Fire & Life Safety

Building Inspections

I was recently asked, “Is there really a measureable benefit to building inspections?” The timing of the question was right after a fire in Oakland, Calif., where lives were lost just days after an inspection took place. My answer was a definitive “yes.” While we may still experience fires after a recent inspection, the frequency will be significantly lower. The same individual then asked, “if we send the same people out every quarter (or year), won’t they start missing items? Again, I said “yes.” It’s still important that we go out and inspect. Ideally, our staff won’t miss items. Staff needs be well-trained and prepared to recognize out-of-code, or unsafe operations. However, we know that we tend to miss things the longer we stare at them.

To mitigate the possibility of overlooking things or situations, we can periodically send out a second set of eyes. But for many school districts, there are no “second set of eyes.” They are just too thin on staff to have a second team. In fact, many districts I have talked with still struggle to find time for their staff to complete fire and life safety inspections on a schedule mandated by adopted codes and standards.

To solve both issues (fresh eyes and frequency of inspections) many schools are contracting with third-party firms that specialize in fire and life safety inspections. When looking for a firm that can assist, it’s important to find a consulting firm that understands the risks you face.

Complex Buildings

School buildings present some complex fire and security issues. Secure facilities must also ensure systems react properly to allow egress in some situations while maintaining control of access. Selecting a firm that understands the impacts of fire, utility failures and, in today’s world, security system integration with life safety systems is critical. There are only a few firms that can truly understand the unique challenges of keeping students, staff and research safe on a campus.

System Design

The firm you select must understand how different systems perform with one another. Fire alarm, smoke management and security systems are individually complex systems. You must have experts on your staff that understand how each system works independently as well as when they are interfaced with other systems. When searching for third-party inspection firms, be sure they can demonstrate their capabilities to bring experts who understand the very technical nature of systems integration.

Consulting Team Expertise

There are many firms that will claim they have expertise, and some may be able to demonstrate they have superbly skilled staff to service a system. This is not enough. For complex building systems you will need to specify the consulting firm you select can demonstrate expertise with each individual system and also with systems that are designed to work with each other. Ideally, you will find a firm that participated in the development of codes and standards related to the systems in your buildings.

Third-party inspection firms will provide that fresh set of eyes for your facility inspections. These firms will provide a level of confidence that facilities and the operations performed within them are rigorously and objectively inspected. In turn, a third-party review will show a commitment to occupants and authorities that your campus goes to great lengths to ensure fire and life safety. Outside reviews will also give you information you need to make decisions related to improvements to achieve code compliance. Third-party reviews in many locations will also reduce time spent by regulatory authorities conducting reviews in your facilities. Lastly, third-party inspections can verify your system maintenance staff are properly servicing life safety systems and, if necessary, provide training to get maintenance of critical systems back on track.

Integrating third-party inspections is the last part of the three-pronged approach to fire, life safety and security system inspections. In the past, I’ve written about self-inspections and the value they can offer to reduce staff workload. I’ve covered prioritizing staff inspections when resources are overloaded, and now I’ve covered third-party inspections. Experience shows that locations utilizing all three approaches have greater success at mitigating threats to life safety, and fewer incidents and lower downtime for critical life safety systems due to equipment failures. Locations also have a lower overall cost for inspection, testing and maintenance of their critical life safety systems. Better utilization of funds, staff and resources all combine to make utilizing third-party inspections a very sound approach for all school fire, life safety and security needs.

This article originally appeared in the May 2017 issue of School Planning & Management.

About the Author

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.

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