually – as well as the usual weekly and monthly tests/inspections.
Regular testing of the fire alarm system must be performed quarterly where the alarm system is activated and the Emergency Voice Communications system is operated. During this test any irregularities of equipment used and details of the announcements and annunciator functions should be recorded. Any deficiencies are to be rectified immediately – but it is surprising how many buildings do not follow up on this!
As part of a fire audit the consultant will also need to check your records regarding the flame-spread rating of wall coverings in the common areas (lobby, corridors etc) where wall paper or wood panelling may be applied and fire resistance ratings of any new doors. This is something to be careful about when refurbishing these areas – make sure that the specifications call for fire resistance ratings for doors and walls, and fire-spread ratings for wall materials – and keep this information on file.
Finally – are there any prior reports or notices of violations form the city and/or the Fire Marshall’s office relating to life safety?
If you do not have all this paperwork then this is obviously the place to start – call the appropriate contractors and fill in the blanks! If ever your building is inspected by the Fire Prevention and Inspections branch you will need to be able to provide these records.
Once the available paperwork has been reviewed (including fire suppression drawings,) then the property should be inspected to identify any areas that may not be in compliance.
Walking the building requires that you look for the obvious – as well as imagine what would happen if the building was on fire and the hallways and stairwells were involved with smoke. To be able to locate the nearest exit (and alternates if that one is not safe), to know what floor you are on (and how much further you have to go to the ground), and to be able to identify the best route to the outside world – are all important issues that we seldom think about. Also note any obstructions, loose carpet, or loosely hung pictures or ornaments that could become a hazard if knocked down in a smoke-filled hallway.
This is where the audit becomes more technical and requires expertise to investigate and properly document findings. The consultant would look at the many components of the building that are legislated by the Fire Code, including fire and smoke spread issues, exits and egress routes, etc.
A) Building Elements
Areas of the building are laid out in compartments with specific fire resistance rating (FRR) designed to control the spread of flame and smoke. For instance all doors to hallways require specific FRR’s and must have an automatic door closure and latch to maintain this rating – make sure you have door closures on all doors (including electrical closet doors) and that they latch closed. Similarly the garbage chute hatches must close and latch in order to comply. Do not allow any fire door to be wedged open for “convenience” as they obviously cannot perform their function if they are open!
The consultant will also check for the number of exits for each floor, and whether there is adequate signage that can be seen from anywhere on that floor, including any dead-ends. Is there clear, unobstructed access to the stairwells and are there raised numbers in the stairwells indicating the floor level?
B) Fire Suppression
Apart from the obvious things like checking the contents of Fire Hose Cabinets (FHC’s), the distance from each FHC to the furthest point they are expected to reach is noted, as well as the presence of fire extinguishers in each service room.
Where sprinklers are required, the location of the sprinkler head is important to ensure full coverage and make sure that there are no obstructions such as ducting, pipes, or stored items – particularly in storage rooms. For the garbage chute, the presence of sprinkler heads for the chute and compactor room is checked and that there is a fire damper at the bottom of the chute to isolate it from any possible garbage room fire.
Some sites have their own fire hydrant on the property and the location and service records of any required fire hydrants should be verified.
C) Fire Detection
The consultant will check the location, installation, and suitability of fire detectors (heat detectors, fire detectors, duct smoke detectors, etc) and other input devices for the fire alarm system (manual pull stations). Note that painted, bent or otherwise damaged fire detectors are not acceptable, and smoke detectors are preferred for the top of stairwells instead of heat detectors. A common problem noted is not having the fire detector properly installed at the highest point in the room (or closet).
With the latest change in the Fire Code, the presence of smoke alarms in each dwelling (now on each floor) by the entrance to sleeping areas must be verified – and are they operational?
Although not part of the fire alarm system, of equal importance for Life Safety is the presence of CO detectors in appropriate locations as required by the local municipal by-laws.
D) Alarm Notification
The consultant will check to see if proper notification is given when an alarm condition is detected. As well as notifying residents, the Fire department must be summoned, and so the fire alarm panel must be monitored by an offsite Central Monitoring facility, using a DVACS telephone line such that interruption of this line will set off an alarm at the monitoring facility.
For the building occupants the presence and location of speakers/bells should be reviewed to ensure that all residents can hear the alarm inside the room farthest away with all doors closed. It may be necessary to conduct an Audibility Test to ensure that adequate sound levels are attained. If an Emergency Voice Control (EVC) system is in place then this must be verified for correct operation.
In areas where there is normally high ambient noise – such as the chiller room, generator room, and some boiler rooms strobe light fire alarm indicators are required.
Where the property has unique needs because of entrances to a shared garage or connections to adjacent buildings, flashing lights and signage are required between the building(s) to warn residents not to enter into a zone where an alarm may have been activated.
E) Other Equipment Initiated by Alarm (Ancillaries)
There are other events that are set in motion by the detection of an alarm condition in high-rise buildings including the activation of smoke control measures, such as elevator shaft and stairwell pressurization fans (where required). Smoke control also includes the ability to shut down of make-up air fans and garage exhaust fans manually as required. If there is a CO detection system for the underground garage ventilation then this must be capable of an override from the fire alarm control panel area.
In high-rise buildings the fire alarm system should automatically call the elevator cars down to the ground level, but there must also be manual recall switches at the fire alarm control panel and at the ground floor elevator hall station.
F) Fire Fighter’s Access
An often overlooked (or assumed to be in compliance) area is the location and adequacy of posted Fire Routes. Consideration must be given to the width (and height) of driveways, radius of corners (not less than 12m), gradient changes (less than 1 in 12.5 over minimum 15m length) and weight bearing ability of fire access routes (FAR’s).
Something else to be checked is the ease of access into the building and to each floor – the location and accessibility of entrance doors and stairwells, and the existence and correct car operation of at least one elevator that is specifically classified for fire fighters use.
Since the building pumps could be out of commission at some time, we need to verify the location and condition of Fire department Connections – shut-off valves, caps, and signage.
G) Emergency Power/Lighting
The Fire Code requires that emergency lighting is provided for exits and egress routes to include hallways, stairwells, and underground garage areas, and this is another area often neglected.
The Fire Code, Building Code and municipal by-laws all generally require a minimal light level of 10lux for all paths of egress, including underground parking garages. If in doubt then light meter readings must be taken and recorded.
If there is an emergency generator it must be capable of operating all equipment on its distribution system, including fire pumps and pressurization fans (where applicable), and it is a requirement of the fire code that each generator be tested for Full Load Current annually. This does not mean just flipping the transfer switch to run the building off the generator – it is more complex in that extra resistive load banks must be connected to the generator to simulate a full load condition – the rated full load output of the generator. There must also be an adequate fuel supply. Present legislation requires that two (2) hours of fuel must be stored on site for the generator – meaning that if there is a natural-gas-powered generator some sort of storage system of natural gas or propane must be accommodated on site.
If there is no emergency generator, then the consultant must review how power is supplied to emergency lighting, and confirm that is it available for the required length of time, and that it is tested regularly.
All of the above measures are required to ensure the safety of the occupants of the building. Once you have ensured compliance you must provide maintenance, annual testing, and keep the Fire Plan up to date. No one would want to be in a building that was not properly prepared and there was a fire causing damage and/or personal injury. The tools to help minimise this threat are there – use them!