Skip to Content

Fire Safety

FIRE! Don’t shout it in a crowded theater. However, building occupants are more concerned than ever about fire safety. As engineers, we may not shout “FIRE!” but we are inclined in our reports to shout about fire hazards we observe.

With recent fire-related tragedies fresh in mind, a survey by the National Concrete Masonry Association (NCMA) found that 61 percent of the respondents were more worried about fire in public and commercial buildings as a result of what they have heard or read. Their fears are not unfounded.

The survey further found that second only to code officials, the general public expected building owners to be the most responsible for fire safety. Yet, in our inspections of commercial buildings, we often see fire and safety issues that exist, either as a result of lack of maintenance or simple carelessness. Attention to fire safety will protect you and your tenants or employees.

Our top ten list

There are a number of conditions that we see over and over again. Most are easily corrected by routine maintenance procedures.

  1. Mechanical Equipment Closets Used as Storage Closets – There is rarely enough storage space designed into commercial office space; floor space is too expensive. As a result, the closets that house the HVAC systems are frequently used to store other items – often combustible boxes full of paper. This is of particular concern when the HVAC system is a split system with gas furnaces in the closets because these closets tend to be especially small.

  2. Old Fire Dampers in Ductwork Held Open to Improve Ventilation – Sometimes old fire dampers trip when they’re not supposed to as a result of some vibration. The quick-fix solution of some maintenance personnel is to prop the dampers open to maintain air circulation. Of course, any fire protection is then lost.

  3. Penetrations Through Fire Walls That Are Not Sealed – Fire walls slow down fire spread. We often see HVAC systems, piping, or electrical conduits penetrate these walls without the opening being resealed. If the walls are compromised in this way, the benefits of a fire wall are eliminated.

  4. Fire and Smoke Alarm Systems Disabled – On occasion, such systems are disabled because they are “too sensitive.” If the system is not working right, fix it. Never disable it.

  5. Casually Stored Flammable Materials - This is a big one. Paint, solvents, fuels, you name it, we find this stuff in the most dangerous places: in hot attics, near combustion equipment, and so on.

  6. Overloaded, Older Electrical Systems – Fuses and circuit breakers must be matched to the wire size. If not, the wire can overheat, the circuit breaker or fuse will not trip and a fire results.

  7. Fire Doors Missing or Propped Open - Fire doors serve an important purpose. They isolate different areas of a building to slow fire spread. They also protect emergency exits, such as stairwells, to keep them safe as means of egress. Fire doors must be handled properly, kept functional and kept in place. Routinely check for gaps, out-of-level doors, properly functioning closers and appropriate hardware.

  8. Air Conditioning Equipment in the Same Room as Fuel-Burning Appliances – This is a situation that has surfaced in new codes. If you have a refrigerant leak and the gas (refrigerant) hits a flame, a very poisonous gas is produced. New codes require a refrigerant gas monitor that will shut down all fuel-burning appliances if there is a leak.

  9. The Assumption by Tenants, Owners and Mangers That the Fire Department Will Find Any Fire Hazards – This is fairly common in our world today, wherein it is easy to assume that it is someone else’s responsibility. Fire departments are diligent but may not even do regular inspections in all jurisdictions.

  10. Poor Planning and Maintenance – This is a classic, and it is a problem in all but the best- managed buildings. Are fire evacuation routes posted and fire drills held regularly? Are smoke and CO detectors tested regularly and maintained? Are fire extinguishers kept up-to-date? This is the responsibility of every building owner.

How is the Industry Responding?

According to the NCMA survey, 79 percent of the respondents indicated that they are willing to pay more for fire safety and that “...they want safer, less combustible materials...” used in buildings. The NCMA recommends a “balanced approach” in building design to improve fire safety that consists of:

  • Fire Detection – smoke detectors, fire alarms,
  • Fire Suppression – sprinkler systems,
  • Fire Containment – fire barriers, fire walls and walls built of non-combustible materials.

For existing buildings, fire safety cannot be left to public officials. It requires the active participation of owners and occupants. ASTM Committee E06 on the Performance of Buildings is developing standard credentials for inspectors of fire stops. This follows the creation of standard E 2174, which established procedures for inspecting fire stops, including methods for field verification and inspection.

As engineers, we have an obligation to report all unsafe or hazardous conditions that we observe. Although Criterium Engineers routinely inspects for fire safety when performing a Property Condition Assessment, this is not an exhaustive evaluation. When taking ownership of a new building, we recommend a thorough review of fire safety procedures and systems

Volume 14, Number 2

June 2003

Copyright © 2003

The Engineering Advisor is intended to enhance your knowledge of technical issues relating to buildings.  For additional information on any subject, please feel free to call us.  Our commitment is to provide you with timely, accurate information.