THE BASICS OF FIRE INSPECTIONS
BY JACK J. MURPHY, JR.
In our reactionary society, modifications in fire codes largely have been in response to tragic fires, including those listed in the box at right, that cost many lives.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was the impetus for the New York City Fire Code; the Coconut Grove fire in Boston led to National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) requirements for exits and interior finishes; and the fire at Our Lady of Angels School in Chicago led the state of New Jersey to retrofit all public schools with what at that time was a state-of-the-art pneumatic- tubing fire alarm system.
While these disasters have been directly associated with improved fire codes, the thankless task of conducting fundamental fire inspections in inhabited buildings no doubt has significantly contributed to life safety as well. Statistics do not reveal how many lives have been saved because fire inspectors have checked exits and inspected fire alarm and fire suppression systems, preventing fires in the inspected buildings from developing into substantial incidents.
To achieve the objectives of decreasing life and property loss to fire, fire inspections must be thorough and conducted within the confines of the law. When preparing to make fire inspections, be sure to review the following areas.
FIRE PREVENTION GOALS
The major goals of fire inspections include the following:
to raise the public`s awareness of fire safety considerations in their immediate surroundings,
to identify fire hazards that must be eliminated for a safer environment,
to record inspection information for inclusion in the public record, and
to verify the proper functioning/maintenance of installed fire protection systems and other building fire protection equipment/features.
COMMON FIRE SAFETY ELEMENTS
A fire inspection should include checking for the following:
the means of egress as pertaining to life safety considerations;
fire protection systems–fire alarms that give early warning to inhabitants and fire suppression systems that control the fire in the incipient stage;
heating systems as they affect the furnace, the fuel-supply and ignition systems, vents, and chimney;
electrical systems–including electrical distribution, motors, extension cords, lamps, lighting fixtures, grounding, and other related areas;
mechanical systems, such as heating and air-conditioning systems; and
storage–where commodities are being stored and how they are arranged in occupancies; recycling programs have had an impact on buildings not designed to house these used products until they are scheduled for pickup.
All aspects of a fire inspection are directed toward motivating owners and tenants to correct detected violations, shun future violations, and maintain fire-safe premises. A quality fire inspection makes an impact on the public; it makes the inspection effort appear more believable. One motivator that can be used is persuasion–the inspector explains to the owner/tenant how a breach of the fire code could cause or aggravate a fire and endanger the life safety of the building`s occupants. Persuasion may be used most effectively during the initial fire inspection. Threat of enforcement might be the ultimate motivator, wherein the legal sanctions of fines and imprisonment are used to foster compliance. This motivator may be used in cases in which past practices have constituted violations or an imminent hazard has been identified.
Development of a jurisdiction`s comprehensive fire prevention code. Consolidate all laws and ordinances related to fire prevention, thereby centralizing the fire official`s power to act. Laws and ordinances should be flexible enough to give discretionary powers to the local fire official. Codes should be updated as changing conditions demand. Incorporate fines and penalties that will provide the teeth of the law. The code should cover minimum requirement provisions for hazardous features of occupancies and structures and be reviewed to ensure that it will pass all the tests the court will use to determine its legality. Model fire prevention codes can form the foundation for this effort.
Knowledge. Inspectors need not be familiar with every point of a broad fire inspection code, but they should be able to make general observations and recommendations relating to the code during the inspection tour. When a more detailed analysis of the code is needed, inspectors should reference code standards or consult with supervisors.
Failing to pay special attention to the portion of the code that applies to the right to entry can have serious consequences. When entering a structure, the inspector should present identification credentials to the personnel on the premises. If entry is denied, the inspector must obtain a warrant from the court. The first court case in which entry rights were sought for the purpose of conducting a fire inspection was See v. City of Seattle. Norman See was prosecuted for refusing to permit inspectors from the Seattle Fire Department to enter his premises to make a routine fire inspection. He appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which held “that administrative entry, without consent, upon the portions of commercial premises which are not open to the public may only be compelled through prosecution or physical force within the framework of a warrant procedure.”1 Infractions discovered during an inspection in which entry is made without a warrant (where one is indicated) will not be upheld in a court of law.
INSPECTION: PREPARATION, METHODOLOGY, AND PROCEDURE
Equipment. You will need at least the following supplies when conducting a fire inspection: a flashlight, a clipboard, a notepad for sketching, inspection forms, a portable radio, a tape measure, pens/pencils, and reference materials. These supplies should be carried in the vehicle. Target hazard inspections may require specialty equipment.
Appearance. Whether in uniform or in plainclothes (wearing an identification badge), make a neat appearance.
Review files. Review the files prior to conducting the inspection for pertinent information about hazards and past practices at the facility.
Methodology. When you arrive at the site, observe the exterior of the structure: all structural extensions, exposures, hazards posed by the location, siamese connections, and nearby water supply systems. For the interior, check for any ignition factor that could cause a fire. Look for hazards that present a fire danger, including electrical hazards, flammable/combustible gases and liquids, chemical storage, explosives, heating units, and materials that can spontaneously combust.
Ordinarily the inspection tour is begun at the top of the structure; whether you start at the top or bottom of the structure, be systematic in your approach. For a multiconnected structure, it is recommended that a vertical inspection be done. If you start on the roof, observe the condition and construction of the roof. While on the roof, observe the adjacent structures, to evaluate possible exposure hazards. Systematically advance through the structure; evaluate the potential for fire spread within the facility. Pay meticulous attention to the human reaction that may be anticipated if a fire should occur.
During an inspection, it is impossible to determine every factor that may influence an actual fire, but you should note obvious factors such as exposure hazards, the inherent causes of a potential fire, potential fire hazards, the manner of probable fire spread, extinguishing systems, and water supply.
Note also any hazards integral to the processing operations normally conducted in the occupancy. The objective here is to reduce the number of potential hazards in a location, which may be achieved by separating fire hazards to reduce fire spread and/or providing automatic sprinklers. It is inconceivable that a plant will operate without some process hazards–electrical sparks and arcing; friction resulting from grinding, polishing, cutting, and drilling operations; chemical reactions; open flame; smoking; improper heat devices; and hot work using torches, for example. Exercise good judgment when faced with decisions involving these hazards. If you observe an ignition factor that may cause a fire, recommend ways to minimize the potential hazard.
Tour all possible avenues of travel within the building that may contribute to the spread of smoke and fire–breaches in corridor walls, a missing fire door on a stair tower, trash in an elevator pit, and openings around vertical/horizontal pipe chases, for example. Properly protecting these major avenues can reduce the rapid spread of smoke and fire.
Determine the locations of standpipe risers, hose cabinets, OS&Y (outside stem and yoke) valves, sprinkler systems (and note whether they provide partial or complete coverage), other fixed extinguishing systems, fire pumps, and interior/exterior water tanks. The appropriate water supply and fire suppression equipment must be fully operational at all times.
In addition to knowing the fire code, identifying potential fire hazards, and exercising good judgment when dealing with the public, a fire inspector can advance professionalism by participating in functions related to fire prevention. These functions may include formal classes; continuing education seminars; studying periodicals and other literature; and affiliations with fire prevention associations, where inspectors can share experiences and discuss current trends in fire protection equipment, proposed fire safety legislation, and other areas.
Over the past two decades, fire prevention has been enhanced through legislation, especially sprinkler ordinances, and the heightened effort to promote public fire safety education programs–accomplishments that will have a significant impact on future generations. n
1. Rosenbaurer, D.L. Introduction to Fire Protection Law. 1978. National Fire Protection Association.
JACK J. MURPHY, JR., is fire protection manager at The New York Hospital/Cornell Medical Center in New York City, a career fire marshal in the Leonia (NJ) Fire Department, and a former deputy chief. He is president of the New York City Fire Safety Directors Association, an advisory board member of the Bergen County (NJ) Fire Academy, and an executive board member of the Bergen County Fire Prevention Association. Murphy is an adjunct lecturer at Rutgers University (NJ) and an adjunct instructor at the City University of New York/John Jay College for the fire prevention and fire management programs. He has undergraduate degrees in fire safety administration and industrial technology and a master`s degreee in education. Murphy is an editorial advisory board member of Fire Engineering.