Facilitating Fire Safety

Comprehensive college and university fire prevention programs seem like they have a million components to them. In reality, they have about 150 program items that, if undertaken, can result in a comprehensive program. These 150 elements are separated into four distinct categories, prevention, preparedness, response and recovery. Schools whose campus fire safety programs pay attention to all four areas can rest assured that they are covering the full spectrum of fire safety issues present on a research-oriented campus.

Undoubtedly, campus fire safety professionals should be focusing the majority of their efforts on fire prevention and preparedness activities. However, what constitutes prevention and preparedness activities is sometimes debated. For purposes here, it is any activity that prevents a fire from occurring through specific strategies and policies, or prepares the building or its occupants to respond should there be a fire.

Facilities’ Role in Fire Prevention

For Facilities staff, prevention activities may include items such as inspecting electrical distributions systems to ensure there are no defects or unsafe connections to the buildings distribution system. According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), almost eight percent of campus fires are related to electrical problems. Facilities staff should also keep mechanical spaces free of flammable or combustible materials and verify that other departments in a building don’t create storage areas in mechanical spaces. Again, according to NFPA statistics, almost 17 percent of campus fires are related to mechanical room or equipment problems. Simply focusing fire safety efforts on the electrical and mechanical components of your campus can reduce your fire risk by almost 25 percent.

Activities such as replacing light bulbs in exit signs or replacing missing or damaged exit signs are all included as preparedness activities. You are preparing the buildings for evacuation.

For campus shops that install cable above ceilings, prevention and preparedness activities would include items such as replacing ceiling tiles so smoke detectors or sprinkler heads can activate. For cable installers, plumbers and electricians, it also means that any penetrations they make in firewalls are properly sealed and that time be allowed to repair damaged firewalls when they are in the area. Preparedness would also include items such as exercising water valves for fire sprinkler systems to verify they are open and also that they can be closed should there be a need to shut down the system.

Facilities staff need to be trained on job-specific tasks that increase fire risk. When welding or cutting, facilities staff must understand the requirements for issuing a hot-work permit for the work to be undertaken or, if subcontracting, to an external construction firm verifying they have a hot-work permitting program in place that is of equal or better caliber than the one in place on your campus.

If members of your Facilities staff are responsible for testing and maintenance of campus fire alarm and fire sprinklers, they must know how to notify building occupants when these systems will be impaired. What alternative means will be established to notify occupants of a life safety problem? Should high-hazard activities be discontinued when systems are down? And perhaps most importantly, if they have questions about what high hazards exist, do they know whom to contact for advice? Most campuses have Environmental Health and Safety staff that can help determine what hazards exist in a building and how to mitigate risk should a system need to be shutdown.

Periodically, Facilities staff must shut down portions of the egress system. Replacement of steps and work in stairwells or corridors may reduce or temporarily eliminate required egress paths. How does your staff plan these projects? Early involvement of all the stakeholders — building occupants, fire inspectors and contractors — can give you adequate time to plan for these impairments to the egress system. Projects will stay on schedule if all stakeholders know what impairments will occur and their duration. Failure to provide notification and training for alternate egress routes can quickly bring even a small project to a halt until building occupants understand what provisions have been made for their safety.

Planning Ahead for Safety

During the design phase of new buildings or renovations, Facilities staff should play an active role with the design team to ensure that the systems that are specified are systems that staff can maintain. For example, smoke evacuation systems; stair pressurization systems and gas suppression systems require specialized training for maintenance. Do you have staff that can perform this maintenance, or must it be contracted out? If it needs to be contracted, are funds available? In the end, the design may need to be modified if ongoing support for these systems is not present.

Facilities staff should also play an active role in promoting fire-safe products. Many campuses restrict types of equipment that students may bring to campus. Halogen lamps and cooking appliances are two items that many campuses prohibit. During the last two years, many campuses have been mandating fire-safe power strips. These power strips shut down power to the cord if the cord is damaged, thus prohibiting a damaged cord from starting a fire. Other campuses are installing monitored fire extinguishers. Extinguishers are now tied into the fire alarm or security system if they lose pressure, are tampered with or obstructed, a signal is sent to the monitoring location, indicating a problem with the extinguisher.

Your facilities staff does have a direct role in campus fire safety. It is important to teach all levels of your staff what their role is with regard to fire prevention on your campus. Personalizing the training lets them know why it makes them safer, as well as the students and staff, and will result in your staff taking ownership of their small piece of fire safety on campus.

Mike Halligan is the associate director of Environmental Health and Safety at the University of Utah and is responsible for Fire Prevention and Special Events Life safety. He frequently speaks about performance-based code solutions for campus building projects and is recognized as an expert on residence hall fire safety programs. He can be reached at 801/585-9327 or at [email protected]

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.