If your building has a fire alarm system and/or a water-based fire protection system such as a sprinkler system, you may be required by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 101 Life Safety Code (LSC) to implement a fire watch should that system become impaired.
While the requirement to respond to impairments in your fire protection system comes from the LSC, the specific requirements for doing so reside in Chapter 15 of the NFPA 25 Standard for the Inspection, Testing, and Maintenance of Water-Based Fire Protection Systems, which specifies the requirements for how to respond to sprinkler system impairments. And, according to Annex A of the NFPA 72 Fire Alarm and Signaling Code, a fire watch may also be needed in cases where the fire alarm signaling system is impaired.
This post will help you learn more about fire watches — what they are, what they entail, and the circumstances in which they must be implemented — as well as a discussion of the options available to building owners in conducting them.
Definition of a Fire Watch
In Chapter 3 of the LSC, a fire watch is defined as the assignment of one or more people with the following tasks:
- Notifying the fire department, the building occupants, or both of an emergency
- Preventing a fire from occurring
- Extinguishing small fires
- Protecting the public from fire or life safety dangers
Emergency impairments can include an interruption in the water supply to the system, frozen or ruptured pipes, equipment failure, and any impairments that are identified during inspections of the system. The Code also covers preplanned impairments that occur when the system must be shut down for a period of time to allow for open flame operations such as welding in an area with automatic fire detection systems or disconnecting the system for the purposes of testing and maintenance.
For sprinklers and other water-based fire protection systems, the NFPA 72 defines an impairment as an “abnormal condition” that renders your system or some component or function of it inoperable. Impairments to any of the following types of equipment or components of your system could trigger the requirement for a fire watch:
- Sprinkler systems, including water spray, water mist, and foam-water systems
- Standpipe systems
- Fire pumps and fire hose systems
- Water storage tanks and underground fire service mains
- Interruptions in the water supply
While the NFPA standards do not specifically address the question of how much of the fire protection system must be impaired to trigger the fire watch requirement, a fire watch should be implemented any time the system or a significant portion of the system cannot operate as intended. It is also important to note that the requirement to implement a fire watch applies regardless of the nature of the impairment and is triggered by the amount of time that the system is impaired.
Basic Requirements for Fire Watches
According to the NFPA, for fire alarm systems, a fire watch is required if the system is impaired for more than four hours in a 24-hour period. For water-based fire protection systems, fire watches are required for impairments lasting 10 hours or more in a 24-hour period. In both cases, the fire department must be notified. It is important to note however, that requirements can vary by jurisdiction and authorities having jurisdiction (AHJs). A given jurisdiction may have requirements that are less strict, more strict, or which include additional requirements based on other Codes. In these cases, the most stringent requirements would apply.
A common misconception with fire watch requirements is that systems must be out of service for more than four consecutive hours before the requirement to implement a fire watch is invoked. However, this is not the case. The requirement applies when the sum of all outages in a 24-hour period exceeds more than four hours.
Fire watches require the continuous patrol of all areas of the building affected by the impairment to look for evidence of smoke, fire, or any abnormal conditions. As noted in its definition, if a life-threatening situation is discovered, the person conducting the fire watch must immediately contact emergency personnel, alert the occupants to the emergency and assist in their evacuation.
In addition to the occupied areas affected by the impairment, fire watchers must also check all unoccupied areas including storage rooms, crawl spaces, and any concealed areas. Given this, it is important that those conducting a fire watch be very familiar with the building and the equipment they are watching. They must also know the location of all manual fire alarm stations and fire protection equipment available to them should they discover a fire. In addition, all activities associated with a fire watch must be documented. Therefore, anyone conducting the fire watch must also be trained in how to fill out fire watch log sheets.
The fire watch must remain in effect until the entire system is restored to proper working order and only after any necessary inspections and tests have been conducted to verify that affected systems are operational and the fire department has been notified.
Where to Find Your Fire Watchers
Sprinkler and alarm malfunctions don’t happen every day. But, when they do quick decisions are needed. Ideally, your fire watch policy will provide a plan for acting quickly to ensure your compliance with the regulation.
Building owners have basically two options when it comes to performing fire watches — they can do it themselves by having current employees step in to serve as fire watchers while the system is down, or they can outsource the fire watch tasks to a security company, like Koorsen Fire & Security.
If considering assigning fire watch duties to your employees, it is important to follow the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requirements pertaining to fire watches. In addition to requiring detailed training in how to conduct a fire watch, Section 1915.504 requires employers to develop and maintain a current written fire watch policy that specifies the following:
- The duties employees are to perform when conducting a fire watch and the equipment they must be provided for this purpose
- The personal protective equipment (PPE) that must be made available to them and which they must wear when conducting a fire watch
Before making a decision regarding the use of employees to serve as fire watchers, it may be useful to consider some of the pros and cons of using employees to perform fire watches or outsourcing to a security company. Factors to consider include:
Interruption of normal business activities — Employees cannot conduct a fire watch in addition to their normal duties. This is an important consideration as a fire watch must be conducted continuously during an outage and possibly for an extended period of time. Depending on the roles of these employees in your organization, having them perform fire watch duties can prove very costly in terms of lost productivity. Hiring an outside company to perform a fire watch would eliminate this problem, but there is still a cost involved.
Training and equipment costs — When using employees, there are costs associated with training them on the requirements of a fire watch and providing them with all the required fire safety equipment, communication devices, and PPE to perform them properly. When hiring a security company, you can expect that your fire watchers will arrive with all the necessary training and equipment.
Potential legal liability — Fire watches may or may not be included in a building’s insurance policy. If it isn’t and a fire were to break out, the building owner may be held liable for any damages. Companies that provide fire watch services provide their own insurance, eliminating any potential liability on the part of the building owner.
Considering the benefits that they provide, it may seem that hiring a security company is the obvious choice. This may or may not be the case for your business. The main point here is that it is important to evaluate all of your options when developing your fire watch policy so that it can be implemented quickly in the event of an impairment to your fire sprinkler or alarm systems.
Making Sure Your Fire Watch Policy Meets Requirements
When it comes to compliance, fire watch policies can be complex because there are often multiple AHJs that must be notified of a system impairment and fire watch implementation, and they may have different interpretations regarding some aspects of the regulations. However, a fire watch policy is a critical component of your building’s comprehensive fire protection plan. Contact Koorsen Fire & Security today with any questions you may have regarding your fire watch policy. We can help you evaluate whether the policy and your fire protection plan as a whole will meet all applicable regulations.