Fire Safety Tips When Re-Opening a Business or Building
After COVID-19 Closure
The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) is an international nonprofit organization devoted to eliminating death, injury, property, and economic loss due to fire, electrical and related hazards. They are the notable expert on fire and life safety standards, codes, and education and have developed over 300 codes and standards designed to minimize the risk and effects of fire by establishing criteria for building, processing, design, service, and installation around the world.
Recently, the NFPA developed a checklist for businesses who will be opening after long-term closures due to voluntary and involuntary COVID-19 mandates. We thought we would share some of the more succinct information and recommendations to help companies re-open safely for incoming occupants.
Fire Protection System Checklist
- Inspections, testing, and maintenance of all fire protection systems, including sprinklers and fire pumps, exit lighting, fire doors, smoke/heat detectors and fire extinguishers, are up-to-date and documented
- Fire panels have no active trouble, supervisory or alarm signals (unless panel is undergoing maintenance)
- No damage to smoke or heat detectors
- Pull stations and fire extinguishers are not blocked or damaged; fire extinguishers are hung on appropriate hooks and are fully charged
- Emergency lighting is operational (office spaces, common areas, stairwells)
Occupant Entry/Exit Requirements
Many businesses have changed the way occupants and visitors will enter and exit a building to avoid/limit two-way flow encounters. Make sure these are properly marked (“Enter Here,” “Exit Here”) Queuing lines, if used, should not block fire exits or occupant exit routes and should be managed so there is at least six feet between persons waiting to enter. Signage should be used to establish the desired flow.
Since COVID, many businesses have blocked exits to limit the doors occupants could use to enter and leave a property. It is critical, prior to opening, that all doors used for fire exits or secondary escape options, are accessible, clear from barriers or debris and can easily open. In other words, all exits and exit routes must be able to be safely used in an emergency and should NEVER be chained or locked.
Most likely, businesses and office buildings will install automatic hand sanitizer stations. These cannot restrict egress paths. Also, follow the manufacturer’s instructions on proper use and storage as these liquids are extremely flammable (See NFPA 101 for details).
If businesses are using seating for food service (cafeteria, break room, restaurant, etc.), modifications (to facilitate social distancing) should not obstruct exits paths, doors, fire extinguishers or pull stations.
Emergency Evacuations and Fire Drills (Source data: BOMA, NFPA, CDC)
As more and more people get back to a more normal work pattern, businesses especially high-rise office buildings should dust off their building evacuation manuals, update their plan and schedule a fire drill. Considerations should include:
- Updated tenant and fire warden directory/contact list
- Consider altering your present evacuation routes and occupant assembly area. You should designate multiple assembly places that have enough space for social distancing requirements.
- Re-tooling of traditional evacuation protocols to ensure evacuees are encouraged to wear masks and maintain social distancing in exit stairwells and assembly areas
- Contacting your local fire marshal or fire department fire prevention unit to discuss recommended/best practices when facilitating a fire drill in the “new normal.”
- Develop a training sheet and host a ZOOM or similar virtual training session for all building occupants (and building staff and fire marshals) on how to evacuate and assemble within CDC COVID-19 health guidelines. Tips to include:
- Wear masks when exiting the building and when waiting in assembly area; maintain social distancing.
- Refrain from touching your face after evacuating the building as you may have touched doors, handrails etc.
- If possible, sanitize your hands.
- Once permitted to re-enter the building, maintain your physical distance, and wash your hands with soap and water before returning to your work area.
For many commercial office buildings, evacuation drills must be conducted annually unless localities amend their code to a more frequent basis. If a building has ambulatory care facilities, educational (K-12) or institutional operations, evacuation drills may be required to take place on a monthly basis. Check with your local fire officials for further guidance on required drill frequency. Compliance with state and local fire codes requires building personnel to have a fire safety and evacuation plan that follows International Fire Code (IFC) requirements. Section 404 of the IFC covers evacuation plan preparation and procedures, while Section 405 focuses on the frequency and participation requirements.
If a building has a complete fire sprinkler system, consider asking local fire officials for a “defend in place strategy” with a floor by floor evacuation. Buildings with voice evacuation systems are especially helpful to guide evacuations based on where the emergency occurs.
Ensure that floor fire wardens are familiar with new assembly areas and have them disseminate information to their groups. If possible, mark evacuation locations where they can be plainly seen if those areas are under the building owners’ control. (Parking lots, green spaces, courtyard, etc.) Encourage tenants, staff, and visitors to wear masks or face coverings when exiting the building after an alarm is activated. Supply floor wardens with extra masks they can use to disseminate to their groups.
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