Fire safety steps for high-rise building owners
How to heighten safety during a planned fire alarm system outage
By: Jason Reid
13 February 2017
A recent fire in a Toronto high-rise apartment building has put the
spotlight back on fire safety after numerous residents had to be
rescued by Toronto Fire Services. Though no injuries were reported, the
incident is a reminder that Fire Safety Plans are critical—especially
when building fire alarm systems are rendered inoperative due to repair
and maintenance projects.
As most building owners are aware, when undergoing a fire panel
replacement project or general system repair, a building’s fire alarm
equipment must be temporarily disabled for a scheduled period of time.
Typically this means the building’s smoke detectors, manual pull
stations and the audible sound for the fire alarm is shut done while
the maintenance work is completed. But, as the recent incident
highlights, these planned fire alarm system outages require extra
precautions must be taken to ensure occupant safety.
Emergency procedures: implementing a “Fire Watch” program
Required by law, building owners are responsible to have an approved
building Fire Safety Plan. Fire Safety Plans are designed to provide
occupant safety in the event of a fire; to provide effective usage of
the building’s fire safety features; and to minimize the possibility of
fires. It is this plan that provides emergency procedures, preventative
maintenance requirements, and instructions on what to do during a
system failure or planned system outage.
Whenever a system is disabled, the building owner is required to ensure
that a number of safety steps are implemented. One of those measures is
a Fire Watch program. A Fire Watch is the term assigned to an
individual (or individuals) dedicated to watching for signs of fire and
reporting them. In essence, a physical person or persons must take the
place of the detection and alarming equipment during a system outage.
Typically a Fire Watch dictates that the building is patrolled hourly
on a 24-hour basis until the fire alarm has been restored to normal
operating condition. Patrols are required to be documented in detail at
intervals depending on the hazard and impairment. This documentation
must be provided to the fire department upon their demand, and remain
onsite as evidence of the active Fire Watch.
residents must also be notiﬁed
All common areas, public corridors, stairwells, mechanical/machinery
rooms, electrical rooms, service rooms, parking garages and offices are
to be patrolled during the Fire Watch. As the Fire Watch typically does
not have access to residential suites, residents must also be notified
in advance. Patrols are required to be documented in detail at
intervals depending on the hazard and impairment, or at the minimum,
follow the direction in the building’s Fire Safety Plan for frequency
During planned, prolonged outages for repairs and replacements, such as
a fire panel upgrade, tenant notification must be posted at all
entrances and at every pull station in the building. The notice must
clearly state the problem, and expected time of repair—including any
special procedures to follow in the event of an incident.
Equipment required for a Fire Watch
In order for a physical person (or persons) to take the place of the
alarming equipment during planned outages, the Fire Watch patrol must
be equipped with equipment, such as a blow horn, a working cell phone
to call 911, a flashlight and rapid access to a fire extinguisher. Your
Fire Safety Plan, may or may not contain the above detailed information
– but it should. A Fire Safety Plan is also designed to provide
building owner and residents, guidance in code and best practices in
Fire department notification
In order for your Fire Watch to effectively communicate with the fire
department in the event that they do find fire, they will need a
working cell phone with which to call 911. This cell phone should not
be for personal use, but for emergencies only.
It is important to also note that anytime a life safety system is to be
shut down for a period over 24 hours, the local fire department must be
notified in writing. Fire departments need to know if they are
responding to a building with decreased fire protection so that their
tactics and level of response may be appropriate. In addition, at time
of notification, fire departments may direct special provisions to the
building owner, and even request that the fire safety plan be revised
to consider the new plan to be approved prior to any work commencing.
This is up to the Authority having jurisdiction.
Notification of Persons Requiring Assistance (PRAs)
Ontario Fire Code requires building owners to maintain lists of persons
who may require assistance during evacuation. This list is provided to
arriving fire crews upon their arrival when responding to a fire alarm,
and the list of PRAs is required to be included in the building’s Fire
Persons requiring assistance during a building evacuation may be
described as anyone who has reduced mobility, a speech, hearing or
visual impairment, or a cognitive limitation—regardless of whether or
not these conditions are obvious, temporary or permanent. It is vital,
that during a major fire watch, such as a planned fire panel
replacement, that ‘Persons Requiring Assistance’ are advised of the
impacts of that impairment. Keep your family of resident informed so
that they may make clear decisions in the event of fire, or in the
event they are manually notified of fire conditions.
Suspension of hazardous processes
There are many other areas addressed in a holistic Fire Watch program,
including the restriction of ‘hotwork’ during the system outage. This
prevents building staff, contractors and service providers from doing
any work or repairs that result in a higher fire risk, such as work
involving heat or spark.
Recent media coverage of high-rise fires within the Greater Toronto
Area have highlighted the lack of resident awareness of building
emergency procedures, including procedures for persons requiring
assistance during evacuations.
Building resident information remains an
ongoing issue. In summary, property managers should ask themselves:
Have I communicated my building’s “approved” building emergency
procedures to my tenants this year? If the answer is no, then you
Jason Reid is Senior Advisor; Building Safety for National Life Safety
Group, a Canadian Consultancy firm specializing in residential
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