These five strategies can help facility managers clearly and consistently enforce best practices and code requirements internally and with contractors regarding fire and life safety.
It becomes more challenging to implement a lifecycle approach as buildings age because of the established precedence and the multiple building changes since the original design documents were produced. Facility managers should start by clearly and consistently enforcing best practices and code requirements internally and with contractors. Document all inspection, testing, and maintenance (ITM) activities and construction work to verify its code compliance.
Consider the following items when establishing a lifecycle-based program:
1. Update plans as building as building changes occur. The building’s life safety plans, fire protection and life safety systems, and system components must be reevaluated to ensure they satisfy the overall fire protection and life safety objectives. This process could be managed internally if permitted by the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) and if appropriate code knowledge is available.
Alternatively, consult with a qualified subject matter expert such as a fire protection engineer, architect, or NICET-certified designer. It’s important to treat these changes holistically and not as individual systems. Remember, the ecosystem’s components work together to achieve a common objective, so looking strictly at individual systems (e.g., sprinkler system) is likely shortsighted.
2. For new installations, ensure that fire protection and life safety commissioning and integrated testing are included in the project scope. NFPA 3 is a standard dedicated to commissioning fire protection and life safety systems, and NFPA 4 is a standard dedicated to integrated testing of fire protection and life safety systems. These two standards were developed to ensure that the building’s fire protection and life safety systems are working together as required. Other NFPA standards focus on the functionality of the individual systems, whereas these standards provide a more holistic view of operations and require multi-discipline coordination.
It is still possible to develop an integrated test plan for existing systems. In fact, states and local jurisdictions that have adopted the 2018 (or later) edition of NFPA 101, The Life Safety Code, require that an integrated fire protection and life safety test plan be developed in accordance with NFPA 4 for high-rise buildings or buildings containing a smoke control system within five years of adoption.
3. Choose the right fire protection and life safety ITM partners. Do not simply issue an RFP with the quantity of devices/components and then choose the lowest bid. Take time to thoughtfully interview the company’s leadership as well as the technicians. Ask about the company culture, the minimum qualification criteria for field technicians, the types and frequencies of education and training available to technicians, and the change management process when a project team member leaves.
If the company doesn’t have a culture that promotes collaboration, proactive communication, continuous improvement, and operational excellence, or isn’t investing in the continuing education and training of the employees, then it likely isn’t the right choice for a long-term partnership.
Also, ask about the company’s and technicians’ history working in similar occupancies. For example, healthcare occupancies are defend-in-place structures meaning they do not evacuate the building in the event of a fire unless it is a last resort. As such, the building’s fire protection and life safety systems and components are different than an elementary school. If the company or technician does not have any experience in healthcare occupancies, then they are likely not a right “fit” partner for hospitals.
4. Review the ITM contract language carefully before it is executed. Many ITM contractors defer responsibility to the owner by only claiming responsibility for testing the equipment defined on the “equipment list” and at the established frequencies. This means that if the equipment list indicates 100 smoke detectors, and the building has 200, then the remaining 100 are either not tested or they are tested at an additional cost to the owner.
For fire alarm systems, this situation can be avoided by generating a current fire alarm program report and having the ITM contractor confirm it. Further, request that the ITM contractor identify all of the devices in the life safety drawings, which is very beneficial and highly recommended, but it does increase the contract cost. Also confirm the testing frequencies, for example, if only two tests per year are being provided for dry pipe sprinkler system low air pressure switches (required by NFPA 25 to be tested quarterly), then the system is out of compliance.
Keep an eye out for limited liability contract language; these are life safety systems and should be treated as such. Look at this sample text: “The parties further agree that Contractor is not an insurer; that the Services purchased herein is designed only to reduce the risk of loss; that CUSTOMER chose the level and scope of services being provided by Contractor from a variety of service options; that Contractor will not be held liable for any loss.” The wording pushes the liability back to the owner as a “choice” that was made based on various options and limits the ITM contractor’s liability to the contract amount, which depending on the building size and scope of services, might only be a few thousand dollars.
5. Establish clear and thorough change management protocols. Are the assets (smoke detectors, fire doors, sprinkler valves, etc.) asset tagged and inventoried? If not, then this process can significantly facilitate change management and can be incorporated into the building’s computerized maintenance management system (CMMS) or simply an Excel spreadsheet or other database.
What processes or steps occur when an asset is removed from service or replaced, and how is this documented?
How are failures or deficiencies of devices addressed and repaired? Does the contractor include them on a report that is issued to the facility manager upon service completion, or are they documented and discussed at the end of each shift/day? Remember, a deficiency/failure in a system can cause a chain reaction to the entire fire protection program within a building, so additional protection measures might need to be implemented and communicated to the building occupants.
Is there a robust above ceiling permit process to ensure that contractors are properly protecting the fire and smoke barriers? This process will help keep these critical passive fire protection and life safety elements from degrading over time due to the increase of unprotected penetrations.
There are many other components and steps that facility and building managers can take to ensure the building’s fire protection and life safety systems and components are properly maintained over a building’s lifecycle. The most important component is prioritizing life safety and ensuring continuous compliance through accountability when work is performed by internal or external teams. No one ever wants or expects a fire to occur, but when it does, a properly maintained building with a focus on fire protection and life safety will result in the safety of the building’s occupants (lives saved) and less damage to the building.
Joshua Brackett is an on-site special projects manager and leads Joint Commission & Regulatory Compliance, Energy Management, and Process Improvement at Arkansas’ largest…