Is the System in Service?

FDCs from David Phelan
Photos by Dave Phelan

Chief Kanterman’s Journal Entry 62

The fire in Spring Valley, New York, last week that took the life of a resident of an assisted living facility and the life of Firefighter Jarod Lloyd raises questions regarding fixed fire protection systems in commercial structures and whether or not they are in service at all times, less maintenance or repair time. Current reports are that the fire alarm system was in “test mode” and was taken off-line to the Central Station for work going on the facility. This work involved using handheld torches in order to Kosher the kitchen for the Jewish holiday of Passover. However, let’s “keep our guns holstered” and not rush to judge until the investigation is completed.

In the meantime, it raises the question of whether or not fixed fire protection systems in your district are in service and fire-ready in order to protect the occupants of the building along with the firefighting forces, should a fire emergency occur. Yes, these systems are for us too. My esteemed colleague and long-time friend Jack Murphy, retired fire marshal and Fire Engineering Tom Brennan Lifetime Achievement Award recipient, has been publishing articles regarding what we should be paying attention to in commercial buildings, particularly high-rises and other large commercial structures, framed around the phrase “Know Before You Go (KBYG).” Preplanning and battle planning are the keys to successful outcomes on the fireground. I’m sure you’d agree that most line personnel pay little attention to this aspect of public fire safety and spend even less time studying the nuances. We head out to automatic alarms all day and all night with no real substantive knowledge to back it up. It’s too late to start learning about these systems with smoke in the building or when fire is showing out the windows. Our attitude continues for us to believe “it’s the fire marshal’s job” and to some extent this is correct. Testing, inspection, and code enforcement as driven by codes and standards lie with the fire marshal’s office. However (and there’s always a however) it’s a shared responsibility and part and parcel to firefighter safety and fireground success.


Fire Department Connections: Start to Finish

The codes (mostly building codes) require fixed systems to be installed by owners at a cost of, in some cases, hundreds of thousands of dollars. Our obligation, and it’s the very least we can do, is to know how they work and how to use and manipulate them during a fire emergency. This also give us an advantage. As codes have evolved over the past 50 years or so, the requirements for fixed fire protection systems have become more prevalent; they’re not going away any time soon and in fact you will see more of them. I deliver a course entitled “Fight the Fire, not the Building” that delves in to operating in the built environment and using these systems to your advantage. It’s a need I discovered about 15 years ago. Many seasoned fire officers have commented that they should have had this knowledge much earlier in their career.  

Take the time to learn about these systems and partner with your fire marshal or code enforcement bureau. Don’t wait for a fire to try and figure it out. At every call, alarm or run when things calm down, go to the riser room and see if the valves are open to the sprinkler or standpipe system, stop at the fire alarm panel and see if it’s in service, check the fire department connection for serviceability, etc. If systems are off or in disrepair, issue a corrective order or refer it immediately to your fire marshal or code enforcement bureau. Follow up and ensure it gets fixed for the sake of the occupants, the community, and the members of your department.

Remember “Murphy’s New Law”…Know Before You Go!

Be well, stay well, be safe,

Ronnie K                        

RON KANTERMAN is a more than four-decade veteran of the fire service and recently retired as chief of the Wilton (CT) Fire Department. He has a B.A. degree in fire administration and two master’s degrees. He’s a contributing author for Fire Engineering, the Fire Engineering Handbook for Firefighter I and II, and the 7th edition of the Fire Chief’s Handbook.

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