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COVID-19 Sparks Fire and Life Safety Issues for Facilities Managers

COVID-19

COVID-19 changed everything. The pandemic has created incredible challenges to all types of commercial facilities and has created unforeseen issues on multiple levels with a substantial impact on operations. Keeping employees, customers and visitors safe from the COVID-19 is understandably a manager’s immediate concern. Despite the pandemic, there are other safety issues, such as fire safety, which remain critical the successful functioning of the facility.

How Essential Are You?
A commonly used term today, the concept of “essential services” has only recently been introduced into our collective vocabulary. It can be daunting, however, to determine exactly which positions the term encompasses. Some easy to identify locations include Public Safety Departments, as well as hospitals and extended stay healthcare facilities. But, what about grocery stores? Or hardware stores? These types of businesses provide a multitude of things that we need daily, as well as food and safety essentials. Many of these products and facilities are crucial to society’s ability to function. A variety of different definitions has arisen from the pandemic, and it seems that they can vary from one extreme to another.

Remaining Safe Is Paramount
In addition to defining essential services, facility managers must determine exactly what is needed in order to keep all of the people in these facilities, as well as the stock of materials, safe. This is true whether the facility is open and operating, or if operations have been temporarily suspended.

For example, fire protection systems are regulated and have a requirement to be maintained, inspected, and tested on a regular basis. NFPA 72, The National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code, as well as NFPA 25, The Standard for the Inspection, Testing and Maintenance of Water-Based Fire Protections Systems do the bulk of the heavy lifting for building systems. NFPA 10, The Standard for Portable Fire Extinguishers should be added into the mix.  In addition, there may be other standards that are applicable, such as commercial cooking facilities that require hood systems inspections and cleaning.

In many states, the maintenance of these systems is considered an essential service. There have been various levels of enforcement from the Authority’s Having Jurisdiction (AHJ’s) and this has affected the facility operators, because maintenance of fire protection systems is just one of many concerns.

Maintenance Challenges and Solutions
Throughout the pandemic, one of the challenges for the proper maintenance of fire and life safety systems is access. Initially, some facilities simply modified the inspection schedules by “pushing out the dates” in the hopes that the situation would improve when those new dates arrived. Today, there are many people working from home, so scheduling an appointment with a facility when you can assure there will be personnel on-site with the required keys and alarm system codes, can be difficult. Nevertheless, with some extra due diligence, this can be handled effectively.

Another issue that has wreaked havoc on proper systems maintenance has been the issue of potential exposure. Some facilities may have confirmed coronavirus patients included in their population. So, there are substantial risks of exposing outside contractors. With the recommended level of PPE and hygiene, however, some of those risks can be mitigated. Additionally, in many commercial spaces, the entrances to the sprinkler and pump rooms are located at the exterior of the building. When this is the case, managers may be able to have a service provider do their scheduled work without risking an exposure. Fire alarm panels may even have an annunciator in the Pump or Riser room or in most buildings; there may be one at the main entry door. If the technician can confirm proper operation from that point, risk can be reduced.

In order to further reduce exposure to outside contractors, some facilities managers have even self-performed simple visual inspections with their own staff. These functions include checking the Fire Alarm Control panel to make sure it is functioning properly with no trouble showing on the system. For sprinkler systems, ensuring there is adequate water pressure (or air pressure for dry systems) is critical. If there are fire pumps at the facility, ensuring they will start and run properly is also a major concern.

Fire Risk: The New Threats
Upon first inspection, the risk of fire when there are less people in a facility may seem to be lower. Under normal circumstances, however, those same people regularly take steps to reduce the risk of fire. Given the changed circumstances caused by the pandemic, people may also be taking actions that can actually increase the risk of fire.

For example, one of the things that facility managers need to consider now, more than pre-pandemic, is the use of hand sanitizers and surface disinfectants. We have known for years that these products kill germs, but these substances also carry a risk. In order to be effective, hand sanitizers should have an alcohol content above 60-70%, as recommended by the CDC. Surface disinfectants, which also contain high levels of alcohol, are technically classified as a Class 1 flammable liquid. This means that at room temperature, they can easily ignite.

Facilities managers need to be cautious when storing quantities of sanitizer and disinfectants. In most cases, quantities of over five gallons may be required to be stored in a Flammable Liquids Cabinet in order to comply with NFPA 30: The Flammable and Combustible Liquids Code. One way to accomplish safe storage is to separate the amount stored in different areas. Facilities managers can reach out to local Fire Departments or company Facility Risk Personnel to determine what is required for specific locations. Although many facilities have gone “Smoke Free,” it may not hurt to post a few signs by the “smoking areas” to use caution with open flames after utilizing hand sanitizer. Vapors must have dispersed before lighting up because vapors can ignite.

Other issues, such as safe storage and maintenance of proper egress routes, are also essential for maintaining a “fire safe state of mind.” Small acts become even more critical as there are fewer people in facilities. For example, the thought of leaving a box in front of an exit door, thereby blocking egress, may occur because someone may be thinking, “No one is here. What is the big deal?” Also, regular removal of trash and proper disposal of our sanitizer containers are all new concerns to consider.

Finally, if you are in the office, do not forget to water the plants. Dry vegetation is not something we often think of as a fuel load inside a building, but if there were a large number of plants in a cubicle or office and no one has been watering them, they can become potential fire hazard. If a facility has an indoor garden feature, add it to the fire safety checklist.

While COVID-19 has created many new challenges for commercial facilities managers, the need to maintain fire safety, even during this unprecedented time, remains essential. Extra precautions, awareness of new hazards, and an adherence to an inspections and maintenance schedule will ensure that a facility will be safe and operational for years to come.

Tom Parrish, Vice President of Telgian Corporation (www.Telgian.com), a worldwide fire, life safety and security firm has 25+ years of experience in both fire protection and emergency response. He has held positions within municipal fire, law enforcement and emergency medical services. Parrish serves on several National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) committees, is the Vice President of the Automatic Fire Alarm Association (AFAA) and the Fire Marshal at Putnam Township Fire Department in Pinckney, Michigan. Tom can be reached at tparrish@telgian.com.