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Author(s): Ron Cote. Published on July 1, 2017.

Why it takes a village to recognize and remediate safety hazards

BY RON COTÉ

In March, a new combination brewery, restaurant, and tavern opened in a small Massachusetts city not far from where I live. I visited the facility on its third day of operation, along with a friend of the brewer. The large, open-plan drinking and dining area, with window walls fronting onto two streets, was occupied by more than 100 persons. Patron ingress was restricted to a door opening on one of the two outside walls. The other outside wall had a door opening with an interior EXIT sign positioned above the door. The door was in-swinging, rather than outward-swinging; more importantly, the door was locked against egress.

I located the manager, introduced myself, and explained that the locked door should be unlocked immediately because the facility was not in compliance with the state’s fire code—NFPA 1, Fire Code—and could be endangering patrons. He unlocked it and we continued our dialog. He told me that the building had two exits, one from the dining area and one from the brewery. I explained the concepts of remoteness of means of egress, common path of travel, exit access through an auxiliary space, and the misleading message provided to patrons by the EXIT sign positioned above the locked door. The manager advised that he would leave the door unlocked and meet with the business partners. A few days later I learned from the friend of the brewer that the door would be replaced with one that swings outward and that it would be equipped with panic hardware that could not be locked against egress.

The story illustrates a common deficiency in the system by which fire and life safety hazards are identified. The system relies on the AHJ to visit each venue on a recurring basis, ideally during times of peak occupancy. This does not happen, to the degree needed, as AHJ resources are spread thinly. I addressed this problem as part of my May/June “In Compliance” article, where I looked at the recent “Ghost Ship” warehouse fire in Oakland, California, in which 36 occupants died. In that example, the building was used as an occupancy different than what it was permitted for, and authorities having jurisdiction were not aware of the new, unpermitted assembly use.

Additionally, the occupants who frequented the Ghost Ship would not have been expected to recognize the hazards that made the building unsuitable for use as an assembly occupancy—at least not to the degree that an AHJ would have noted. Occupants may have questioned the unconventional ingress and egress provided by a staircase comprised of stacked wooden pallets, but most didn’t know what to do with their instinctive concerns. In the days of pay phones, people referred to “dropping a dime” when they notified authorities of anything of concern, but in this case it appears that no one dropped a dime on the Ghost Ship to tip off the AHJ.

As part of NFPA’s move from a codes and standards publisher to an information services organization, staff members receive (or develop) and evaluate ideas for new products and services. One idea under initial consideration is for hazard identification training for persons who are not fire marshals or building officials but who get into buildings on a regular basis as part of their job duties. For example, health inspectors or staff from the department of youth services could be trained to identify and report critical fire and life safety hazards. The training would provide individuals with a framework for making quick assessments of key hazards as well as propose approaches for escalation and remediation at the local level. A similar awareness and training program could be established for company firefighters who would then be tasked with conducting low-risk inspections.

It takes a village to identify, report, and remediate fire and life safety hazards. Your input on hazard identification training and any other needed products or services is welcome. Please correspond with us via NFPA Xchange.

RON COTÉ is NFPA technical services lead for life safety.