Find the enemy before it finds you: A guide to fire code inspections
How to go beyond the “usual suspects” of inspections to seek out hidden violations
By Christian Sliker and Jim Clement
Some of the first recorded “fire codes” in history occurred in 64 A.D., after the Great Fire of Rome destroyed 70% of the city. These codes addressed widening of streets, restricted the height of houses, and required the buildings to be constructed of fire-resistant materials.
A lot has changed since then, naturally, but fire codes still serve a vital role in today’s fire service, with the goal of keeping our firefighters and citizens safe. While not all firefighters will perform fire code inspections, it is still a vital skill to understand, as fire crews are routinely in community structures and can flag potential violations.
Here we’ll address the importance of fire code inspections and review a step-by-step guide to properly conducting a fire code inspection within your community.
“But you’re taking jobs away”
But before we get into the meat and potatoes of fire code inspections, we feel it’s only right to address the concern uttered by some firefighters: “Inspections take away jobs,” meaning inspections can prevent fires, which can decrease call volume, with the perception of lessening the demand for service. In a sense, this is correct – and that’s a good thing! Fire code inspections help reduce the chances of a fire for residents, but that’s not all. Inspections serve an important role within the fire service that is often overlooked by our brothers and sisters in Job Town USA. Our job as fire code officials is to identify every risk that can cause harm or danger to our community and fire service members. By mitigating these hazards, we are taking the hidden dangers away from the scene and allowing our firefighters to provide a better and more accurate service.
Where do you start?
Now, let’s get down to the business of code inspections. First things first, try not to get overwhelmed. You should treat every inspection the exact same using a systematic approach to the property.
Whether the building is 100 square feet or 25,000 square feet, you should always start with a walk around of the outside of the building. Locate the life safety features and deficiencies that could affect operations. Some factors to consider:
- Is there an FDC and is it accessible, labeled and properly positioned?
- Is there a key box for firefighter entry, and are the keys inside correct?
- Are there any bushes or trees positioned near the building that could ignite and cause a fire?
- Are any exterior doors blocked by trash, debris, vehicles, dumpsters, etc.?
You get the point, but remember that fire code compliance isn’t only about the interior of a structure. A well-maintained property can be the difference between a quick fire attack and a delayed fire attack.
Go beyond “the usual suspects”
We all know the key components to look for during an interior fire code inspection: The old E.E.E – extinguishers, exit signs and emergency lighting. But is that it, is your job done?
Absolutely not. You have only keyed in on the visible tools that can help occupants escape and extinguish a fire. But what about going behind enemy lines and seeking out the true perpetrators? This is where a good inspection program can really help.
A good inspection program begins with a good working knowledge of the adopted fire codes for your jurisdiction, a detailed checklist of potential code violations identifying hazards, and a specific written plan to bring the property into compliance. Always remember, documentation and photos are a must. You need to have a record of these code violations, just in case compliance requires further actions, such as a summons and court.
A thorough inspection
Now that you have taken the tunnel-vision goggles off, you can begin to take a deep dive into the building and possible violations. The most important thing to remember is to work systematically through the structure. Start at the front door and move in one direction, covering every square foot. This will ensure you are not skipping over sections of the property and missing crucial fire code violations. Alongside the E.E.E.s, start to visually scan and identify things such as missing ceiling tiles, high-piled storage, exposed electrical outlets, non-functioning fire doors, etc.
As you move through the building, you might find electrical, fire pump and fire control panel rooms that each have multiple code violations. The International Fire Code is over 600 pages, with thousands of fire codes listed, so you could imagine how in depth you can get. Always remember, you are seeking compliance, and more often than not, the customer does not know they are in violation. Use the inspection as a teachable moment – and gain compliance through education. Help the customer find solutions to fix the violations, as this will build a positive relationship and promote the fire service within the business community.
An investment in safety
Fire code inspections are designed for occupant and firefighter safety. As we continue to push forward as a fire service, we need to continually search for better and safer ways to perform our duties. By performing fire code inspections, we are mitigating the hazards that threaten lives within and around a building. Fire code inspections are an investment into the safety of our brothers and sisters, and the only wrong way to do one is to not do one at all! So dust off those fire codes and start making positive changes within your community, always working toward the common goal of life safety.
About the Authors
Christian Sliker began his career with the City of Myrtle Beach (S.C.) Fire Department in 2005 and currently holds the rank of deputy fire marshal/captain. In August 2017, Captain Sliker completed FEMA’s Master Public Information Officer program, with his capstone project focused on messaging solutions for tourist-driven areas. During Captain Sliker’s time as public educator, the Myrtle Beach Fire Department won the Richard S. Campbell Award for Excellence in Public Education 8 years in a row.
James Clement began his career with City of Myrtle Beach Fire Department in 2002 and currently holds the rank of fire marshal/battalion chief. Clement is a member of the IAFC and serves on its Hazmat Committee. He is an ICC inspector and a certified fire marshal in the state of South Carolina.