Building Controls, Emergency Preparedness, Fire Safety, Maintenance and Operations

Back to Basics: Most Common Fire Safety Code Violations

To both minimize fire risks and avoid civil and criminal penalties for noncompliance, facilities managers must ensure their workplaces meet applicable fire safety codes. A National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) official recently spoke with Facilities Management Advisor about the importance of following the law and what facilities managers should look out for.

“Facility managers have several responsibilities vying for their attention each day, but providing safe and functional buildings for the use of all occupants is the priority,” NFPA Standards Development Specialist Kevin Carr told FMA. “Fire and life safety codes greatly assist with these efforts, offering both practical provisions and time-tested requirements tailored to the specific occupancies found within the structure.”

Carr added, “Facility managers are often responsible for a key component of these documents as it pertains to the completion of inspection, testing and maintenance (ITM) activities. ITM, when properly scheduled, performed, and with any noted deficiencies corrected, will greatly improve the reviewed building systems capabilities to assist occupants in the event of an emergency.”

While local fire marshals use local, state, and federal regulations to determine whether a facility complies with fire safety codes, facilities managers should also consult the 2021 International Fire Code (IFC) and the 2021 NFPA 1 Fire Code—the most recent versions currently available—as guides.

As for what the most common fire safety code violations are, Carr said, “This is a difficult question to answer as the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) determines compliance and provides enforcement. Facility managers should review questions or concerns with their AHJ, who can provide the most relevant guidance and direction on a topic.

“Generally, facility managers can assist with providing safe and functional buildings by looking at the operational (i.e., day-to-day) aspects of use,” he continued. “Some examples of situations that should be avoided would include, but are not limited to, held/propped fire doors, combustible items stored in hallways, overflowing dumpsters, and overloaded electrical receptacles.”

Carr added, “Compounding the problem is that these situations may often be the result of building occupants or vendors who are often unaware of the dangers these activities pose. Providing education and awareness on these topics, as well as conducting regular tours to note and address items proactively, are great tools for the facility manager to utilize.” 

According to several different sources, more fire safety code violations facilities managers should look out for include the following:

Faulty or Missing Smoke Detectors

One of the most important fire safety devices is the smoke detector, which can be battery-powered or hard-wired. This will alert occupants of smoke and notify them to evacuate as soon as possible.

When purchasing new smoke detectors or considering relocating existing smoke detectors, consider:

  • Installing them on the ceiling of each room and in meeting spaces.
  • Having more than one in large rooms.
  • Adding additional wall detectors 4 to 12 inches (in.) from the ceiling.
  • Making detectors compatible so they can be linked together; if one sensor goes off, there should be a building-wide alarm.
  • Installing manual pull-down devices. Many states and locales require them, and they can be found in many commercial facilities like retail, event centers, and offices.

Also keep in mind that many jurisdictional fire codes require commercial fire alarms to have horns, speakers, strobe lights, and backup power sources. To learn more, check out “A Guide to Fire Alarm Basics” on the NFPA website.

Blocked or Not Enough Exit Routes

In the event of an emergency, there must be a clear escape route from the building, so facilities and security professionals should work together to follow Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) guidelines, which state there should be at least two exit routes, with a 7-foot (ft), 6-in. ceiling at all points. Exit routes should be marked and located as far away from each other as possible in case one is blocked by smoke.

However, based on the number of occupants and the facility’s size and arrangement:

  • Only one exit route might be necessary for smaller and less occupied facilities.
  • More than two exit routes might be required for larger and more occupied facilities.

Failing to provide unblocked exit routes can lead to fines from OSHA, which strongly suggests that management post evacuation maps throughout the facility with a “you are here” dot and the locations of fire alarms, fire extinguishers, and other emergency equipment. These types of maps are commonly found at hotels.

Blocked or Locked Exit Doors

Exit doors can be located in hallways, stairwells, and other rooms in a facility, allowing occupants to quickly exit the building, and they should not be blocked.

According to Diversified Safety Services, exit doors:

  • Must be 28 in. wide at all points;
  • Must lead to an outside area, like a street or walkway;
  • Must be unlocked from the inside;
  • Must be self-closing, approved fire doors; and
  • Must be separated by fire-resistant materials.

Some facilities might designate exit doors as “emergency exit only,” with audible alarms to deter unauthorized use. Retail stores trying to combat shoplifting should check with jurisdictional fire codes to determine whether an exit with a delayed opening, often clearly marked with “Push until alarm sounds; door can be opened in 15 seconds,” is allowed and under what circumstances.

For security reasons, emergency exits can be locked when the building is unoccupied, but locks must be removed to abide by fire safety regulations when the building is open and occupied.

Improper Exit Signage or Lack of Emergency Lighting

The Certified Commercial Property Inspectors Association recommends that facilities managers ensure they:

  • Have emergency lighting systems with battery backups to help occupants exit during a power outage.
  • Only use paper exit signs temporarily and replace them immediately.
  • Properly illuminate exit signs with the word “EXIT” in red or green lights that are no less than 6 in. tall, according to OSHA.
  • Have directional signs where an exit location is not obvious.

“All commercial buildings, including big box stores, retail, and grocery stores, warehouses, and restaurants are required to have illuminated, unblocked exit signs, and most are required to have emergency lights that remain lit for 90 minutes during power outages,” according to AIE Fire Protection, which adds that code “requires exit signs and lighting to be checked monthly.” It also advises facility managers to change exit sign batteries, just like they do for smoke detectors, on the same day each year.

To learn more about exit signs, check out “Dual-Technology Exit Signs Provide Increased Reliability Whether Power Is On or Off” on Facilities Management Advisor.

Failure to Have Proper Unexpired Fire Extinguishers or Failure to Have a Functioning Sprinkler System

OSHA requires employers to have fire extinguishers within a travel distance of 75 ft of an employee’s location, and they should also be aware of the different types of extinguishers, as defined by the NFPA, and consider which to purchase:

  • Class A—combustible materials like wood, cloth, paper, rubber, and many plastics
  • Class B—flammable liquids, petroleum greases, tars, oils, and flammable gases
  • Class C—electrical equipment
  • Class D—combustible metals such as magnesium, titanium, sodium, and lithium
  • Class K—cooking appliances that involve combustible cooking media

“Missing, damaged, or partially used fire extinguishers are especially common in a big box or large retail or warehouse environment where it is hard to keep track of all of them,” adds AIE Fire Protection. Therefore, facilities managers must ensure that all fire extinguishers are inspected and serviced annually.

Moreover, OSHA notes that a sprinkler system can be used as a substitute for fire extinguishers, but it must match the design and hazard classification for the type of business and occupancy and also must be regularly inspected.

To learn more about fire extinguishers, evacuation, and emergency action plans, check out “Back to Basics: Workplace Fire Safety and Prevention” on Facilities Management Advisor.  

Failing to Meet Elevator Specifications

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) codes require most commercial multilevel buildings to follow certain elevator specifications, so facilities managers should consult the National Elevator Industry, Inc., and American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) A17.3-2020 for specifics on elevator codes.

However, in general, elevators are required to have:

  • An emergency battery backup system for lighting and communication.
  • Proper signage at each level outside the elevator door that states “In Fire Emergency, Do Not Use Elevator. Use Stairs.”
  • A two-way communication system inside the elevator cab that connects to a call center staffed by authorized personnel or that is forwarded to an off-site call center.
  • The ability for authorized emergency personnel to access video footage of passengers in the cab.
  • A standardized fire service access key so the fire service can take control of the elevator during an emergency OR an access box with elevator keys.
  • Regular inspections not exceeding 1 year, per OSHA.

Additionally, areas of refuge with sprinklers where those with severe mobility impairments can go safely during a fire are often necessary, and they can include oversize stair landings.

Improper Use of Extension Cords

According to Electrical Safety Foundation International (ESFI), when used improperly, extension cords can cause fires, so here are some important tips for ensuring their proper use:

  • Install additional electrical outlets rather than relying on extension cords, and do not substitute extension cords for permanent wiring.
  • Keep outdoor extension cords away from snow and standing water.
  • Do not nail or staple cords to walls or baseboards, and do not run extension cords through walls, doorways, ceilings, or floors, as covered cords do not allow heat to escape.
  • Always inspect cords for damage before use.

Learn more about extension cord safety by reading “Extend Electrical Safety Training to Include Extension Cords” on EHS Daily Advisor.

Overall, facilities managers should consider doing inspections and proper maintenance in their buildings when they are the least occupied, such as before or after the business day or on weekends. For more information and advice on how to comply with current applicable laws, contact your local fire marshal.

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