Designing a Balanced Fire Protection Plan

A hands-on plan for a safer workplace is more important than ever.

IT was a Monday night last May at Las Palmitas, a restaurant in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, when a fire broke out in its lounge filled with a crowd of 200 customers. Police and fire officials say someone set a piñata on fire during Cinco de Mayo festivities. The decoration went up in flames and the fire spread up to the planter on which the piñata was hanging.

A customer quickly notified the bartender of the fire. Fortunately for all those there that night, an employee instantly ran over with a dry-chemical fire extinguisher and put out the fire within seconds. Deputy Fire Chief Dan Cochran was quoted in the Spokesman-Review newspaper as saying, "It could have been a catastrophe. The place was packed."

"He had the forethought to grab an extinguisher. That drives home the point of why we require extinguishers--they were able to knock down the fire before we even got there," Cochran said.

This fire is an excellent example of how those first critical minutes of a fire--before professional fire assistance can arrive--can determine the ultimate result of the fire. In this case, all building occupants were safe and the restaurant property was protected because of the on-site, quick response of an employee.

To ensure quick response to fire, business and building owners need to be certain a complete and balanced approach to fire protection exists in their workplace. The approach provides occupants and employees with the tools to defend in place against a fire, once the fire department has been called and everyone is safe.

A balanced fire protection plan is made up of several components, many of which will be discussed in this article. These life-safety devices include fire extinguishers, standpipe fire hose stations, smoke/fire alarms, exit signs and emergency lighting, and sprinkler and fire suppression systems. All of these components must be in place and well-maintained to make a difference in cases of fire.

Fire protection equipment is legislated by city, state, and federal laws, many of them directly adopted or adapted from model code-making organizations, such as the International Code Council (ICC) and the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). Building owners must comply with the fire codes of their area; however, considering the history of fires and the potential severity of future ones, they may want to evaluate their balanced fire protection plan and exceed the requirements of local codes for added protection. Businesses, too, should become advocates for their employees' safety by urging building owners to go above and beyond local requirements for extra precautionary measures.

A balanced fire protection plan is the first line of defense against fire. Small fires in the beginning stage can be suppressed with portable fire extinguishers or water hose lines connected to building standpipes. Even if the occupants are unable to extinguish the fire, they are able to gain time and protect the exit way in order to evacuate or defend in place while waiting for the fire department to respond.

Here are some facts to consider. When fires are extinguished in the early stages:

  • Loss of life is minimal. Ninety-three percent of all fire-related deaths occur once the fire has progressed beyond the early stages.
  • Direct property damage is minimal. Ninety-five percent of all direct property damage occurs once the fire has progressed beyond the early stages.1

A Complete and Balanced Fire Protection Plan
NFPA statistics released in September 2000 for 1999 indicate a fairly consistent level of fires over the past several years.2 Because there is no decrease in the number of structure fires, it is more important than ever to ensure all systems are in place for a complete and balanced fire protection plan. Here are the basic components (see the building diagram graphic within this article):

  • Design and construction of building
  • Portable fire extinguishers and standpipe fire protection stations
  • Automatic fire/smoke alarms
  • Automatic fire suppression systems
  • Emergency lighting and EXIT signs, and
  • Training.

According to NFPA, a successful balanced fire protection plan should be designed so that safety to life does not depend solely on any single component. Each safeguard must work with the others to protect lives and property. Additional fire protection methods can be added to the plan in case any of the basic components is ineffective because of human or mechanical failure. The components are not meant to stand alone, but when linked together, this life-saving chain of survival provides complete fire protection. Here are the steps:
1) The fire department is called; make sure everyone is safe.
2) A portable fire extinguisher/standpipe fire hose station is your first defense if the fire is small and contained.
3) The smoke alarm sounds.
4) The sprinkler/suppression system activates.
5) The fire department responds.

Portable Fire Extinguishers
The portable fire extinguisher is an extremely effective tool for extinguishing small and contained fires in those first critical minutes. Consider this: 94 percent of the time a portable fire extinguisher is used, it puts out the fire typically within the initial two minutes.

A critical component of the balanced fire protection plan, portable fire extinguishers must be placed every 75 feet in a commercial structure, according to NFPA 1 Fire Prevention Code and NFPA 10 Standard for Portable Fire Extinguishers.

Consider these important tips:

  • Each workplace building must have a full complement of the proper type of fire extinguisher for the fire hazards present.
  • All employees must be instructed on the hazards of fighting fire, how to properly operate the fire extinguishers available, and what procedures to follow in alerting others to the fire emergency. Conduct employee training regularly to keep operational procedures top of mind.
  • Only approved fire extinguishers are permitted to be used in workplaces, and they must be kept in good operating condition. Proper maintenance and inspection of this equipment is required of each employer.3

We at the Fire Equipment Manufacturers' Association (FEMA) can't stress enough the importance of teaching employees they should not endanger themselves or others by attempting to put out a fire under the wrong circumstances. Be sure that employees understand they should fight a fire only if:
1) The fire is small and contained.
2) They are safe from toxic smoke.
3) They have a way to escape.
4) Their instincts tell them it's OK.

If these conditions are present, then employees can make the decision to use a fire extinguisher. Consult the local fire department or fire equipment distributor to help conduct the fire extinguisher training for your employees. Here is a brief overview of how a portable fire extinguisher is properly used:
Typically, the acronym PASS is remembered:
--Pull the pin. This will allow the fire extinguisher to discharge.
--Aim the nozzle at the base of the fire. If the extinguishing agent does not reach the fuel source (located at the base of the fire), then the fire will not be extinguished.
--Squeeze the handle to release the pressurized extinguishing agent.
--Sweep the hose from side to side. Start from a safe distance away and then move forward. Be sure to watch the fire in case of re-ignition.

For an educational overview of portable fire extinguishers (including proper selection, use, and maintenance) visit a FEMA member's Web site at

Standpipe Fire Hose Stations
Typically, fire departments are three to five minutes away, with 70 percent of fire departments being volunteer fire departments. In these cases, there can be up to a 15-minute wait for fire response. Those passive, waiting minutes give building occupants time to defend in place with standpipe fire hose stations, once the fire department is called and everyone is safe.

The standpipe fire hose station typically is mounted on the wall for use in office buildings, dormitories, schools, airports, hotels, hospitals, retail malls, and other commercial structures. These stations are hung in high traffic areas and house the fire extinguisher, fire hose, reel, and rack. Make sure the cabinets are intact and the hose is neatly assembled on the hose rack. If a fire hose is left loose on the floor or a cabinet has been broken or tampered with, fire department personnel should be notified immediately.

For high-rise buildings, the number of hose stations in each section of the building subdivided by fire walls should be such that all portions of each story are within 30 feet (9 meters) of a nozzle attached to not more than 100 feet (30 m) of hose. Both 2-1/2 inch (64 mm) and 1-1/2 inch (38 mm) hose connections are needed on every floor.

The minimum water supply to any given floor should be able to fulfill the demand of the sprinkler system plus the hose requirements. The most desirable supply of water is through a public water system that can meet pressure and discharge capacity requirements.

As a quick primer, there are three classes of standpipe stations. 1) Vertical pipes running up building with hose connections on each floor; 2) Occupant hose on a reel located in a standpipe station; and 3) A combination of 1 and 2 above, the difference being that hose connections are different sizes.

Do your employees know how to operate a fire hose station in case of an emergency? If not, it is imperative to conduct a training to educate everyone about the importance of fire hoses and how to use them. Here are the four steps to remember:
1) Turn to open valve completely.
2) Pull hose entirely off rack.
3) Water will flow when hose is free and nozzle is open.
4) Aim the nozzle at the base of the fire.
In summary, consider these important tips:

  • Each workplace building should have the proper type of standpipe fire hose station for fire department and/or building occupant use on every floor.
  • All employees must be instructed on the hazards of fighting fire, how to properly operate the fire hose station available, and what procedures to follow in alerting others to the fire emergency. Conduct employee training regularly to keep procedures fresh in employees' minds.
  • Standpipe fire hose stations must be kept in good operating condition. Proper maintenance and inspection of this equipment is required of each employer and the local fire authorities.

Coming soon is an educational overview and training segment about standpipe fire hose stations that can be viewed by visiting the FEMA Web site at

Fire Suppression Systems
A fire suppression system is mandated by NFPA standards in special hazard situations. These special hazard situations (specified by NFPA) include:
1. Flammable or combustible liquids.
2. Flammable or combustible gases.
3. Combustible solids including plastics, which melt when involved in fire.
4. Electrical hazards such as oil-filled transformers or circuit breakers.
5. Textile operations subject to flash surface fires.
6. Ordinary combustibles such as wood, paper, or cloth.
7. Restaurant and commercial hoods, ducts, and associated cooking appliance hazards such as deep-fat fryers.
8. Any process that allows for the potential of a flammable or combustible material to be used where an ignition source may be present during the operation, cleanup, or dormant state of the process.

When the above hazards exist, a fire suppression system also is a first line of defense against fire because if is pre-engineered to activate quickly, automatically, and precisely.

Consider these important points:

  • Properly designed and installed fixed fire suppression systems enhance fire safety in the workplace.
  • Pre-engineered systems are designed and tested based on a strict testing criteria, which considers the process it is protecting. These systems are designed to protect the process and associated equipment, limit business interruption, and provide for emergency evacuation before sprinkler systems activate. When used in conjunction with a sprinkler system, they will prevent fire propagation beyond the fire origin and reduce the risk of catastrophic losses.
  • Automatic fire suppression systems require proper maintenance to keep them in serviceable condition.
  • Signs must be posted about areas protected by total flooding fire suppression systems using agents that are a serious health hazard, such as carbon dioxide, Halon 1211, etc. Such automatic systems must be equipped with area pre-discharge alarm systems to warn employees of the impending discharge of the system and allow time to evacuate the area. There must be an emergency action plan to provide for the safe evacuation of employees from within the protected area. Such plans are to be part of the overall evacuation plan for the workplace facility.4

Safety Professionals Can Help Fight Fires in the Workplace
As the Idaho restaurant fire illustrated, a balanced fire protection plan is critical to life safety. Each and every component needs to work together to ensure a safe and healthy working environment. That is why FEMA launched this very important balanced fire protection initiative to help save lives and protect property. Through an organized and targeted educational and code effort, FEMA plans to reach many of the professionals who influence the safety of businesses. Clearly, groups at all levels need to be aware of the importance of balanced fire protection to help make a difference.

Please note: The information in this article is a general overview of fire protection. Because there are many rules and regulations that govern this equipment, a safety manager should not base the company's balanced fire protection plan solely on this information. Consult with local fire authorities, NFPA (, as well as building, fire prevention, and life safety codes for more information on specific requirements.

1. 1991-1995 National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS), National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), 1 Batterymarch Park, Quincy, MA.
2. NFPA's 2000 United States Fire Loss, September 2001, by M.J. Karter, Jr.
3, 4. This material was published in 1993 as part of OSHA Fact Sheet No. 93-41.

This article originally appeared in the December 2003 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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