Options for Maintaining Emergency Equipment

This critical life safety equipment cannot be installed and forgotten.

CATASTROPHES happen every day. Fires, floods, power outages, and other emergencies can destroy property and threaten lives anywhere, at any time. What about the responsibilities of building owners, operators and managers to ensure building safety and the well-being of building occupants? What needs to be done to maximize safety and avoid problems that could be prevented?

Emergency lighting equipment, exit signs, portable fire extinguishers, and kitchen hood fire suppression systems are required by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Life Safety Code, the National Electrical Code (NEC), and various other federal and state fire and building codes. How much do you know about the proper installation and maintenance of this equipment? How good are the life safety products that are installed in your facilities? Are they properly and regularly maintained in compliance with the NFPA, NEC, and OSHA? What needs to be done, when, and by whom? How many of us can be sure that our facilities are as safe as possible in the event of a fire or other emergency? What about liability, a very real issue in today's litigious society?

How much do you know about life safety and the emergency lighting and fire suppression products that can help to save lives? In February 2003, a nightclub fire in Warwick, R.I., killed 100 people and injured several hundred more. Just weeks later, a nighttime fire in a Hartford, Conn., nursing home took 16 lives. Building safety and critical life safety systems are now getting the attention they deserve--and it's about time! More frequent visits from fire marshals and building inspectors are just the beginning. It's the responsibility of building owners and managers to be sure their facilities are properly equipped with up-to-date emergency lighting equipment, exit signs, and fire suppression equipment and that this life safety equipment is regularly and properly maintained in accordance with code requirements.

Most building owners and operators of commercial, industrial, and institutional properties live with a constant risk of damage and death happening within their facilities and the resulting liability. Yet, few of them realize their problems could be prevented or minimized with the installation and maintenance of quality fire suppression systems and emergency lighting equipment. Part of the problem is obvious: Too often, this life safety equipment is neglected, and negligence results in serious injury, loss of life, and increased liability. How does negligence happen, and what can you do to prevent it?

Who's Doing the Maintenance?
Many building owners depend on in-house staff to perform checks on emergency lighting equipment, exit signs, and inverter systems, as well as portable fire extinguishers and fire suppression systems. But maintenance workers often lack the training, the time, and the experience to provide the regular and proper mandated maintenance of these critical life safety products.

Emergency lighting and fire suppression equipment cannot be installed and forgotten. These products are specially designed, specified, installed, and maintained in accordance with codes that are far-ranging and include operating parameters, as well as guidelines and requirements for regular maintenance, monthly testing, and written recordkeeping.

State and local fire marshals, building inspectors, and insurance company officials can visit any facility unannounced to inspect this equipment. It is their job to ensure all units are properly installed and maintained in accordance with pertinent codes and will work when they must: during a fire, a power interruption, or other emergency.

Clearly, fire marshals are increasing their efforts to inspect more facilities. Would your buildings pass inspection? Are your emergency lighting and fire suppression systems up to date, properly and regularly maintained, and in compliance with local, state, and federal fire and safety codes? When was the last time this critical life safety equipment was checked? Do you keep written records of all maintenance in a log or computer file for review by the local inspection agency having jurisdiction?

Building owners and managers often think in terms of economics. "We have a maintenance department, and they check everything. . . ." or "We've never had a problem, so we assume that everything works," But it's not that simple.

We received a call recently from the manager of a large office complex that had a staff of three electricians and four general maintenance workers. It had been assumed everything was being done properly until a major power outage proved otherwise. Many emergency lighting units and exit signs did not work, and more than 450 employees had difficulty finding their way out of the building and into sub-zero temperatures.

Another example: A major manufacturing facility in New England experienced a series of power outages because of inclement weather. Again, it was thought a full-time maintenance staff knew how to maintain battery operated emergency lighting equipment and inverter systems. But this equipment failed to provide sufficient lighting for employees to leave the facility in an orderly manner. It took an inordinate amount of time for nearly 300 office and factory personnel to exit the facilities. Company officials expressed some relief that the problem was only a power outage. What if there was a fire or other catastrophe? How many people would have perished in the time it took to exit the building in the dark?

How many building owners and managers and their maintenance staffs know NFPA 70, Article 700.1, which governs emergency lighting systems?

"The provisions of this article apply to the electrical safety of the installation, operation and maintenance of emergency lighting systems consisting of circuits and equipment intended to supply, distribute and control electricity for illumination or power, or both, to required facilities when the normal electrical supply system is interrupted."

NFPA also says emergency lighting must maintain the specified degree of illumination throughout the means of egress: not less than an average of one footcandle for a period of 90 minutes in the event of a power failure. The illumination may decline to not less than an average of 0.6 footcandle at the end of the emergency lighting time duration. But building owner or manager liability is a major issue. What happens if emergency lighting equipment is inoperable during an emergency? When if employees are unable to exit safely and orderly when their lives depend on it? What if there are injuries?

Combining the Two Inspections

The fact is: emergency lighting units and exit signs are not just illumination products. The purpose of this equipment is to save lives. Installation is required to obtain a certificate of occupancy, but proper and regular maintenance is the key to code compliance and reliable operation--and should be part of a comprehensive life safety management program. Unless properly and regularly maintained, emergency lighting equipment will not work when needed. Proper maintenance must be performed in accordance with manufacturers? instructions and in comformance to pertinent code requirements.

Maintaining Suppression Equipment
What about fire suppression equipment? How much do you know about maintaining portable fire extinguishers and kitchen hood fire suppression systems?

NFPA 10 Standard for Portable Fire Extinguishers states:

"The owner or occupant of a property in which fire extinguishers are located has an obligation for the care and use of these extinguishers at all times. The nameplate(s) and instruction manual should be read and thoroughly understood by all persons who could be expected to use the fire extinguishers. To discharge this obligation, the owner or occupant should give proper attention to the inspection, maintenance and recharging of this fire-protective equipment and should also train personnel in the correct use of fire extinguishers on the different types of fires that could occur on the property."

All fire extinguishers must be inspected and tagged annually, and all kitchen hood suppression systems must be inspected and tagged semi-annually by specially trained service technicians to ensure compliance with NFPA 10 and NFPA 96. These inspections are designed to assure reliability. Five-pound and 10-pound ABCs standard dry chemical discharge time is 14 seconds and 18 seconds. Fire extinguishers that are hung immediately after use are in violation of codes, as is the case when any tamper-resistant seal is undone. These units must be checked immediately and recharged or replaced with new units, if required.

When fire extinguishers require recharging, an outside service company will temporarily replace the unit that was discharged with one that is fully charged and of the same size and type. The original unit is then returned fully recharged. This is all part of NFPA 10 code requirements.

NFPA 10 also mandates the training of in-house employees to do monthly "quick checks" to ensure fire extinguishers have not been tampered with, that gauges indicate full charges, that units are still hung properly, are not blocked or obstructed in any way, and are kept clean and dusted. These requirements are all the responsibility of trained in-house staff members who are familiar with code requirements. NFPA 10, Chapter 4-1.2 states:

"The procedure for inspection and maintenance of fire extinguishers varies considerably. Minimal knowledge is necessary to perform a monthly 'quick check.'. . . A trained person who has undergone the instructions necessary to reliably perform maintenance and has the manufacturer's service manual shall service the fire extinguishers. . . ."

In addition to quick checks by specially trained employees, it is important to note that not all fire extinguishers fall into this category. CO2 fire extinguishers do not have gauges and, therefore, must be refilled after use by weight. In-house staff must be trained to recognize that if a tamper seal is missing, a unit must be weighed to be sure it contains the proper amount of CO2. If CO2 needs to be added, the unit must be serviced immediately and re-sealed to assure it is not tampered with and is ready for use if needed.

The Bottom Line
What is the most logical solution to being assured of having well-maintained, operable emergency lighting and fire suppression systems that meet codes and will work when needed? Do your maintenance and electrical staffs do their jobs to ensure life safety equipment will pass all inspections and work when they must? Too often, the answer is "No."

That's why many facility owners and managers are choosing independent outside specialists to take care of all emergency lighting equipment, exit signs, and fire suppression equipment. This means everything--from monthly and annual checks of existing equipment to the repair, replacement, and upgrading of existing equipment--can be done by a single life safety service company, specialists whose only business is to service and supply these critical life safety products.

What's the bottom line? Emergency lighting equipment and fire suppression systems are key to occupant and building safety. Every facility manager must focus on the maintenance of this equipment, utilizing professional independent service organizations to ensure equipment will be properly maintained and code compliant. You can't afford to take any chances. We don't want to read about another nightclub inferno or nursing home disaster that could have been prevented.

Combining the Two Inspections
Why does it make sense to call on a single independent company to service your emergency lighting and fire suppression equipment requirements? That's easy. These critical life safety products need to be checked on similar schedules, and trained technicians can get the job done promptly, professionally, and economically. Here?s an example of a situation that was handled by specialists who focus on servicing both of these life safety systems:

During an upgrading program in a large commercial office building, an independent life safety service company examined a number of older DC central emergency lighting systems. Although the manager could have chosen to install new two-headed emergency lighting units, it made more sense to upgrade existing DC systems to improve reliability, expand capability, and extend useful life.

The upgrading process involved gutting the original old electronics portion of the DC systems and replacing it with a new state-of-the-art charger assembly in the same cabinet. All existing zone relay controls and supervisory panels remained as originally installed. Existing batteries were replaced with maintenance-free batteries to complete the installation, which utilizes all existing cabinetry and supervisory controls. The decision to utilize DC systems also brought power to additional lights in renovated areas of the building. In short, choosing to expand existing DC emergency lighting systems made the most sense, from an installation, service, reliability, and economic standpoint.

While servicing the emergency lighting, independent service technicians also inspected the building's fire suppression equipment. It was quickly determined the kitchen hood fire suppression system was faulty. The gas valve had not been cabled correctly and had obviously not been tested for proper operation, as required.

Without this timely inspection and proper re-installation of the cable, kitchen appliances would continue to be fired with gas. This could have resulted in a fire or the inability of the system to properly extinguish a fire.

Because emergency lighting equipment and systems are typically checked twice a year, technicians are cross-trained to inspect and service emergency lighting equipment and fire suppression systems and to ensure they are in compliance with code requirements. Visiting a commercial or industrial site twice a year enables technicians to identify problems easily and get them resolved before a fire, power outage, or other emergency that could jeopardize the safety of people and property.

This article originally appeared in the October 2004 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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