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Fire Protection: Complacency Burns!

An article by The Fire Chief, City of Ottawa September 2000, Canadian Underwriter Magazine.

By Gary Richardson

Complacency is the enemy of vigilance, and those of you who make careers out of managing risk know how important it is to be vigilant. Unfortunately, complacency often sets in not through deliberate effort or the desire to avoid going "the extra mile", but because of a genuine belief that all is well and as it should be.

Complacency means different things in different situations. In my business, fire services, complacency translates into a belief that the various codes and regulations in place to prevent a fire, or minimize its impact once a fire starts, are adhered to by those they are intended to protect. The preoccupation for risk managers is to recognize, ahead of time, the conditions and circumstances that mitigate or reduce risk, and to ensure that all controllable factors have been taken into account when assessing risk for a particular situation.

Health Hazard

Earlier this year, media attention became focused on problems with certain types of smoke detectors now on the market. The result has been a renewed interest in these devices on the part of the general public, and a much higher awareness of the need to keep such detectors in good working order.

This renewed interest, no matter what the cause, is a good thing, because all of us are guilty of complacency. We take for granted that the devices we installed five or even ten years ago are working as intended and, in the case of a critical safety device like a smoke detector, the complacency can have devastating consequences.

As the Fire Chief for Ottawa, my primary concern is the safety of my fire fighters, and the public they protect. I cannot afford to become complacent. In my city, we experienced a major fire loss [in excess of $900,000] early last year in a building that, not only had a working fire alarm system, but a system that was "monitored" as required under the Ontario Building Code and the Fire Code. What this means is, that immediately upon receipt of a signal from the building fire alarm system, the monitoring company is to notify the fire department dispatch system, thereby ensuring a rapid response.

The Wake up Call

Why then did we encounter a well-advanced fire that had almost totally engulfed the building minutes after our initial response? That is a key question that our investigators seek to answer every time we experience these conditions. In this case the fire was not arson and no accelerants had been used. The short answer was that we had not been notified until a passer by saw flames. The monitoring company had called the building manager first in direct contravention of the Code. The manager had instructed that the signal be ignored because he thought he knew the cause and saw no reason to notify the Fire Department. I began to think back to my days as a fire inspector and the many similar incidents I had encountered. Was I getting complacent in this regard? How widespread was this problem? Could the next incident like this result in a much greater loss to both property and life? I was determined to find answers to these questions.

The approach taken was to perform a series of tests in the 375 high-rise residential buildings that are required by Code to be monitored in the city. Many other structures must be monitored for fire, including commercial and industrial properties, but only a sampling of these structures were included in our tests.

When our team of inspectors arrived at a property, they were looking for two things: one, was the installation of the fire system, including the panel and the communication system surrounding it, in accordance with proper Codes, and two, was the system being monitored in accordance with those Codes? In risk assessment terms, would the system be able to function properly in the event of an emergency and if so, would it result in the notification of the Fire Department in the time allowed by the Code (90 seconds)? What we learned from this extensive investigation came as a shock to those of us in fire prevention and should come as a wake-up call to insurers.

Numerous Deficiencies

The tests we conducted were simple enough. Two fire inspectors, working in tandem with the fire department dispatch centre, paid an unscheduled visit to a building. After informing the property manager of their intent, and radioing the dispatch, they would activate a pull station and wait for dispatch to inform them when a call from the alarm monitoring company had been received. Our tests showed an average elapsed time of just over 2 minutes, when a call was received. After this stage was completed, a full inspection of the fire panel and other hardware within the building was conducted.

While we began this initiative to find out how widespread improper notification was, we realized almost immediately that this was only one of a myriad of problems with fire alarm monitoring in our city. By late August 1999, we had tested 217 of 375 target buildings. Incredibly, fewer than ten of these buildings were in full compliance with the codes while twenty were not even monitored.

We had problems and they had to be addressed. When the study was completed and we had analyzed the data, two major findings jolted us out of any complacency we may have had up to that point:

Ignorance of the Law Many of the situations we uncovered were simply because building owners and managers were unfamiliar with the requirements of the Building Code, or assumed that their system hardware was properly installed and was being monitored in a way that was fully compliant with all regulations. Examples of deficient installation included things such as unprotected wiring and the improper powering of the fire alarm panel. Most of these deficiencies were minor in nature, and could be addressed quickly and inexpensively. However, we also came across several instances where public safety was clearly in jeopardy. As risk managers, how many similar situations apply within your portfolios?

Unnecessary Response Delays This was to prove the most troubling finding. Delays in notification today typically arise because of the monitoring company's decision to verify if a fire signal is a false alarm before notifying fire authorities, which is a contravention of the code. Delays can also occur within the monitoring station itself, depending on the number of calls being processed, the number of operators on duty, and so forth. But even when the fire signal was triggered, and the alarm company complied with Code requirements to "immediately" notify the fire department, we still encountered a delay time of two minutes and eight seconds, that's 128 seconds of "no-man's" time, so to speak, time which is essentially being wasted - time which would be lost forever if a real fire was just starting.

But the other reason for the delay in the fire signal reaching the fire department dispatch centre is the failure on the part of industry to adopt a new technology called OPEN ACCESSTM that allows all monitoring companies to provide direct to the fire department electronic notification to all their customers. OPEN ACCESSTM is simply a protocol which routes a fire signal from a monitored premise, via the monitoring station's automation software, directly into the fire dispatch centre. Voice communication and data entry, as well as any back-up or delays, are eliminated. This 120 seconds or so of "no man's time" can become active fire response time, getting fire fighters to the scene of a fire faster than they can using existing practices. There are costs associated with this program but the benefits in terms of loss avoidance and life safety are so significant that, I believe, cost benefit analysis would arguably justify these costs.

As the head of an "authority having jurisdiction", my role is communicate and educate stakeholders so that we have a level playing field, and that everyone has the right information. Vigilance means staying on top of developments in one's area of endeavour, and not presuming things are "as they should be". The Ottawa Fire Service is now proactive with information sessions and meetings designed to inform stakeholders, but with only one or two exceptions, the insurance industry has been conspicuous by its absence.

Stakeholders such as alarm companies, building owners and managers, and of course the insurance industry, must be more vigilant to ensure that appropriate codes are being followed. Similarly, vigilance is also required to ensure that serious consideration be given to any new services or technologies, such as OPEN ACCESSTM, with risk reducing and life safety enhancement potential.