Fire prevention and public education


CarolinaFireJournal - Mike Coffey
Mike Coffey
10/10/2014 -

Today’s fire service responds to many incidents. Most of those incidents are covered under some form of safety code — from basic building codes, mechanical codes, electrical codes and fire codes to occupational safety and health regulations and environmental protection regulations. The previous codes mentioned all came from some form of life loss, major building fire or large loss fire. They became law when the local and state governments adopted them legislatively by vote and were signed by the governor or local body. Most of the fire services agencies that look at or read this do not perform fire prevention inspections, relying on the county/local government to do those inspections. The public we serve does not know this, so when we pull up to a business in the response area to do a pre-incident survey or to become familiar with the building their business is in, the business owner/occupant thinks we are doing a fire inspection. Knowing this, we can be proactive in preventing a problem that can cost us support in the future and monetary help during the time of business — a basic form of fire prevention.

Fire prevention has traditionally been to educate citizens in reducing the known hazards of fire and prevent dangerous acts before they turn into emergencies and associated problems. We usually accomplish this with school visits, fire station open houses and other forms of communication during the first week of October as part of National Fire Prevention Week. All these activities attempt to reduce fire risks and limit the damage that occurs. Fire prevention can be the most valuable tool we use to curtail losses of life and property. Most of the fire incidents we respond to are caused by carelessness or some form of unsafe act, equipment malfunction or failure, arson or acts of nature.

As firefighters, we must be able to identify (per NFPA 1001) fire and life safety hazards and recommend corrective actions, refer unresolved issues to the proper authority for the area having jurisdiction, complete the agency’s required forms, present fire safety information to station visitors or small groups, use prepared materials, document presentations and prepare preincident surveys. The methods we use to meet our public are through surveys and inspections. The surveys are going to be the most probable means most agencies will use. Surveys help to gather information on the building construction and layout of internal space, occupancy factors and life safety issues, on-site fire protection — sprinklers and standpipes — the contents to be expected on site and means of egress. Ideally, this is done while the building is under construction, but with the already built environment, we must get behind the scenes as much as possible to identify the above items with possible tactical issues and strategic initiatives. Our ability to prevent fire incidents and educate all facets of our community (not just the kids) depends on our understanding that no fire equals no losses of life, civilian or firefighter, and no losses of property. This allows the homeowners, renters, business owners and everyone else with a stake in the community to keep their lives and property safe and growing.

Since our public sees us as knowing everything that is fire related, being prepared to answer questions is a priority. You may not be in code enforcement, but knowing where to look in the code, or who to ask is important. They also expect you to be able to discuss, objectively and intelligently, all aspects of fire prevention and be able to give reliable advice to them on how to prevent hazards from becoming problems.

To build confidence and be professional, firefighters should present a well-groomed, neat appearance with clean uniforms in good condition to enhance professional appearance and gain respect from our citizens and enhance the fire department’s image. If you visit a building under construction, you may need gloves, helmets/hard hats, eye protection and hearing protection. Call in advance to see when a survey can be scheduled not to interfere with operations of the business and get personnel into the building.

Upon arriving at the survey destination, you will need occupancy fire safety survey forms, clipboard with note pad and pencil, flashlight, fire safety survey forms or pre-incident forms. Taking pictures and drawing a floor plan may be helpful — getting a floor plan is easier and may be possible. Note access points, utility cutoff points, water supply locations — hydrants and draft points — fire department connections for on-site fire protection, hazardous materials locations, alarm panel locations (including annunciator panels) and contact people for access after hours and during business operation.

Meet the contact at the front door or at the reception desk. Ask if the contact can escort or have someone go with the crew to explain operations and ask questions about the building or operation. When updating information, make sure contacts have not changed and note any changes when people leave or are moved. If you stay in service, have a radio to monitor for response. If just becoming familiar with the building, bring a crew or limit the number of volunteers. It can be very distracting to the guide and officer of the crew to keep herding a large number of personnel through a large facility. Limit the chatter and note parts of the building that can create problems for fire fighting forces. While going through the building, note:

  •  Building height
  • Construction type
  • Occupancy
  • Proximity of possible exposures
  • Area around building in question
  • Access to all sides
  • Location in proximity to the street
  • Security features
  • Building identification with numerics
  • Power lines overhead and anything overhead to slow or make ladder use difficult or impossible.

IFSTA’s “Essentials of Firefighting 5th Edition” defines target hazards as any structure in which there is a greater than normal potential for loss of life/property from a fire. Some examples would be lumberyards, bulk oil storage facilities, shopping malls, hospitals, theaters, nursing homes, schools, high-rise hotels/condominiums and large public assemblies — concert halls, stadiums, larger church sanctuaries, etc. Once these are identified, frequent visits by crews allow knowledge to be passed between shifts and volunteer personnel. Make good notes to go along with survey information. Note fuel loads within the building, detection systems or special processes used by the business.

Some of the items to look for that help both the occupants and firefighters are means of egress.

  • Is there enough room?
  • Defined?
  • Well-lit?
  • Is there proper door and lock hardware
  • Fire protection systems and extinguisher access (wet/dry system?
  • Preaction or deluge sprinkler systems, tested annually
  • Standpipe system unimpeded
  • Are there cooking systems on site (Class B or Class K? tested? Is manual activation accessible?
  • Are there gaseous systems on site — CO2, FM200 or other type of system? Where? Manual activation and/or automatic activation?
  • Hazardous material storage (inside or outside structure)
  • Electrical hazards (extension cord overuse, electrical panel clearance)
  • General housekeeping (the poorer = more fire hazards)
  • Plants growing at, on or near the structure — can lead to fire extension into the structure)

This is the basic information to performing fire prevention and preincident surveys. Noting what can happen with what we know to happen will save numerous lives and property, thus upholding our prime objective to save those same lives and property. Knowing the basics of buildings in our districts shows the effort of being more efficient and professional.

Stay safe out there!

(This is part one of a two part series.)

Captain Coffey currently serves as one of the training officers of the High Point Fire Department. He has been an instructor with the NC Community College system and the Office of the State Fire Marshal since 1990. He can be reached at [email protected].

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Issue 34.1 | Summer 2019

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