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Life Safety - For All

Life Safety – For All

Article written by Jack Carr, P.E., R.S., LEED AP, Criterium Engineers
Published in Condo Media, January, 2015 

The recent Portland multi-family building fire killing six young people has shocked many landlords and condo boards to re-think their fire prevention programs.  Depending solely on the local fire departments to ensure buildings are free of fire and safety violations through periodic inspections is not enough.

Though most Maine towns and cities have adopted the National Fire Protection Association fire safety standards, the enforcement and interpretation of the rules varies between municipalities.   As an example, the need for a sprinkler system in a given building can change with the number of floors; egress routes; conversion projects planned; etc.  Checking with the local fire prevention officer is often the only way to know.

Maine has a large inventory of apartment buildings over sixty years old.   More than 51% of Portland multi-family housing was built pre-1940. Most condominium buildings four stories and over that have been converted from an apartment building have sprinkler systems because the conversion would have triggered the requirement.  Three story buildings with only one egress point on the third floor will also typically have a sprinkler system.

The majority of these sprinkler systems are ‘wet’, that is, the sprinkler pipes continuously have pressurized water.  These systems require quarterly inspections by a licensed sprinkler inspector.  At that time, not only is the equipment and pressure levels checked but the fire alarm system itself is tested.  Most of these systems operate off municipal water sources with piping from the street independent of the domestic water service.  Rural systems sourcing their water from wells are required to have a reserve water storage tank of 2,000 to 3,000 gallon capacity with a booster pump.

A few condominium building use ‘dry’ systems either in total or in sections of the building due to potential pipe freezing or other reasons.  These systems are approximately 20% more expensive to operate due to additional testing requirements.  Dry systems require compressor inspections periodically and internal inspections of the piping every five years to determine if excess rusty scale has developed.  When excess scale is found the system will need to be flushed to remove the scale.

Of course, sprinkler systems are only one element of a successful safety program for condominiums.  Boards need to ensure no storage of bikes and other personal items in stairs and hallways.  No storage of flammable or combustible liquids in the building outside of listed lockers.

Fire alarms are required for buildings of four stories in height or with more than eleven units.  In addition, 120 volt smoke alarms having lives of ten years are required in each sleeping room; immediately outside the sleeping rooms; and on each level of the residential unit.  New smoke alarms must be photoelectric and have battery backup.  Similarly, a 120 volt carbon monoxide (CO) alarm of 5 to 7 year lives is required outside the sleeping rooms and on each level of the unit.

When condo boards do a safety check of their building they should remember there should be a minimum of one handrail on all existing stairs with stairways with 60-minute rated wall material.  Unit doors and basement doors into hallways or stairs must be fire-rated for 60 minutes and self-closing.  Though buildings with sprinkler systems or fire alarm systems may be exempt from requiring fire rated doors they still must be self-closing and smoke tight.

In Portland, any condo building with a fire alarm or sprinkler system must have a Knox Box.  These are wall mounted box safes holding the building keys for the fire department or emergency medical service personnel who have a master key to open the box to allow rapid entry into the building.  Other simple measures for rapid response is the building’s address numbers are placed in a position to be plainly legible and visible from the street.  Unit doors must also be clearly marked.

It is a shame a tragic event is the cause for making both municipal officials and those responsible for occupant safety take the simple steps necessary to prevent future loss of life, yet the true shame would be if the steps are not taken.