Reopening considerations for commercial high rise buildings
By Jason ReidFeatures Fire & Life Safety Opinion
Fire safety and code compliance are significantly impacted as commercial high-rise building managers in Toronto plan to implement their COVID-19 reopening programs.
The landscape of occupancy in office towers has changed dramatically with “work from home” programs, demanding additional safety precautions from both building owners and tenants. The following reviews some of the current concerns, considerations and recommendations to move forward with a fire-safe building.
Work from home has caused outdated Fire Warden Programs
Tenant fire wardens are an integral component of the fire safety team within a commercial building. With the current reduced workforce, tenant employees who were previously assigned as fire wardens in their workplace may not be returning to the office.
Fire wardens are an extension of the building’s supervisory staff often found in the building’s fire safety plan, and search tenant workspaces during building evacuations so this role is not to be taken lightly. Building tenants need to review and/or redevelop their fire warden teams to ensure the safety of their employees within their own tenants spaces. In addition, building owners are required to ensure those fire wardens are trained on the building’s emergency procedures.
The importance of a fire warden’s role was underscored recently in Hamilton, Ont., when a man was left behind during an evacuation of a retirement home due to COVID 19. The resident was discovered hours after the evacuation — the following night — after his family raised concerns over his whereabouts.
Employers within commercial high rise buildings — and retirement homes — are required to appoint fire wardens and/or supervisory staff within their respective work areas, and train them on the building’s approved emergency fire and evacuation procedures. Their role is vital, to ensure no one is left behind, and provide valuable information to both building staff and arriving fire crews.
It’s recommended that building owners engage tenants in their reopening plans to ensure fire wardens are identified and accommodated for in their opening plans, so that the fire safety team can be re-established – prior to reopening.
“PRA Lists” are likely inaccurate
A Person Requiring Assistance (PRA) during a high rise building evacuation is anyone who has reduced mobility, a speech, hearing or visual impairment, or a cognitive limitation, regardless of whether these conditions are obvious, temporary or permanent. The building Owner is required to maintain this list, in partnership with tenants within the building.
The fire safety plan and PRA list, is available to municipal emergency services during building evacuations when they arrive onsite at your building. This fire safety plan identifies the fire safety team, their procedures, and provides vital information about the building to serve as a tool during the fire response. It’s important that fire services have accurate counts of who and where Persons Requiring Assistance are located within the building. Inaccurate information will lead to delays in rescue and can impact firefighter safety.
While this list is created by the building owner, and updated every 12 months, the development and collection of this vital information is a partnership required by landlord and tenants in the building. Due to work from home policies and individual tenant responses to COVID-19, this list is likely both outdated and inaccurate. It is recommended that buildings owners engage employers and tenants in the building in their reopening plans to ensure these fire code requirements are met. If these lists remain outdated, the risk of firefighters using outdated data during their response to the building may hinder both rescue operations and firefighter safety.
Fire Warden training moves online due to social distancing
With an updated fire warden program and the requirement to train all “Supervisory Staff” before being given any responsibilities in the workplace, building owners are now faced with “how” to deliver this code required training — respecting social distancing.
The requirements are clear under both the Ontario Fire Code and the Ontario Occupational Health & Safety Act, that Building Supervisory Staff, must be provided training – before being given responsibilities in the workplace. Each Fire Safety Plan is unique for that high-rise, and Fire Wardens (or Supervisory Staff, including building security and operations staff) must be familiar with their “approved” roles and responsibilities for that building.
Once the building fire safety plan is reviewed and updated as required for the calendar year, the fire safety team at the building must implement the plan through training. This is a requirement under the Ontario Fire Code 2.8 and the training is required for all building supervisory staff – identified in the fire safety plan.
While this training has been typically delivered onsite in person, due to COVID 19 restrictions this training will likely not occur in the masses it once did and that does not alleviate the owner from their requirement to complete the training.
Thankfully, in response to this, National Life Safety Group, is now offering this code required training – online – to support both the demand and need for this training — respecting social distancing. “We’re excited as the online training program has just achieved internationally recognized accreditation, and is certified to meet the requirements of the Ontario Fire Code by the Institution of Fire Engineers,” says Rebecca Gicante, in charge of special projects at National Life Safety Group. “We’ve been working on this project for over two years recognizing the need for accredited training in the industry.”
This training allows tenant fire wardens and building staff to not only understand the emergency procedures for the building, but to also have an understanding of what systems are installed within the building to protect the occupants. It is this understanding that will provide for a safer workplace for all involved.
Re-opening? Conduct a building life safety “health check”
Your commercial building is generally bustling with activity. The constant pedestrian traffic in and around the building provides for many eyes to routinely assist in identifying fire, safety and security hazards. This natural and additional surveillance has been significantly decreased, and creates both a gap, and opportunity for building owners to take steps to mitigate this reduction.
Building Owners are recommended to ensure a Fire Safety “Health Check” is completed within your building’s opening plans. It is recommended that building owners ensure daily, weekly and monthly (and annual) fire code requirements have been maintained during the reduction and the documentation is onsite – at the building, ready to provide evidence of those tests – as required by the Ontario Fire Code.
Fire Safety Procedures Impacted by COVID-19
Fire safety plans are required for all high rise commercial office buildings and they provide valuable information for employers, tenant fire wardens and building staff. Fire and evacuation plans are the foundation of a building’s risk management program.
Now is the time to complete your annual review and update your building’s fire safety plan for 2020 to address the new risk exposures due to COVID 19 and determine additional gaps in your plan.
The fire safety plan must be reviewed and updated every 12 months and should include a review of your building’s “Supervisory Staff” training program. It should also update emergency procedures to address questions on social distancing during evacuations, personal hygiene after evacuations, how to approach fire drills at the property due to COVID 19, the use of masks, and the building’s team response to an evacuation, including staff and tenant safety during re-occupation of the building and cleaning.
Jason Reid is senior advisor for the National Life Safety Group, and specializes in high-rise building, fire, safety and emergency management.
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