Fire & Life Safety (Focus on Preparation and Prevention)

Facility Managers: Their Role in Fire Safety

Every winter I attend a two-day conference on fire safety. There are the usual attendees from campus fire prevention offices and fire departments. This year there was a noticeable increase in attendance from facility managers. When I asked why they attended a conference on fire prevention the answer was almost unanimous: they need to know current trends in fire prevention, detection, prevention, and response.

On-Site Expertise

It occurred to me that a facility manager is the one-stop person for everything in a building. Some campuses assign a single facility representative to several buildings or an entire college within a larger university. The manager is expected to know a little bit about many things. He or she needs to know about elevator systems, heating and cooling systems, fan motors, water treatment for labs, and waste disposal, as well as emergency lighting, fire-rated walls, corridors, and stairwells. In addition, he or she is expected to understand how fire detection and notification systems operate. Traditional fire suppression systems, gas suppression systems, and kitchen suppression systems also require an understanding by the facility manager.

As a director of Facilities, do you invest the resources needed for your frontline staff to understand the specifics of life-safety features of a facility? Fire and life-safety systems are the most important area for which a facility manager is responsible. Students, faculty, staff, and visitors rely on these systems to keep them safe, reduce the impact of a fire, and notify occupants to take action when conditions are unsafe.

Questions to Ask

Senior managers should ask the following questions:

  • What fire and life safety systems are in the buildings you manage?
  • What training do you have on the inspection, testing, and maintenance requirements of fire and life-safety systems?
  • Are facilities managers actively involved in the commissioning/ acceptance testing of systems?
  • Does the facility manager know the life cycle of each system?
  • How familiar is each facility manager with local codes and regulations related to fire safety?
  • Does each facility manager have an understanding of how department operations within the facility impact fire safety?

Senior management should ask each facility manager for a written plan related to fire and life safety. In addition to the above questions, the plan should address:

  • What emergency evacuation procedures and routes are in place?
  • How do changes in use as research evolves impact fire and life safety?
  • How will a facility be impacted during construction and once occupied?
  • Does the fire safety plan account for people with disabilities?
  • Who is responsible for different systems within the facility?
  • Are there contracts for inspection, testing, and maintenance that are the responsibility of third-party campus operators, such as food services?

The discussions with the new attendees at the conference indicated that there are varying levels of support for these questions. Many campuses want to have a comprehensive fire and life-safety plan; however, time to invest in training and planning is difficult to find. Most facilities managers at this conference were from schools looking to improve the knowledge level of staff and to task staff with creating a comprehensive plan for their assigned buildings.

Over half commented that they would rely on consultants to assist with creating the plan, conducting system inspection testing, and maintenance. There was no consensus on what the perfect campus plan looked like. Larger schools leaned towards using existing staff to increase fire safety while smaller and private schools tended to look at partnerships with outside resources.

As the senior director for facilities management, if you don’t know the responses your facilities managers will give you when you ask these questions, now is the time to ask.

This article originally appeared in the College Planning & Management May 2018 issue of Spaces4Learning.

About the Author

Mike Halligan is the President of Higher Education Safety, a consulting group specializing in fire prevention program audits, strategic planning, training and education programs and third party plan review and occupancy inspections. He retired after twenty six years as the Associate Director of Environmental Health and Safety and Emergency Management at the University of Utah. He frequently speaks and is a recognized expert on residence hall/student housing fire safety and large scale special event planning. He also works with corporate clients to integrate products into the campus environment that promote safety and security.