Facilities managers must focus on fire protection to keep people and properties safe.
By Scott Mason
Fire safety is in the back of everyone’s mind. We’re taught its principles at a young age, with firefighters visiting grade schools for live demonstrations. But as we age, many take for granted how important fire safety education is — and how truly dangerous fires can be.
Fire protection is a front-and-center concern for multi-site facilities managers (FMs) as they aim to protect the buildings they manage and the people inside them.
“It’s about saving lives,” said Peter Lopez, Business Development Manager at Academy Fire Protection. “Fire protection is integral for facilities to ensure people are safe.”
Even with devastating consequences, fire protection in facilities can sometimes get pushed to the back burner, with other pressing needs, like HVAC or plumbing, taking precedence. But according to Annie Safa, Sales Project Manager at CFP Fire Protection, Inc., these habits must die hard.
“For FMs, fire protection is not something that's in their face every day,” Safa said. “They can't see it; they can't touch it. And most of the time, they really don't know anything about it — out of sight or out of mind.” But the second there’s an emergency, fire safety is at the top of the list. “The fact that fire protection begins as an afterthought is extremely detrimental to an organization’s employees and properties,” she continued. “It must be a top priority.”
What FMs Need to Know
There are a few considerations every FM should have regarding fire protection in facilities.
Know Your Property. FMs would be wise to become intimately familiar with all properties they manage — and know when fire inspections are due for each.
“FMs need to know what is in their buildings,” Safa said. “I'm finding out that many don’t know their devices and what services are needed. You have to know your buildings, properties and your locations.”
Safa also said that for any new construction, FMs must be involved in the process to help determine proper preventive maintenance scheduling and servicing. “The general contractor doesn’t care what happens after construction is complete. They just care about getting the facility open on time,” she said. So, FMs should be well-versed in what equipment is being installed in a new facility.
“When you have proprietary equipment, it often locks you in or pigeonholes an FM into having a certain set of companies able to service that building,” Safa continued. “That can cause a lot of headaches.”
Account for Compliance Fees. When budgeting for fire protection services, Lopez cautioned FMs to be aware of additional, undisclosed fees for inspection and compliance visits.
“For example, if I do backflow work for a facility in Chicago, and I have to submit a report through the portal for compliance, there's an almost $200 fee that gets passed on to the client,” Lopez said. “Jurisdictions are coming up with ways to make additional money off these reports. A lot of FMs are now seeing it and are taken aback by some of these fees.”
Be Proactive. Successful fire safety programs occur when the FMs behind them are properly prepared. “An Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJs), [including fire marshals, labor and health departments or other building officials] is responsible for making sure that facilities are up to code,” Safa said. However, their lead times are much longer than those of FMs.
This means you can’t expect an instant response or inspection. These things must be planned out well beforehand.
Know Your Legal Obligations. Depending on whether the facility is owned by your company or leased through another company, an FM’s responsibilities may differ tremendously. Especially for leased properties, Lopez recommended that FMs read through that document and become familiar with the requirements for fire safety.
“Some people I’ve worked with have said, ‘Let's do it all,’ and then find out a year later, when they finally read through their leases, that they were spending money on inspections they weren’t actually responsible for,” he said.
Choose the Right Partner. While cost may be a driving factor in choosing a fire protection partner, you must remember that it truly is a life-and-death situation. That means don’t skimp on quality when selecting a supplier.
“When you decide to partner with a fire/life safety company, I really believe that you need to use one with a good track record,” Safa said. “Don't focus on prices or leveling of services. Make sure it's a company that you feel comfortable partnering with, and they're willing to build an open line of communication with you.”
What’s in Store?
While fire protection is a concern dating back to the dawn of humans, efficiencies and improvements are constantly being implemented.
For Lopez, he noted that the advancement of wireless technologies has greatly improved fire protection capabilities. “Artificial intelligence (AI) and other technologies are now widespread,” he said. “No longer are technicians walking around a facility with paper and a pen — they’re using tablets. We’re significantly reducing turnaround time with these devices and can get real-time inspection reports, which helps everyone.”
He also noted that more companies are headed toward a self-performing business model. “Bigger companies are buying up local, regional and mom-and-pop fire companies and are then able to offer more control of fire protection operations,” he said. “More self-performance, self-awareness and self-control of the entire program.”
Safa said that sustainability is an area that fire protection companies are striving to improve. “Everywhere you go, people are talking about sustainability and going green,” Safa said.
However, the fire protection industry has some challenges to meet.
“We're working diligently to address chemicals and their use in fire suppression. We’re thinking about how to dispose of the equipment and products and recycle as best as possible to help the planet,” Safa said.
Even with innovation, the end goal is the same. “Fire is fire,” Lopez said. “Any change made is with the idea that we must protect people.”