Fire protection systems, including detection and alarm systems, water supplies, automatic sprinkler systems, and special fire extinguishing systems, are considered impaired any time the system(s) are out of service, either partially or wholly, planned or unplanned. An impairment is any condition that affects the ability of the equipment to detect, control, or suppress a fire in the way it was designed. Examples include a closed sprinkler valve, a fire pump taken out-of-service, a water main shut off, or fire alarm devices by-passed due to trouble signals or faults on the system.

Impairments to fire protection systems are an inevitable event in the life-cycle of these systems, so it is important to have a plan in place to manage the impairment process, control potential fire hazards during the impairment, and minimize the duration of the impairment, by restoring protection as soon as possible.

Companies go to great lengths to install, test, and maintain fire protection systems, but it is all for not if these systems are out of service when a fire occurs. The results can be catastrophic, as the fire can grow out of control and result in property damage, injury, or worse – loss of life.

The best way to ensure these systems are in service and available to operate as intended in a fire, is to have a formal Fire Protection System Impairment Program in place to manage impairments until the systems are fully restored to normal operating condition.

Planned Impairments

Planned Impairments occur during scheduled maintenance, repairs, or building renovations. For these planned events, there is adequate time to implement temporary provisions or additional safeguards, and the impairment can be delayed until the necessary equipment, materials, supplies, and personnel are on-hand to minimize the duration of the impairment.

Unplanned Impairments

Unplanned impairments occur when fire protection systems are out-of-service due to damage or malfunction, such as a leak, or electrical fault that requires repairs to the system. These repairs must be accomplished under less-than-ideal conditions because the needed materials, supplies, and personnel may not be readily available, resulting in a lengthy impairment to critical fire protection equipment.

Responsibility for impairment handling should be assigned to a primary and alternate coordinator for each shift, weekend, and holiday. Training for coordinators should include the steps to take before, during, and after an impairment, including the following precautionary measures:

  • Notify the public fire department and insurance carrier at start and completion of impairment
  • Notify managers and supervisors so that appropriate actions can be taken in the event of a fire
  • Limit the number, scope, and duration of impairments
  • Stop hazardous processes until the protection system is restored
  • Provide a continuous fire watch during the impairment
  • Issue Hot Work Permit if required
  • Relocate combustibles away from the area where protection is impaired
  • Isolate the affected area of the system, and keep remaining protection systems in service
  • Complete repairs in a timely manner and restore protection upon completion of work
  • Verify, by testing, that the protection system is operational – For sprinkler system impairments, verify that the number of turns to shut the valve equals the number of turns to open the valve. After opening the valve, conduct and record a main drain test to verify water supply has been reestablished.

Case Studies

Not convinced that fire protection system impairments can be catastrophic? Here are two incidents that show just how devastating fire suppression system impairments can be:

  • A fire in a Georgia textile recycling plant in January 2007 caused $7.5 million in damages and killed one civilian, despite the presence and operation of the installed sprinkler system. The plant was 245,000 square feet (23,000 square meters), three-stories high and was built of heavy-timber construction. Due to an unknown cause, a fire broke out in a machinery room of the plant and spread to the rest of the plant, activating over 75 sprinklers. The sprinkler system was ineffective in controlling the fire, as it had not been maintained for quite some time. Maintenance deficiencies included improper sprinkler clearance, sprinkler risers modified to allow the use of garden-type hoses, and valves not fully open.
  • A July 2007 fire in Massachusetts caused approximately $26 million in damages. The fire occurred within a three-story former mill building of unprotected construction that was used by 56 mercantile businesses and covered 350,000 square feet (33,000 square meters). The fire was believed to have started after welding was completed in the basement the day before. The building was closed at the time of the fire. A full-coverage combination wet- and dry-pipe sprinkler system was provided and protected the area of fire origin. However, a control valve associated with the sprinklers in the area of origin was closed and padlocked. With the water supply to the sprinklers shut off, the fire was able to spread and quickly overwhelm the rest of the sprinkler system. No notice of the system shutdown had been provided to the fire department, as required.

Final Thoughts

When fire detection equipment, sprinkler systems, fixed extinguishing systems, or water supplies are compromised, the risk of injury or death to people, and the risk of property damage and business interruption resulting from a fire event increases significantly.

Fire protection systems can mean the difference between a minor incident and a catastrophic fire loss, but only if these systems are operational at the time of the fire. If you need assistance in minimizing exposure to fire protection system malfunction risks in your facility, our fire protection engineers can help. Fill out the contact form below and someone will contact you soon.[gravityform id=”1″ name=”Contact Us”]