COVID-19: Re-opening considerations for commercial high-rise buildings and fire safety
June 16, 2020
By Jason Reid
Fire safety and code compliance are significantly impacted as commercial high-rise building managers in Toronto plan to implement their COVID-19 re-opening programs. Unfortunately, five out of five published re-opening guides for commercial high-rise buildings do not consider the many impacts to fire safety.
The landscape of occupancy in office towers in the Greater Toronto Area 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Work from home has led outdated fire warden programs
Tenant fire wardens are an integral component of the fire safety team in 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 buildings 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 the 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 ensuring no one is left behind and in providing valuable information to both building staff and arriving fire crews.
It’s recommended that building owners engage tenants in their re-opening 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 of the building.
The fire safety plan and PRA list is available to municipal emergency services during building evacuations when they arrive onsite at a 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 PRAs 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. 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 re-opening 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 while respecting social distancing.
The requirements are clear under both the Ontario Fire Code and the Ontario Occupational Health & Safety Act, that building (and workplace) 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. This is a requirement under the Ontario Fire Code 2.8.
While this training has been typically delivered onsite in-person, due to COVID-19 restrictions this training will likely not occur in the masses as it once did and that does not alleviate the owner from their requirement to complete the training.
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, who is 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 is designed to allow tenant fire wardens and building staff to not only understand the emergency procedures for the building, but to also understand 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.
Conduct a building life safety “health check”
Commercial buildings are 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 should ensure a fire safety “health check” is completed in the building’s re-opening plans. It is recommended that building owners ensure daily, weekly, monthly and annual fire code requirements have been maintained during the reduction and the documentation is 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 annual reviews and update building fire safety plans for 2020 to address the new risk exposures due to COVID-19 and determine additional gaps in the plan.
The fire safety plan must be reviewed and updated every 12 months and should include a review of the 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 National Life Safety Group, and specializes in High-Rise Building, Fire, Safety and Emergency Management.
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