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Facilities Management: Taking a proactive approach to fire protection


Although there might be a fire in one of your stores at some time, it’s a pretty sure bet that there won’t be a fire at every single location in your portfolio. What there will be, at every single store, is an inspection of the fire-protection equipment.

Wayne G. (Chip) Carson, f ire protection engineer and founder of Carson Associates, Inc., Warrenton, Va., conducted a SPECS session “Fire Inspection Requirements and Expectations” to help retailers understand the importance of up-to-date inspections, tests and maintenance of fire-protection equipment.

A number of building codes and industry requirements were discussed, but some of the most valuable lessons were the professional insights and observations Carson shared.

For instance, property owners are responsible for maintaining records throughout the life of fire-protection equipment. Carson’s suggestion was to keep the original records for all locations centralized at the corporate office, but maintain file copies for each individual site at the store level. The life history of equipment, dating back to the original installation or “birth certificate,” is valuable because it can provide a baseline for identifying potential problems or system changes that might develop.

He also posed interesting questions, often founded on basic common sense. “Why would you install a smoke alarm in the ceiling of a 75-ft. atrium, where it would be impossible to service?” Answering his own question, Carson noted, “Smoke alarms were designed to wake people. They are early warning devices and absolutely essential in any location where people might be sleeping—but do you really need a smoke alarm in a room where no one sleeps?”

Sprinkler systems are another story. To hear Carson talk, the sprinkler system is quite possibly the most vital piece of fire-protection equipment that a retailer installs.

“Most fires can be controlled by a sprinkler system, which typically puts out approximately 25 gallons of water per minute,” he told SPECS attendees.

“You’re going to have a lot more damage from a firefighter’s hose line that [delivers] up to 200 gallons per minute than from any sprinkler system—plus the sprinkler system is ready to go 24/7,” he noted.

There is one catch to that statement, which should send alarms ringing in every facility manager’s head. The sprinkler system has to be adequately maintained and tested. “You can never inspect your sprinkler systems too much—and you absolutely have to inspect them regularly,” advised Carson.

He also regaled the SPECS audience with a litany of stories that illustrated how easily disasters could occur. There was the incomplete installation of a sprinkler system, where one tiny wire was not connected to the total alarm system, thus rendering the entire investment useless. There were multiple examples of great paint jobs—that left non-functioning sprinkler systems because the sprinklers were painted, damaged or left taped and covered after the job was complete. (Pipes can be painted, and typically are painted to blend with the ceiling or walls, but sprinkler heads may not be painted.)

Additionally, he warned that changes in the utilization of a space can impact the efficiency and potential effectiveness of sprinkler systems. For instance, the operation could be impaired if shelves or racks are raised, particularly in a back room. As a general guideline, there has to be at least 18 inches of clear space beneath a sprinkler system.

“An original system may be designed to handle 8-ft. tall shelves, but may not work when the shelves are extended to 12 or 16 feet,” he said.

He also pointed out that materials burn differently. A system designed to protect apparel or soft lines would likely not be adequate for inventories of electronics or plastics.

Additionally, the SPECS session reviewed the importance of access to water-storage tanks and fire hydrants, as well as clearly delineated exits and unobstructed egress.

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