It’s October and once again it’s Fire Prevention Month. So this year, I will try to compose a few posts that will look at fire prevention and fire protection from a risk management point of view. In this post I will address some things that I have observed and heard about how people do, what I would call, stupid things and put their buildings and people at risk.
I teach a class that prepares fire safety directors to take the written exam for certification as a fire safety director (FSD) in NYC. As part of the class, we discuss what is required when fire protection systems are out of service or otherwise impaired whether planned or unplanned.
The students will almost always add their own war stories to the class discussion. I will typically hear about fire alarm systems that are always off line because the alarm system in such disrepair that it send unwarranted alarms to central station at least daily. There are stories about sprinkler systems that leaking at every connection and are placed out of service rather than having water damage on that floor. A new story recently had the CO2 system for the computer rooms always out of service because it is easier for the technicians to be able to fix the computer servers. And an ancient standpipe system that needs to be replaced, but is patch repaired by house maintenance workers. Often these systems are out with the building management completely aware of the situation, but no building occupant has is ever notified of the problem.
First, let us discuss the concept of fire protection systems. What is a fire protection system? The Fire Code in NYC, which is based on the International Fire Code, defines a fire protection system as the “approved devices, equipment and systems or combinations of systems used to detect a fire, activate an alarm, extinguish or control a fire, control or manage smoke and products of a fire or any combination thereof, including fire extinguishing systems, fire alarm systems, sprinkler systems and standpipe systems. [FC902]”
From a moral point of view having a fire protection system repeatedly out of service puts all the occupants of the building at risk because there is no fire protection system. If the building occupants and/or fire fighters are not aware of the situation, there are often tragic results. In 2007, two NYC fire fighters lost their lives and two others were injured fighting a fire in a building where the standpipe system was out of service.
The NYC Fire Code requires that when a fire protection system is impaired that the fire department be notified of the impairment, along with the classification of the building, the areas of the building affected by the impairment, the estimated time to make the necessary repairs and the phone number of the impairment coordinator.
The NYC Fire Code also states that:
[w]here a required fire protection system is out of service, …. a fire watch shall be maintainedby one or more persons holding a certificate of fitness for fire guard [FC901.7]
The number of fire guards needed depends mainly on the size of the area affected by the system that is out of service. You need a fire guard for every 50,000 sq. ft. of affected building area. As an example, during the final phases of construction, the new Barclay Center in Brooklyn had as many as 21 fire guards on duty while work was being done and the fire protection system was out of service. These fire guards must be maintained 24 hours a day until the fire protection system is in good working order and returned to service.
We also discuss in the FSD class, that in addition to notifying the fire department, you also have to notify the building owner, the central alarm station, the affected tenants AND your insurance carrier.
Most of the students are unaware of the requirement to call the insurance company and question why this is necessary.
The answer is found in a standard endorsement to most fire insurance or commercial business policies. The endorsement is called the “Protective Safeguards Endorsement.” The endorsement is usually included where you are getting some kind of premium reduction for having fire protection systems installed. The endorsement requires that the insured, as a condition of coverage for fire loss, maintain a Central Station Fire Alarm system. It also states that: the insurer will not pay for loss or damage caused by or resulting from fire if, prior to the fire, the insured:
- Knew of any suspension or impairment in any protective safeguard listed [in the policy schedule] and failed to notify the insurer of that fact; or
- Failed to maintain any protective safeguard listed [in the policy schedule], and over which the insured had control, in complete working order.
Failing to notify your insurance carrier of any fire protection system impairment means that the insurer will NOT cover any fire related claim that occurs while the system is out of service or impaired.
The second clause of that endorsement is just as important. Failing to maintain the fire protection system can also result in a denial on coverage.
Now that we know what is required, what should the prudent building manager do?
- Review and understand your building fire insurance. Ask your broker about situations where coverage can be denied with the existing language. If you have continual problems with older systems, then having the protective systems endorsement and resulting savings may not be the best thing to do, if you carrier allows it. REMEMBER that sometimes you cannot eliminate this endorsement, either the insurance carrier will not cover your building without it OR local regulations require you to maintain fire protection systems in good working order.
- Perform all required preventive maintenance and inspections on your fire protection systems. Saving a few hundred dollars by not performing an annual inspection may seem like a good business savings, but it will cost you if local laws require it or your insurance company denies coverage under clause 2 of the protective systems endorsement. Update your insurance company annually regarding your inspection and maintenance program. If you don’t know what inspections and maintenance are required, refer to your local regulations or to NFPA Standard 25 for sprinklers and standpipe systems. NFPA 25 is considered a standard of care; you use your inspection and testing reports to prove your system was being maintained properly. NFPA 72 is the standard to follow for fire alarm systems.
- Keep detailed records of all inspections and repairs that are performed. REMEMBER if you don’t write it down, you didn’t do it.
- Make prompt notice. Every time a fire protection system is out of service, report it to all parties as required. Make sure you or your impairment coordinator calls the insurance company as soon as possible. Make sure the fire alarm maintenance company or fire suppression piping contractor is called to repair the system and get it back on line.
- Train and qualify some of your building personnel to meet the local fire guard standard. This can help reduce the additional cost if you need to fire guard coverage immediately. It is also an advantage for in-house personnel to acquaint outside contractors with your facility.
- Review your leasing agreements. Leasing agreements often allow tenants to remodel or alter a space to meet their needs. These alterations should not, in any way, alter, damage, or impair any fire protection system. Your leasing agreement should spell out the requirements for maintaining all installed fire protection systems, including but not limited to, not altering any fire protection system. The lease should also spell out immediate notification procedures for situations where the tenant has intentionally or unintentionally impaired any fire protection system.
- Understand what impairments you can have. Not all impairments are under the control of the building owner. If your water service is turned off because of a water main break, you have an impaired system. You do not have control of the water mains, but the impairment must be reported. If your electrical power is cut off because of a utility problem or repair and you have no power for your fire pumps, you also have an impaired system. This also must be reported.
CONCLUSION: If you have concerns about your fire protection coverage, you should consult a risk management consultant or an attorney hoe specializes in insurance coverage. If you have questions about your fire protection systems or your fire insurance, you can often ask for assistance from your carrier’s or your broker’s loss control department. If they don’t have a loss control department, you can contact a safety consultant like Homeland Safety for a consultation.