Most Common (And Easily Avoidable) Fire Code Violations

Posted February 19, 2021 by Koorsen Fire & Security

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According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), loss of life due to fires in the United States has been on a relatively steady decline. In the past 40 years, the number of civilian fire deaths has dropped almost 60% -- from more than 6,500 each year to around 3,700. Yet fires remain a significant and direct threat to public safety. According to the most recent NFPA data, the number of fire deaths each year now appears to be on the rise. In 2019, a person was injured in a fire every 32 minutes, on average, in the U.S. Every two hours, on average, fires claimed another life.

These numbers underscore the need for vigilance when it comes to ensuring your fire protection systems are in compliance with all applicable fire codes at all times. Building owners are subject to a variety of local fire codes. These codes are enforced through inspections by the Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ), which can include the local fire marshal, building inspector, or other code official. 

These inspections provide the backbone of fire prevention in your community and help to ensure public safety in your building and others. The purpose is to identify problems with your fire protection systems so they can be remedied before a fire occurs. This post will identify some of the most common fire code violations found during inspections so that you can be proactive in caring for your fire protection system and preparing for your next inspection.   

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Categories of Code Violations 

Most state and local fire codes are based on one or both of two model fire codes -- the International Fire Code (IFC) and NFPA 1: Fire Code. Each of these codes which have many different rules pertaining to different components of your fire protection system. 

For the purposes of this article, we have grouped the most common code violations we have found into four different categories based on those used in the most recent Fire and Life Safety Benchmark Report, which is based on data from more than six million inspection reports for more than 900,000 buildings and over 300 million devices inspected. In addition to providing data about fire inspection processes, this report also sheds light on device failure rates across these categories, which provides some additional context for some of the common issues identified: 

  • Fire signaling and detection devices, including control equipment, auxiliary functions, initiating devices, monitoring equipment, and notification appliances -- 2.23% failure rate
  • Fire suppression systems and devices, including clean agent, gas detection, and kitchen hood systems -- 2.76% failure rate
  • Fire sprinkler systems and other water-based fire protection systems -- 5.45% failure rate
  • Life safety devices, including portable fire extinguishers, lighting, personal protective and safety equipment -- 7.07% failure rate

Common Problems with Fire Signaling and Detection Devices

Missing or Damaged Smoke Detectors

Because they are usually installed on the ceiling, smoke detectors are an easy thing to neglect. Out of sight, out of mind -- until they start chirping. This happens with many types of battery-operated smoke detectors and can become very annoying. As a result, it is not uncommon for the batteries to be missing from smoke detectors. Often they are expired. This kind of violation is an easy one to remedy by just establishing a schedule for checking the batteries in all of your smoke detectors and keeping fresh batteries on hand. 

Missed Fire Alarm inspections

Skipping fire alarm inspections is a serious and all-too-common violation. The NFPA 72 National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code requires annual inspections and servicing of all fire alarm systems. Ignoring these requirements could put you at risk of fire code violations and put everyone in your building at risk should a fire break out. Don't take that chance. If it's been more than a year since you have had your fire alarm system tested, call a licensed technician today and get one scheduled. 

Common Problems with Fire Suppression Systems and Devices

Failure of Commercial Kitchens to Test their Hood Suppression Systems 

Given the likelihood of fire in commercial cooking operations, it is no surprise that there are many fire-safety codes that the owners of these operations must meet. One of the most common fire suppression-related violations occurs in commercial cooking operations that fail to perform the required routine inspections and maintenance and/or the hydrostatic testing of their hood systems. Both types of requirements are important to ensure the hood is functioning properly to remove airborne grease and fumes and to prevent an excessive buildup of grease within the hood filters and ducts.

Common Issues with Water-based Fire Protection Systems

Loaded Sprinklers

Sprinklers that are painted or otherwise "loaded" with excessive dust or dirt or other materials such as drywall compound, caulk, or adhesives may not function properly when you need them. When sprinklers are loaded with any of these substances, their activation in the event of a fire may be prevented or delayed. These issues are easy to remedy. There are devices available to provide safe, touch-free ways to clean your sprinklers (the touch-free part is vital because sprinklers are fragile). If your sprinklers are painted or cannot otherwise be cleaned, replace them. 

Missing Sprinkler Wrenches 

Sprinklers must be replaced whenever they have been activated or are found to be loaded or damaged. Failure to promptly replace sprinklers can be costly because sprinkler systems that are not fully in service can trigger costly fire watch requirements. To facilitate the prompt replacement of sprinklers, NFPA 25 Standard for the Inspection, Testing, and Maintenance of Water-Based Fire Protection Systems requires sprinklered buildings to have a cabinet stocked with spare sprinklers and the appropriate fire sprinkler wrench for each type of sprinkler they use.

However, it is not uncommon for an inspector to open the sprinkler cabinet and find one or more of the necessary wrenches missing. The best way to avoid this type of compliance issue is to inventory your cabinet today and ensure everyone responsible for replacing sprinklers takes care to return the wrenches to the cabinet when finished. And while they are at it, have them inventory the sprinklers so any used as replacements can be replenished.  

Items Hanging from Fire Sprinklers and Piping

Most jurisdictions prohibit hanging or supporting anything, even the most lightweight items, on exposed sprinkler piping. It is a big problem because it can cause damage to the sprinkler, electrical shorts, or cause the system to vibrate, which can inadvertently activate the sprinkler. 

Insufficient Fire Sprinkler Clearance

While your sprinklers may be installed with the required clearance, that clearance can quickly be reduced, creating a compliance issue in storage rooms and high-piled storage areas where people have stacked materials too high. Providing the required clearance for sprinklers is essential to ensure the necessary spray pattern. NFPA 25 requires an 18-inch clearance for most sprinklers. While there are some exceptions to this, if in doubt, assume that the requirement applies to your situation. Then go and take a look at your storage areas to make sure the sprinklers are not blocked.  

Improper Sprinkler System Design

The type of sprinkler system required for your building depends on its occupancy and commodity classification. One of the most common sprinkler system-related issues happens when a building changes ownership and/or the use of the building changes. When this happens, the sprinkler system designed for the previous use may no longer meet the new use requirements. If you have or are considering purchasing a building for new or expanded operations, it is important to check with the local AHJ to ensure that the sprinkler system meets any new requirements for the space.  

Outdated Pressure Gauges

Pressure gauges are a critical component in fire sprinklers and standpipe systems. Because they have many wear parts, the NFPA requires that they be tested and calibrated or replaced every five years. Checking your gauges is easy because the date is usually stamped on the face of the device. Pressure gauges can be found on fire pumps, backflow preventers, pressure-reducing valves, and all types of sprinkler systems. To facilitate the proactive replacement of outdated gauges, make a list of all the gauges in your fire protection system and inspect them regularly. A visual inspection of all the gauges will quickly reveal those that need to be replaced before the inspector finds them.  

Neglected Churn Testing for Fire Pumps

Regular churn testing is required for all fire pumps. However, this testing is often overlooked. Building owners that neglect this testing are risking expensive repairs resulting from the potentially significant damage that churn can cause in their fire protection system's valves and piping. You can learn more about the inspection and testing requirements for fire pumps here. While your personnel can do some types of inspection and testing, others must be performed by a qualified fire safety technician

Using Fire Pump and Riser Rooms for Storage

Nothing should ever be stored in fire pump and riser rooms. Inspectors often find these spaces cluttered with storage of things like file cabinets, shelving, cleaning supplies, and other items not related to fire protection. Using fire pump and riser rooms for storage is prohibited because doing so can slow down access to pump valves and risers in an emergency. If you're storing anything in your fire pump or riser room, find somewhere else for it to go.

Problems with Fire Department Connections

Fire department connections (FDC) are a critical component of many water-based fire suppression systems because they allow firefighters to feed pressurized water into the system to put out a fire. Lives can be lost if FDCs are blocked by vehicles, tractor-trailers, trash bins, or other items or if bushes obscure them. FDCs need to be obvious and accessible at all times. If yours are not, make it a priority to clear the way to provide the required access.    

Another common compliance issue with FDCs is that owners can forget to have them tested. NFPA 25 requires hydrostatic testing of FDCs every five years to ensure the piping that connects it to the standpipe system and/or the piping in the fire suppression system can withstand the pressure applied by the fire engine.

Missing Covers on Tamper and/or Waterflow Switches

Waterflow and tamper switch covers are often found missing during inspections. These covers are needed to protect the electrical and mechanical components within the device. This seems like a minor thing, but missing or damaged covers are easy to replace and can help you avoid potentially costly repairs down the road. 

Common Life Safety Violations

Blocked Fire Alarm Pulls and Fire Extinguishers

Inspectors commonly find one or more fire alarm pull stations in a building blocked by items such as plants, furniture, and displays. Likewise, it is not uncommon for access to fire extinguishers to be obstructed by such things. Both of these issues can put people at risk. Walk around your building today to make sure they are all visible and easily accessible. 

Obstructed Passageways and Exits

This is another common violation that can have deadly impacts in the event of a fire. Inspect your means of egress and all exit doors routinely to ensure that they remain unobstructed at all times.

Missing Emergency Lighting

Lack of emergency lighting in the event of a power outage is a serious violation for obvious reasons -- people need to be able to find their way out of a burning building as quickly as possible. The most common issue here is where the system is missing the required battery backup, which ensures emergency lights' illumination if the power goes off. 

Open Fire Doors

While fire doors are meant to be opened in the event of a fire, they are otherwise intended to stay closed. Inspectors commonly find fire doors propped open, which can undermine the protection they provide. NFPA 80 Standard for Fire Doors and Other Opening Protectives does allow propping doors open, but only with an approved device. If you are propping any of the fire doors in your building open, make sure you're using an approved device to do so. 

Expired Fire Extinguishers

NFPA 10 Standard for Portable Fire Extinguishers requires that all portable fire extinguishers be inspected and tested on a regular basis. The most common violation found with fire extinguishers is that they are overdue for testing and recharge, which is indicated by an expired fire extinguisher inspection tag. You can remedy this by assigning one or more personnel the task of performing the monthly inspections required for fire extinguishers. With regard to their testing, this requires the skills of a professional.  

Using Extension Cords in Place of Permanent Wiring 

This is a very common issue found during inspections. Extension cords are intended for temporary use only. Connecting multiple extension cords or using them for permanent fixtures, or passing them through holes in the walls can create a significant fire hazard and one that could cost you a hefty fine if discovered by an inspector. Better to save yourself a citation and hire an electrician to properly provide the power you need. 

Improper or Missing Signage

Missing or inadequate signage on your fire protection system may seem like a relatively minor issue. However, it can become a real problem real fast in the event of a fire. Proper signage is needed to identify critical components and provide the information necessary for technicians to perform required testing and maintenance on your system. While having the proper signage on a control valve, for example, doesn't directly affect the performance of the system, it does provide an important reminder to maintenance technicians to close the valve after testing. If they don't, the system will not work when you need it. 

You also cannot expect firefighters to know all the details of your system. Proper signage helps firefighters quickly get to the right place and provide the information they need. Every second counts in a fire, and if firefighters cannot find the right FDC, for example, lives could be lost.  

Poor Recordkeeping

While not included in our four categories of common violations, poor recordkeeping remains a common problem for many building owners and managers. Maintaining good records is not only required; doing so helps to ensure you're not missing any inspections, testing, or maintenance needed to ensure your system provides the protection for which it was designed. 

Koorsen Can Help You Stay in Compliance

To get a head start on identifying and addressing any potential compliance issues, take a look at our Fire Marshall Inspection Checklist. As we have illustrated here, many of the most common violations can be avoided with common-sense measures you can take today. For those that require the help of an expert, call Koorsen. Our team of certified technicians and engineers can help you determine your system's testing and maintenance requirements and provide the services you need to get and stay in compliance.

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Topics: Inspection/Testing, Fire Safety & Security

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Disclaimer: The information in this article is for informational purposes only. It is believed to be reliable, but Koorsen Fire & Security assumes no responsibility or liability for any errors or omissions in the content of this article. It does not constitute professional advice. The user of this article or the product(s) is responsible for verifying the information's accuracy from all available sources, including the product manufacturer. The authority having jurisdiction should be contacted for code interpretations.