Fire Safety Inspections: Less Can Be More

All campus fire safety professionals I talk with wish they had more time and more staff so they could get everything done they need to do or think they need to do. Fire safety inspections of campus buildings frequently come up in these discussions as something that fire prevention staff would like to do more efficiently. The discussion almost always involves looking at ways to get to look at every space on campus every year.


I ask the question,“Why do you want to go into every space every year?” Why not go into the most hazardous or most critical spaces on a yearly (or more frequent) basis, and go into spaces that, while needed, would not create a threat to mission continuity if they had a fire? In other words, do less in some spaces and more in others. In most cases, there is already a minimum amount of effort going into the idea of doing less in some spaces, but there was no formal thought process to defend doing less in some spaces and more in others.


Share the Responsibility

In order to reduce the frequency of inspections, health and safety staff and fire prevention staff should sit down with facilities staff and look at each other’s activities within each building. They should look to see if there are opportunities for cross-training staff on basic fire safety reviews. Could the basics be incorporated into the daily activities of other staff without increasing workload?


For example, could electricians look for improper use of extension cords while they are in office areas? Could custodial supervisors look at corridors and exit signs while they are in a building reviewing the work of custodians? Sharing these minor inspection tasks could free up fire inspectors to look at potentially higher hazard areas on campus.


Prioritizing Spaces

Assuming you can arrange to have others pick up basic life-safety inspections, fire prevention staff will need to understand where they will spend their time. One method to help prioritize where fire staff will spend their time requires ranking the relative hazard of each space on campus. To do this, consider using the International Code Council Existing Building Code tables in Chapter 9. There are hazard tables for egress and height and area that are based on the ICC Building Code Occupancy Classifications.


RELATIVE HAZARD OCCUPANCY CLASSIFICATION

1. Highest H Ex. Chemistry Labs

2. I-2, I-3, I-4 Ex. Healthcare

3. A,E,I-1,M, R-1,R-2,R-4 Ex. Large classrooms and residences

4. B, F-1,R-3,S-1 Ex. Offices, light fabrication

5. Lowest F-2,S-2,U Ex. Storage buildings


You must also look at your loss histories in each of the occupancy groups. If you don’t have accurate data for your campus, you can turn to the National Fire Protection Association data for fires by occupancy groups. What you are likely to find is that you are just like the surrounding community as far as fire losses by category. With this data, you can then decide where to focus your fire inspections.


Moving staff resources away from yearly inspections of storage buildings might be a good way to free up their time to focus on high-risk laboratory locations. While your staff may be able to review 10 storage buildings in one day, what is the value of that compared to not conducting one inspection in a lab? If all 10 buildings used for storage were to be lost in fires, would that place as many lives at risk compared to one laboratory fire?


Taking a look at residence halls is certainly a better use of time than looking at most office spaces on campus. Consider where you have had fires on campus. Most campuses would probably fit the trend that there are far more fires in housing than in offices. Offices are also relatively easy to replace, while housing and large classrooms are not. It is easier to double up staff in offices or rent trailers for offices after a fire than it is to find classrooms for 300 students. Focusing inspectors’ time on mission-critical classroom spaces is certainly more important than small office buildings.


Timing is Everything

Also consider timing of inspections in each occupancy. Students are more likely to start a fire or be killed in a fire during the months of August and April. These months mark the beginning and end of most college and university school years. If your campus has different start and end months adjust inspections to coincide with your dates. Shifting your staff to conduct inspections in residential buildings during these two months will reduce the risk of fires and injuries.


These inspections should focus on student living areas. Bedrooms, apartments, kitchens, and common spaces should be the focus of the inspections during August and April (or your school’s starting and ending months). Building systems such as fire alarms and sprinklers, HVAC systems, and other mechanical spaces can be inspected while students are gone during the summer or holidays. The months of December, June, and July are the least likely times for campus residences to have fires. There will be less disruption to students if these areas and systems are inspected during non-academic periods, and your inspection team should be able to inspect and correct faster than if notifications and postings of system testing are made when students are present.


Doing less in some spaces requires planning and effort up front. You must know where and why you are going to reduce frequencies of inspections. You must also decide how long you will push back the frequency. Placing high-risk locations on a six-month schedule and placing low-risk locations on an 18-month schedule may work. To find the balance, look at your staffing size and the amount of effort it takes to conduct fire safety inspections in each occupancy category. Only then will you be able to find a schedule that fits your 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 mike.halligan@ehs.utah.edu.

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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