Safe and Secure Schools
It's In the Details
- By Mike Halligan
- September 1st, 2018
PHOTO © A_STOCKPHOTO
Check it out. Maintaining a school facility involves much more than keeping it clean. And keeping it safe requires constant monitoring of the facilities’ system to keep them functioning properly and providing a comfortable and healthful environment. There are codes and regulations— local, state, federal, and associations—that are designed to assure that certain standards are met. Most districts use third-party contractors to perform the assessments or audits. It is imperative that districts review the credentials of these companies or individuals on a yearly basis.
Over the last few months I’ve had the opportunity to complete fire, life safety, and security audits at several different facilities. Overall, the audits verified what we hoped to find—the onsite facilities staff and third-party contractors were completing audits in accordance with the adopted life safety code and associated standards for systems. While no major deficiencies were found with the systems we did uncover some issues that indicated contractors and staff were not familiar with the details of the standards they were testing to, and in some cases, they were only completing part of the inspection or test.
At one location, we reviewed the inspection testing and maintenance documentation for their fire pumps, we were also witnessing a quarterly test of the pumps by the third-party contract services that had provided this service for the past few years. During the document review the inspection report indicated that tamper switches on the valves for the fire pumps were exercised and working properly. When we arrived at the pump room and observed the testing process we saw an entirely different picture. The contractor exercised the valves and verified that water would flow trough during the functional test. The tamper switches were not connected to the fire panel. Had the contractor left a valve closed after the test or had someone entered and closed the valve on purpose, there would be no indication at the fire panel that no water would flow from the pump.
On another audit we were asked to verify travel distances in a portion of the building that had been converted from office use to instructional space. In the process a second exit was removed. While the occupant load allowed for a single exit, the travel distance was exceeded by 30 percent. The location relied on a third-party review and inspection for code compliance. During the document review there was a calculation that indicated a single exit would be acceptable. Unfortunately, no calculation was made to review the travel distance based on the new layout of the space.
These are just two examples of contactors who met requirements for experience on paper. Both are respected firms that have years of experience in their respective fields. During the selection process firms were asked to submit staff that would be assigned to the project, submit resumes, certifications and examples of work experience to verify they were well qualified. The issues uncovered in my two examples were the result in substitutions in staffing from the contact firms. Personnel turnover at both firms resulted in new employees with less experience assigned to these two projects.
As directors of Facilities, it is in your best interest to ask your contract or purchasing or project management staff to conduct a yearly review of all contract services. The review should include verification of credentials for individuals each firm sends to your facility. In your contracts, language should be included that you must review credentials of all staff the contractor proposes to use at your site.
Lastly, when on site, your staff should ask for a roster of individuals there and verify they are the individuals that have been prescreened for competency. The consequences of not screening are shown in my examples above.
In addition, during the last year of a contract, I suggest you bring in a company that will review prior years of work by the third-party contractor. This should help you validate that the services you expected to be performed to maintain your life safety and security systems were in fact provided. It will also give you the ability to negotiate with your current third-party firm if discrepancies are found.
This article originally appeared in the September 2018 issue of School Planning & Management.
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.