You may not know what you don’t know, but that doesn’t make you any less responsible. Many building owners and facility operators will hire the least expensive fire system inspectors they can find, under the assumption that anyone who conducts sprinkler system inspections is qualified to do so. But, unfortunately, that isn’t always the case. Some inspectors meet minimum requirements, others do not. The quality of inspection and testing services can vary dramatically.

Unbeknownst to building owners, their fire protection systems can be damaged, impaired, or ineffective. An article from Fire Protection Engineering Magazine in 2008 highlighted the need for better fire protection system maintenance after a fire in 2007 caused $26 million in damages:

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.

Who is liable?

A fire that causes more damage than it should, normally rests on the shoulders of the building owners. They are ultimately responsible for the proper functioning of a building, but instead, they often rely on the fire department for guidance.

Many building owners think fire inspectors are responsible since they are the ones who enforce the fire code. The truth is that fire and building departments often lack the manpower needed to properly enforce fire codes. Regardless of the compliance or noncompliance with the codes, fire damage in a building is not the fire or building department’s fault.

Are there records?

The first thing insurances companies check are the inspection records. If a building’s sprinkler system inspection fails to meet state requirements, the building owner is responsible. There are two ways building owners can fail to meet state requirements: they either lack documentation or the documentation they have doesn’t meet state requirements.

Most building owners lack adequate documentation. The documentation is either incomplete or completely absent. A common scenario is only having yearly sprinkler inspections when the requirement for servicing is every 3 months.

Even with quarterly inspections, owners expect inspectors to do everything by the book, but they have no way of telling if the inspection reports are all that is necessary or not. Typically, low-quality, low-cost inspectors provide reports that lack detail. There can be major problems with the fire protection system, but a building owner would never know.

Our fire protection engineers conducted a recent walk-through of a client’s property that highlighted this exact problem. In a previous walk-through 10 years ago, we made the recommendation to remove masking tape that was noted on several sprinklers, the result of painting activities, since the tape could inhibit their function. Since then, they have had nine annual sprinkler inspections and the tape on the sprinklers was never identified in any of these inspections. The masking tape was still on the sprinklers when we recently reviewed the property.

How does this happen?

Part of the problem is awareness. No one complains about fire protection system malfunctions, but when fire protection systems don’t work, the results can be catastrophic. Too often, building owners don’t even know there is an existing problem. In the meantime, HVAC systems that keep people comfortable receive considerable attention because of the complaints that flood in when it isn’t working. Fire systems don’t have that sort of urgency with tenants; they just assume their fire protection system is being properly maintained and will work when the time comes.

Hiring high-quality inspectors at average market prices or above is a good start to avoiding many potential headaches. Ideally, building owners would also hire fire protection engineers to carry out periodic walk-throughs and review inspection, testing, and maintenance records for the fire protection systems to make sure their tenants and building stay safe.

By Jeff Harrington, CEO and Founder of Harrington Group, Inc.