High-rise facilities typically employ numerous safeguards above and beyond most non-high-rise buildings. Additional requirements regarding the number of fire sprinkler risers, sprinkler system design, and required number of exits are also imposed on “very tall” or “super high-rise” buildings (high-rises more than 420 feet in height).

Fire protection assessments (FPAs) – essentially comprehensive fire and life safety inspections – are often conducted to make sure that high-rises are following these safeguards. Local fire departments, healthcare licensing boards, or other authorities having jurisdiction (AHJ) have the right to inspect your facility for routine fire inspections, but the breadth of these inspections varies depending on inspector training and experience, time limitations, AHJ staffing limitations, etc. For this reason, building owners and facility managers shouldn’t rely solely on guidance from their local AHJ.

Similarly, building owners and facility managers shouldn’t rely solely on the advice of fire protection system vendors. To increase profits from repair services, some unscrupulous vendors may note “deficiencies” that may not necessarily be deficiencies. More importantly, many vendors may not be experts in high-rise facilities, not realizing the special provisions for these unique facilities. Most fire protection system vendors are familiar with their particular systems, but not how other fire protection systems or building systems are intended to interact with each other.

[pullquote]Do your vendors work together to ensure the overall performance of the building fire protection systems?[/pullquote]For example, when a smoke detector or fire sprinkler actuates, it generally sets off a chain of events that might include fire pumps turning on, fire alarm notification systems operating, smoke control systems operating, elevators being recalled, fire doors closing, air-handling units shutting down, fire/smoke dampers closing, etc. Many fire protection systems work in tandem and are not standalone systems; therefore, each fire protection system should be inspected, tested, and maintained with knowledge of the expected output conditions.

Do your vendors work together to ensure the overall performance of the building fire protection systems? Or does each vendor work on its piece of the puzzle, not worrying about the overall appearance and performance of the final product?

To get the best results, an FPA is best performed by a fire protection engineer (FPE) with training and knowledge of all fire protection systems and how they interact with other building systems.

What’s Involved in a High-Rise FPA?
A comprehensive, thorough high-rise FPA should evaluate the following systems and processes:

  • Condition of passive fire protection systems, including walls and floor/ceiling assemblies. This might include area separation walls, fire walls, occupancy separations, horizontal exits, exit stair enclosures, mechanical and elevator shafts, elevator machine rooms, rubbish and linen chutes, and 1-hour exit corridors.
  • Condition of active fire protection systems, including inspection, testing, and maintenance (ITM) records. This includes the smoke control system; fire alarm and detection system; emergency voice/alarm communication system; fire department communication system; fire sprinkler system; standpipe system; fire pumps; secondary water supplies including tanks in some seismic regions; onsite water supply including backflow prevention assemblies, fire department connections, control valves, and fire hydrants; and special suppression systems such as Halon or Halon replacement agents.
  • Minimum safety requirements in existing buildings originally constructed to antiquated building codes.
  • Egress system integrity. Number of exits, unobstructed egress paths, compliant door hardware, egress path marking and illumination, etc.
  • Emergency and/or standby power systems for exit signs, emergency lights, fire pumps, elevators, smoke control systems, etc.
  • Housekeeping. Exits, boiler rooms, mechanical rooms, and electrical equipment rooms that are free of combustible storage. Tidiness of approved storage areas.
  • Electrical hazards, such as required working space and clearance at electrical panels, exposed wiring, extension cords, daisy chains, portable space heaters, etc.
  • Documentation review. ITM records, emergency planning and preparedness documents, fire drill records, etc.
  • Fire department access throughout the facility (fire apparatus access, key boxes, entry to building and utility equipment rooms, elevators, roof, etc.)
  • Fire Command Center features (fire alarm control panels, firefighter’s smoke control panel and other annunciators, work table, schematic building plans, etc.)
  • Emergency responder radio coverage system maintenance records where required due to massive concrete and steel construction interfering with radio signals.
  • Hazardous material provisions (diesel fuel oil storage, oxidizing gases and cryogenic fluids, etc.).
  • Special hazards or highly protected risks: commercial kitchen hoods and kitchen fire safety, mechanical refrigeration systems, stationary storage battery systems, computer data centers, etc.
  • Assembly occupancy safety provisions for areas such as large conference rooms, convention center areas, or occupied rooftops.

When Do You Need an Assessment?
There could be a number of triggers for an FPA at a high-rise facility. For example, a local ordinance might require routine FPAs in some jurisdictions, similar to requiring documentation of fire protection system ITM records. Some states require annual fire inspections of high-rise facilities by the local fire code AHJ. Significant building modifications or a change in occupancy might cause a local building code AHJ to request an FPA to determine the condition of fire protection and life safety systems.

An FPA might be considered prior to the sale or purchase of a facility – similar to a home inspection – to get a pulse on the condition of the building. Sometimes called Due Diligence Surveys, these generally involve other systems within the building as well. The surveys are usually completed by a team made up of an architect, FPE, and other experts representing MEP systems.

An FPA might be a requirement of an insurance adjuster or other certification/rating system. Lower insurance rates might be awarded to facilities with impeccable safety records.

Finally – and most importantly – performing an FPA is a best management practice that will help limit your facility’s exposure to risk and liability. If there are no regulatory or insurance drivers, it’s still worthwhile to conduct FPAs on a routine five- or 10-year cycle to assess the overall health of the facility and allocate the proper resources to periodic maintenance and repairs.

Remember: FPAs are best performed by an FPE with training and knowledge of all fire protection systems, and how each system interacts to achieve overall fire and life safety goals.

Scott Heyworth

Scott Heyworth, P.E., of FP2Fire, Inc. is a registered Fire Protection Engineer, licensed in California (1999) and Florida (2009). He has more than 18 years’ experience working in code enforcement and code consulting, specializing in plan review, field inspection, acceptance testing, hazardous materials, fire hazard analyses, and fire protection assessments.  For more information, visit www.fp2fire.com.