Putting Out the Fire

Article by Gary Richardson Fire Chief, Ottawa Fire Department - Canadian Security Magazine August September issue 2000.

Earlier this year, media attention focused on problems with some types of smoke detectors currently on the market. The result has been a renewed interest in these devices on the part of the general public - with fire departments across Canada receiving numerous inquiries since the information became public.

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 today as intended and in the case of a critical safety device like a smoke detector, that complacency can have devastating consequences.

For a fire chief, the primary concern is the safety of his or her firefighters, and the public they protect. Fire chiefs cannot afford to become complacent.

In Ottawa, Ontario, a major fire loss was experienced in 1999 in a building that not only had a working fire alarm system but a system that was "monitored" as per Ontario Building Code and Ontario Fire Code Retrofit 9.4 and 9.6 requirements. in accordance with province-wide building and fire code regulations. What monitored means in this case 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 in order to ensure a rapid response. (NFPA Standard 72 mandates notification in 90 seconds).

This seems simple enough: Firefighters get the call and respond in five minutes or less (90% of the time) and life and property is better protected as a result. Because the fires encountered on arrival are, in principal, smaller in size (because firefighters have arrived sooner), firefighter safety is also enhanced. Everybody wins.

Why then did fire fighters in this case encounter a well-advanced fire that had almost totally engulfed the building minutes after the crew's initial response? That is a key question that investigators seek to answer every time these conditions are experienced.

In this case the fire was related to arson and no flammable liquids were used. The short answer to the problem was that the fire department had not been notified until a passer-by saw flames. The monitoring company had called the building manager first, in direct contravention of the fire code. The property manager instructed that the signal be ignored because he thought he knew the cause and did not wish to call us out for nothing. In Ottawa, however, there is no charge for responding to false alarms, and therefore no reason to defer calling the fire department.

Time for Reflection:

As fire chief of the Ottawa Fire Department, I began to think back to my days as a fire inspector and the many similar incidents I had encountered. Was I becoming complacent in this regard? How widespread was the problem? What could the Ottawa Fire Department do to find the answers to these questions?

Our approach was anything but complacent. We assigned two fire fighters to begin a series of tests in those buildings in Ottawa mandated to be monitored. We focussed on residential high rise buildings that fall under Article of the Ontario Building Code and 9.4 and 9.6 of the Ontario Fire Code. Our inventory showed there were 375 such structures.

The test was simple enough. The firefighters would work with the fire department dispatch centre. After informing the property manager of their intent, and radioing dispatch, they would activate a pull station and wait for dispatch to inform them when a call from the alarm monitoring station had been received. The event was timed and the time noted. After this stage was completed, a full inspection of the fire alarm system and the monitoring equipment 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 myriad problems with the fire alarm monitoring in our city. By late August 1999, we had tested 217 of 375 target buildings. Incredibly, fewer than ten of them were in full compliance with the building and fire code requirements. Twenty were not even monitored. We had problems and they had to be addressed.

Analyze this:

The data collected by the firefighters in charge if the project was analysed and broken down into four key problem areas:

  • The delay in fire department notification
  • The lack of knowledge with regards to Ontario Fire Code requirements
  • The lack of regular monitoring equipment testing
  • The lack of information flow back to the fire prevention division.

Notification delays. Most systems tested did operate, in that they picked up an alarm signal from the fire panel and transmitted that signal to the monitoring company. It is at this point, however, that the "ball was dropped." Excessive time delays for calls to the fire department were the norm (in contravention of ULC-C693). There was also a problem in notification in that building owners or property managers were being called first (in contravention to ULC-C693 8.4.1 and 9.1.3, FFPA-71 1-10.2 and 3.4.7 and the Ontario Building Code).

There were two recommendations made to address these problems: One calls for random inspections and field tests to be conducted on monitoring equipment. The other requires the inspection and testing of central stations by the "authority having jurisdiction", or AHJ.

Lack of Knowledge. It was discovered that building owners and their respective agents (management companies, their staff, and building superintendents) are not as knowledgeable or informed of their duties and responsibilities under the Ontario Fire Code as they should be. To rectify this problem, it was suggested that a fire systems/ fire safety program be implemented for building staff, owners and others that would explain these duties and responsibilities of these individuals as they relate to code application.

Limited testing. At the time of the informal investigation by firefighters, no specific agency had been found to be testing individual monitoring equipment. The simple solution: testing and inspecting monitoring equipment and signal transmission annually - at the same time as the yearly alarm system test - and certifying the results through an appropriate agency.

Problems with information flow. Finally, it was discovered that any problems that were found during annual alarm system testing were not being communicated to the fire department. To rectify this reality, it was recommended that a copy of all test results be forwarded to the fire prevention division. It was also suggested that certification documentation be kept in a building's history file.

Eliminating roadblocks

Fire alarm monitoring is a very difficult concept to communicate through an education program. The benefits that seem so obvious to those individuals in the fire service are less obvious to building owners already facing considerable fiscal pressures. The key problem is that the actual customer (the owner) simply trusts that when he or she purchases the service from an alarm company that it is being provided to the standards in place. Our evidence clearly indicates that the alarm industry is not policing itself in this regard and that those of us in the fire service have been remiss when it comes to educating the industry.

Alarm monitoring companies operate in an exceptionally competitive environment. Unfortunately, this creates a climate where the focus is on profit and corporate survival rather than public safety. This has to change. The role of the AHJ is to communicate and educate all stakeholders in an effort to create a level playing field. Competition in business is a good thing - but not when it happens at the expense of adherence to the established rules of the game. In this case, the requirements of the Ontario Fire Code and Ontario Building Code constitute those rules.

What does this mean? Simply stated, if monitoring stations and building owners continue to disregard these rules for any reason, it is incumbent upon the AHJ - as guardian of the public trust - to enforce the existing regulations to their fullest extent. And if that does not work, the AHJ may need to enhance its enforcement capabilities through changes to the codes in question, to bylaws, to licensing standards, and to any other applicable legislation, guidelines or standards.

If a provider of these services cannot meet code because it is too expensive, then there is a problem.

Certain players cannot be allowed to force wide-spread non-compliance in a critical area of public safety through improper or illegal installation or monitoring practices. The difficulty in solving this problem lies in the fact that because the owner is ultimately responsible for compliance with all the codes, the company committing the infractions is not directly penalized. And while it is true that owners can change service providers, this may be difficult if contracts are in place.

To date, the approach in Ottawa has focus first on educating all stakeholders. The requirements under the codes have been communicated to all of the alarm monitoring companies because it was felt that it was fair to clearly indicate what was required before taking a harder line approach with enforcement that would result in sanctions.

That is not to say that what was found during the investigation was ignored. Orders have been written in many cases where flagrant violation such as failure to monitor have been encountered - and all identified problems will be corrected.

Information sessions with the industry have been held, and the process will soon be expanded to include owners and managers. The testing program will soon be entrenched in the operational procedures of the Ottawa Fire department until such time as senior staff feels the situation has been fully addressed. In other words, when problems are no longer found, the number of tests being conducted will be reduced.

Getting the right directions.

Another approach being used in Ottawa involves a new technology that provides a technology gateway that any alarm monitoring station can utilize to send the signal direct to the fire department dispatch system at the time it goes to the monitoring station. OPEN ACCESS TM, allows all monitoring companies servicing the area to participate in this program of direct to the fire department reporting.

There are costs associated with this program, but the benefits in terms of loss avoidance and life safety are so significant that a cost-benefit analysis certainly justifies the expense.

Unfortunately, a lack of understanding of this technology means we still have yet to see widespread buy-in at the local level. This is regrettable because this program truly offers an opportunity for building owners to better protect their occupants and their investments.

If the industry continues to ignore the code requirements, I am prepared to attempt the passage of a bylaw, or to recommend a code change, that would mandate that all monitored systems be required to transmit signals directly to the fire department. I feel strongly that this initiative would enhance public safety and effectively address one of the key problems identified through the Ottawa Fire Department's investigation.

The masses have been concerned recently with home smoke alarms and their capability to warn occupants of fire. It would seen logical that equal attention to safety and security - and timely response - be paid to residential highrise buildings that house hundreds of occupants. Direct reporting (or notification) creates the assurance that firefighters will get the call, and by the fastest possible means. Obviously, the systems presently in place fail to do that.

The next building and fire codes will be "objective-based," that is, there will be more flexibility when it comes to designing future buildings. Since there should be two "objectives" of any fire alarm system - namely occupant warning and fire department notification - it only makes sense to be more pro-active and work together towards meeting these objectives right now.

Information investigations, education initiatives and products that can help to minimize or eliminate the costly losses that can be associated with fire are all worthwhile. As prevention initiatives and technology continue to grow, commercial, residential and industrial buildings will be able to take advantage of the benefits. And firefighters will be able to prevent more property damage and save more lives when fire does decide to strike.

Gary Richardson is the fire chief of the Ottawa Fire Department, in Ottawa Ontario.