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February 10, 2022
A fire is nearly guaranteed to have a profound impact on your business if you're a property manager or building owner. Interruptions and closures of businesses, cost of damages, insurance claims, and even loss of life are common in a fire. In 2020, there were 86,000 apartment/multifamily housing fires; 23,000 residential structure fires; and 111,000 non-residential structure fires. We asked fire protection engineer Dan Kester and property manager Jenna Coddington about some best practices and how they focus on fire safety.
Kester is a fire protection engineer with NV5, where he helps his clients manage their fire protection risks. Coddington is the managing broker for Paragon Group, and provides commercial and multifamily property management and investment sales throughout Washington state.
Q: What is the biggest risk if a fire protection system is not properly maintained?
Kester: When this happens, people within these spaces and the property are unknowingly being placed in greater danger than the building design and occupancy permit allows. A fire could mean the building/business owner may not be able to recover from the building/content/reputation loss. A fire investigation will reveal not only the cause and extent of the fire, but also reveal if fire protection and life safety systems were present and their condition. Jurisdictions adopt codes that protect people and the property, and these codes require the building owner to maintain inspection/test/maintenance records.
Coddington: At best, getting fired. At worst, loss of life. Compliance with laws and regulations is integral to our job in property management. You must get to know the buildings you're responsible for. What systems they have, how to maintain them, and when inspections are due. The information is usually readily available, and if you're ever in doubt, the local fire marshal can help you learn. They want you to be good at this.
Q: What is the most overlooked fire protection system that is not inspected/maintained?
Kester: In my experience, it is the passive fire protection systems (i.e., fire- and smoke-rated barriers). Most jurisdictions require proof that the active fire protection systems (i.e., fire alarm and sprinkler systems) have been inspected and tested. However, the inspection of the passive systems is often overlooked and proof of inspection is not required.
Coddington: Fire extinguishers! I cannot count the number of times I've toured a building for sale or to manage, only to find the fire extinguisher tags are two, three, four years out of date. Get a good contractor, get on their annual schedule, and have extinguisher day. We designate a few days each year where all the properties we manage get visited and recharged at the same time.
Q: Once it is discovered that a fire protection system in a building is not receiving inspection, testing and maintenance (IT&M), how should one move forward?
Kester: The answer is simple when it comes to active systems: contact a licensed fire alarm or sprinkler system company that performs inspection, testing, and maintenance services. Passive systems are trickier because there are a lot of components to fire-rated barriers that need to be inspected and it may require more than one company to do the inspection. For example, if a fire-rated barrier has a smoke/fire damper in it that is interfaced with the fire alarm system, the HVAC contractor may need to be on the jobsite to adjust or reset the smoke/fire damper when the fire alarm system company conducts the functional test. Hiring a fire protection engineer with experience in the overall construction and inspection of fire-rated barriers (including fire doors, fire dampers, fire-rated windows, fire shutters, fire alarm system interface) and having knowledge/certification in firestopping is advisable.
Coddington: I suggest groveling. Seriously, call your contractors, explain the deficiency, and beg them for a quick appointment. You may have to pay extra to get them there fast, but it's worth it. A good property manager will have strong relationships with their contractors to get all the right people there at the right time. Document when you learned of the problem and what steps you took to resolve it, because if the fire marshal finds it before you fix it, they're going to want answers and showing you're taking it seriously can buy you some grace. Read the IFC and know if you need a fire watch until you're compliant, and do it.
Q: Should property owners/managers be working with specialists? Or is this easy to DIY?
Kester: No, the IT&M of active/passive fire protection systems is not a DIY job. The reason is because we are talking about life safety and property protection. Property owners and/or property managers should contact their local authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) to find the specific qualification requirements. Ultimately, it is the building owner's responsibility to ensure that the persons that perform IT&M meet the minimum criteria and are competent.
Coddington: Nothing about fire system maintenance is DIY, except the record keeping. Property managers in particular need to know what they are and aren't licensed and insured to do, and trust their contractors for the rest.
Q: What warnings would you give a property owner/manager?
Kester: My first warning would be to advise property managers to always keep an eye on fire-rated barriers because they are exposed to the public, in a frequent state of change, and have no alarm system to warn of a breach or malfunction. A blocked open fire-rated door can kill people by super-heated gas, smoke, and flame. A fire-rated barrier that is not properly restored after it has been violated can allow super-heated gas, smoke, and flame into other spaces where the occupants should be protected by the passive system.
Coddington: Never let a tenant get away with stacking things too close to a sprinkler or propping open fire doors. Convenience should never win over fire safety. Walk the tenant spaces regularly and check your sprinklers and doors.
Jon Schmid is a freelance journalist and strategic communications consultant to the AEC industries.