Reopening Buildings Safely after COVID-19: Why Fire Safety Systems Maintenance Is Essential

Prolonged vacancy or revised use of occupied spaces may have unexpected safety repercussions

by James Tomes

Neon Open sign

Over the course of the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic has created an unpredictable landscape for businesses of all types. Closures of restaurants, retail locations, entertainment venues and office buildings frequently occurred with little, or sometimes no, advance notice. Since the pandemic response has not been a linear process, but rather a series of rapidly unfolding events, business owners and facility managers have been challenged to adapt and pivot as the rules change, all while continuing to meet the needs of their businesses, employees, customers and communities.

While closing doors to protect employees and customers alike from the virus, equally important safety issues may have gone unnoticed during the past year. This includes the maintenance of essential fire protection equipment and fire safety systems, from fire alarm notification systems to fire extinguishers.

Due to a lack of consistent occupancy, facility managers were often unable to conduct internal inspections or act as early identifiers of any potential damage or issues. This put unoccupied or severely reduced occupancy buildings at an increased risk for fire. According to the National Fire Protection Association, for example, in the years 2011-2015, U.S. fire departments responded to an estimated average of 30,200 structure fires per year in vacant properties. These fires resulted in an average of 60 civilian deaths and 160 civilian injuries, as well as approximately $710 million in direct property damage annually.

Now that long-awaited business re-openings are rapidly occurring in Arizona and across the country, facility managers must address crucial fire protection inspection, testing and maintenance. This includes evaluating the conditions of:

  • fire sprinkler systems,
  • fire pumps,
  • fire alarm systems,
  • fire extinguishers,
  • fire doors,
  • emergency lighting, and
  • exit signs.

All fire safety equipment and systems should be active, functional and in good working condition before welcoming back employees and customers.

In addition, while responding to the social distancing challenges of the pandemic, businesses may have become creative in their use of available space. Changing the use of a specific room (converting a space from office into classroom, for example) may have serious, unintended consequences for egress, fire suppression and emergency notification. Change to storage space is another example. It is essential to have a qualified review of a space’s change in use and to work with jurisdictional authorities for approval. Even if an area was traditionally used for storage, introducing new and potentially hazardous products, such as large quantities of flammable and combustible hand sanitizer, may require re-evaluation of the current fire protection. 

As businesses reopen, ingress or egress paths and patterns may have also been modified in order to provide for appropriate social distancing. When changing aisle size, space configurations, egress pathways or queue lines, it is imperative that fire protection professionals evaluate and confirm that sufficient egress is provided in the case of fire or other emergency. Configurations designed to encourage social distancing and control occupant flow may have the unintended result of blocked or even locked emergency exits.

New building alterations, such as the installation of physical barriers, Plexiglass partitions or automatic door openers designed to adhere to public health guidelines will need to be evaluated as well to ensure there is no negative impact to fire protection and life safety systems. If modifications have been made to interior space, it is more important than ever that emergency egress drills be conducted as prescribed. Employees may need to accommodate social distancing during emergency evacuation drills as well.

Finally, facilities may now want to keep doors (exit and internal) open in order to encourage fresh air flow and circulation. It is essential, however, to ensure that fire doors are not prevented from closing automatically in the event of an incident, as they are intended to reduce the spread of fire and smoke during an emergency. 

As we continue to reopen businesses, moving forward safely will require a myriad of adjustments for both owners and facility managers. While remaining safe from the COVID-19 virus has been at the center of our efforts since the pandemic began, fire safety cannot be forgotten. As we return to our offices, stores, restaurants and theaters, it is essential that we keep our communities safe.  

James Tomes is the president and CEO of Telgian, an industry-leading provider of fire protection, life safety and security services. Tomes specializes in tailoring solutions that meet clients’ needs, always with a focus on their bottom line. As a force for positive change within the industry, he has served on National Fire Protection Association global code development committees, including NFPA 30 and NFPA 30B.

Did You Know: Fires that start in vacant buildings can pose a significant danger to an entire street, neighborhood or business park. According to the U.S. Fire Administration National Fire Data Center, of vacant (residential) building fires, 53% spread to involve the entire building. An additional 11% extended beyond the building to adjacent properties. 

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