Fire & Life Safety
- By Mike Halligan
- March 1st, 2014
Schools today still struggle with some of the same fire safety issues they did a decade ago. As we approach the midpoint of the school year, ask yourself if the fire safety issues found in the 2013 or 2003 fire inspection still exist. Do they exist in the same location or are they repeating in another hallway, stair, storage or mechanical room in the same school or another facility in your school district?
For many schools, the answer will be yes. Fire safety issues identified last year or even a decade ago are still present. While we don’t see many exit doors chained shut anymore, walk into many school facilities and you will see fire alarm systems with nonworking devices, exit doors that stick or are very difficult to open, obstructions in hallways, storage in the bottom levels of stairwells, exit signs not working, expired fire extinguishers, egress lighting not working, fire doors wedged open and excessive combustible materials on walls in classrooms and hallways.
When school officials — principals, risk managers and facility directors — are asked why these life safety issues go uncorrected or are repeated, they often say there was nothing they could do until budgets were created. Many said they weren’t aware of the issue or fire inspectors and the school district couldn’t agree on how to solve the problem. Inspectors were criticized for being too tough or giving conflicting messages. Inspectors and school officials indicated that records from one inspection to the next were not available to review prior issues or repeat code violations. There was no consistency in what was inspected and in some cases, there was disagreement over who was legally responsible for fire safety in a facility.
Communicating fire and life safety issues to the correct individual in the school district is common concern mentioned by inspectors as well as school district employees. A common quote from school officials is, “if we just knew there were major issues to correct….” In small districts, there is less of a problem communicating fire and life safety issues. Inspectors at the local level know with whom to discuss issues. When the inspector is from the state level, there wis often a gap in communication — the inspection might be sent to a district office and not to an individual who can be held responsible for corrections.
To bridge the gap between life safety inspection reporting and monitoring corrective actions, schools and inspectors are turning to software that will track inspections. Facility managers are usually tasked with correcting many life-safety issues related to the physical facility. They are also familiar with creating or using systems to monitor operations and maintenance, so placing a fire and life-safety inspection tracking system within facilities is usually a good fit. Having a dashboard visible by your facilities management team, upper management and the life safety inspector can assure that those responsible for funding corrective actions and those who make or schedule the corrective actions won’t lose sight of life-safety issues needing attention.
School districts are now installing off-the-shelf dashboard software to continuously monitor the life safety program in their district. When looking for software systems, consider ease of use. Look for systems that create a single screen for each building and list all life-safety-required equipment inspections, emergency preparedness training and education and workorder tracking to prove corrective actions were taken. Consider where systems store information — on your server or cloud based. Can you retrieve information on a desktop, and on the go from a mobile device? Consider how many individuals you need to have access to data entry, facility managers, administrators, inspectors and risk managers are all stakeholders and therefore should have access rights. Decide which reports each of the stakeholders has a need for, and determine if they can they be simply customized by the vendor or with simple selection boxes by the stakeholder. Look for systems that will send email reminders for upcoming inspections or will create calendar requests for individuals who need to conduct the inspection.
Inspection dashboard software should also provide a place to upload reports submitted by inspectors and contractors. This will help document that inspections were performed and allow the district to monitor the types of deficiencies found in each building over a period of time. Spotting trends from the uploaded reports will then allow for customized training and communication with staff in each building to change unsafe workplace behaviors related to fire and life safety.
This article originally appeared in the March 2014 issue of School Planning & Management.
Mike Halligan is the President of Higher Education Safety, a consulting group specializing in fire prevention program audits, strategic planning, training and education programs and third party plan review and occupancy inspections. He retired after twenty six years as the Associate Director of Environmental Health and Safety and Emergency Management at the University of Utah. He frequently speaks and is a recognized expert on residence hall/student housing fire safety and large scale special event planning. He also works with corporate clients to integrate products into the campus environment that promote safety and security.