Canadian Fire Alarm Association –The Journal
FIRE WATCH: THE FORGOTTEN PLAN
When The Fire Alarm System Is Not Working
By D. Goodyear
Most buildings have a Fire Safety Plan as required by the Fire Code. As part of that plan there is often a requirement to have alternative measures in the event the fire protection systems are not fully operational. In Ontario, Clause 188.8.131.52 (h) of the Ontario Fire Code states that a Fire Safety Plan must include ’the provision of alternative measures for the safety of occupants during any shutdown of fire protection equipment and systems or part thereof’. Appendix B of CAN/ULC S536 Inspection and Testing of Fire Alarm Systems outlines alternative measures for occupant safety.
For active fire protection systems such as the Fire Alarm System or Sprinkler System, the most common alternative measure is to implement a Fire Watch.
What Is a Fire Watch And Why Is It Used?
The fire watch involves designated people patrolling the building or part of the building at regular intervals when a portion or all of the Fire Alarm System is not fully operational or a portion of the Sprinkler System is shut down. Sprinklers may have been installed as an alternative to the installation of heat detectors as permitted by the Building Code. Detection of a waterflow condition is intended as a fire detection signal. When the suppression system is shut off so is the fire detection system and therefore a fire watch is necessary.
A fire watch is already a large step away from having a fully functional active Fire Alarm or Sprinkler System that may detect dangerous fire conditions anywhere in the building within minutes. Therefore having an effective fire watch involves more planning and considerations than the too common practice of simply having staff or security patrolling the corridors of the building once every hour or half-hour.
A properly planned Fire Watch should have a defined objective and a detailed plan. Although no single Fire Watch scenario fits all buildings and all conditions, the following points outline many of the Fire Watch plan considerations.
Define The Fire Watch Plan
Is the fire watch on this occasion a substitute for the Sprinkler System or Fire Alarm System or both? Does it involve all of the building or only a few floor areas? Answering these questions will assist in defining the plan.
Who Conducts The Fire Watch?
It is the building owners responsibility, under the Fire Safety Plan, to implement the alternative measures. Some questions to be resolved are:
- Who will be doing the Fire Watch?
- Is the Fire Watch being conducted by the building staff who are familiar with the building layout, location of service rooms, higher risk areas and special hazards?
- Is the Fire Watch being conducted by an outside security company who may not be familiar with the building?
Knowledge Of The Building
The person conducting the Fire Watch must have knowledge of the building layout including location of the exits, the areas of special hazards and higher fire risk areas, and must also know how to identify hazardous situations.
The persons involved in the Fire Watch should also be familiar with the key points of the building Fire Safety Plan regarding possible evacuation.
- What training has been provided to the persons conducting the Fire Watch?
- Do they know what areas to patrol, and what to look for?Do they know the special hazard areas, high-risk areas and the location of service rooms?
- And what about new risks? For example, in some situations where there has been a recent fire and part of the fire alarm system has been damaged, that portion of the fire detection system is therefore out of service and a Fire Watch must be implemented. There is now a new risk, a possible rekindling of the fire.
- Does the person doing the patrolling know what action to take in the event of a possible fire?
- Has the Fire Watch person been given the proper equipment?
Personnel training must include how to get assistance, including knowledge of how to call 911 and give the correct emergency address. The common name of the building such as” Peyton Place” is not the street address required in the event of an emergency. What additional contact names and phone numbers do they need?
What Personnel Should Be Looking For
While on patrol, designated persons should be looking for signs of fire: flames, smoke as a haze or at the top edges of doors, burning odours or elevated temperatures.
The persons conducting the patrol must be aware that they must not place themselves at risk, where they would have to be rescued. The goal is to identify a fire situation, remain safe, contact emergency services, and take measures to reduce fire spread such as closing doors, notifying others as soon as possible and meeting the responding fire department personnel on their arrival. Fire Watch personnel are not usually required to perform fire-fighting duties. The persons conducting fire watches should not be assigned any other duties than those directly associated with the Fire Watch.
The person conducting the fire watch, as a minimum, should have a flashlight and a reliable means of contacting others in the event of an emergency. A cell phone or two-way radio may be sufficient for the communication. On the first run-through of the Fire Watch, the communication system capability should be checked. The purpose is to identify dead areas where the communication system may not work. For example, cell phones may not function in areas such as basement parking garages and internal stairways.
Keys and access must be provided for the areas being patrolled, especially if the Fire Watch area includes maintenance rooms and service rooms.
If the building is occupied, consideration must be given to having the ability to warn the occupants. A portable air horn or bullhorn may be an option, or perhaps the fire alarm signaling system or voice communication could be utilized if some functions are operable. If the latter is a consideration, the person conducting the Fire Watch should be familiar with the operation of these systems.
The type of occupancy of the building, an office building, a healthcare facility or a residential building, and the degree of operability of the fire protection systems will affect how the task of notifying the occupants is best accomplished.
When a Fire Watch is implemented, notices should be posted informing the occupants that the normal fire detection systems are temporarily not functional and informing them of how they will be notified to evacuate in the event of an emergency.
Frequency And Extent Of The Patrols
The frequency and extent of the patrols is usually dependant on the occupancy.
In some high-risk situations such as institutional buildings where people are sleeping, or assembly occupancies where performances are taking place, Fire Watches may be as frequent as every 15 minutes, and include a patrol of all corridors, public areas and service rooms. In other residential occupancies where people are sleeping, the frequency may be every half hour, or in low risk areas such as after hours in office buildings, the patrols may be at least once an hour.
When the Fire Watch is implemented, a logbook should be kept identifying the address of the facility, the time of each patrol, the names of personnel performing the patrols, and any events relevant to the Fire Watch patrol. For example a log book entry may be, “18:32 Personnel on floor 12 working the late shift “ or “19:13 Fire Alarm service company arrived on site”.
Improving The Plan
At the conclusion of the Fire Watch there should be a debriefing to improve the Fire Watch plan for future events. For example, the discovery of additional areas where there are dead zones and communication is not effective or perhaps areas where keys should have been provided for access to service rooms.
A Fire Watch strategy should be in the form of a written plan with consideration of how the plan outline can be modified depending on the circumstances of the fire protection equipment shutdown and the occupancy of the building at the time. For example, the plan may be different on a weekend than during the workday.
As outlined in this article there are a number of items to consider for an effective fire watch:
Objective of the fire watch
Who conducts the fire watch
Notice to the occupants
Frequency of patrols
Improving the plan
Effective Fire Watch procedures should be outlined in a plan. Unfortunately, most building owners forget to develop a Fire Watch plan.