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Fire & Life Safety (Focus on Preparation and Prevention)

Fire Extinguishers: Minimize Inspection Costs

Fire extinguisher installation and inspection seems to be a topic that many facility managers wish could be simplified or, in some cases, eliminated. A recent discussion with several individuals centered on the misperception that in some locations on campus fire extinguishers could be eliminated completely when sprinkler systems were installed. This is not the case; in fact, the 2012 International Fire Code and Building Codes were modified to require more extinguishers in Assembly (A) and Business/classroom (B) occupancies. In Residential (R-2) occupancies, placing smaller fire extinguishers inside each dwelling unit will allow for the elimination of larger extinguishers in common areas where they are subject to vandalism or theft.

The exception to now allow for smaller extinguishers inside each apartment or dwelling unit has several impacts to both the safety of the residents and your fire extinguisher inspection program. This particular code change improves the safety of apartment residents because it does not require a resident to leave the dwelling involved in a fire, find a portable fire extinguisher and then return to the fire-involved apartment unit to attempt fire extinguishment. This exception allows the portable fire extinguisher to be placed inside the unit where most fires occur. If the residents cannot control or extinguish the fire, they can escape and allow the automatic fire sprinkler system to operate and control the fire.

Examining the Impact

The impact to facilities management is an increased number of extinguishers now requiring a monthly inspection, as well as a minor added cost to new construction of residence halls. Placing fire extinguishers inside each apartment will significantly increase the time needed to conduct monthly inspections and require additional disruption to students living in each apartment. In addition to the monthly inspections required by NFPA Standard 10 (Standard for Testing, Inspection and Maintenance of Fire Extinguishers), there may be a need for even more frequent inspections of extinguishers when conditions warrant. A building with a history of recent fires, frequent obstructions, vandalism or theft will need to have more frequent inspections of extinguishers.

Some studies indicate that the time to provide notice to residents, enter the apartment and conduct a monthly inspection of a fire extinguisher approaches five minutes per apartment. A campus with 500 apartments will see an increase of 40 hours per month just to complete fire extinguisher inspections.

There are statistics that indicate that more than 90 percent of monthly inspections are not completed as required. However, this places residence halls in a very precarious situation; they are clearly not complying with adopted codes. Even a minor incident could result in liability for lack of properly inspecting life-safety equipment. Some schools will add this cost to the rent they charge to students — thus increasing the cost to live on campus. Other schools will take advantage of the exception to electronically monitor fire extinguishers through their fire or security alarm systems in each building.

Electronic Monitoring

Campuses opting to take advantage of electronic monitoring eliminate 30-day inspections and reduce annual maintenance from yearly to every three years. This can have a significant positive impact on you staff and budget resources. Recapturing a week of staff time per month is the equivalent of adding a quarter position back into you staff roster. The time not spent on extinguishers can be used for other facilities operations needs. The return on investment for new construction and retrofit is often between two and three years.

There is an added benefit of safety as well. You know the extinguisher inside the apartment is still in place, still properly charged, unobstructed and ready for use 24/7. This also helps reduce liability; residents in the apartment won’t be able to claim the extinguisher was missing or not available for use on a fire inside the apartment. You will have a permanent record available of the history of the extinguisher and can provide documented proof that the extinguisher was ready to be used. In addition, should a resident of the apartment misuse the extinguisher or use it on a fire inside the apartment, you will have instant notice. Instant notification can be sent to live-in staff to investigate why the extinguisher was removed from the cabinet. This allows for better reporting of actual fires and fast replacement of an extinguisher.

This article originally appeared in the March 2014 issue of College Planning & Management.

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.

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