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NFPA Impact: Who is managing your water supply?

Fire services across Canada have a major problem ensuring that there is an adequate water supply for fire fighting. Too few departments seem to address this or naively assume that others are looking after it.

September 17, 2008
By Sean Tracey

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Fire services across Canada have a major problem ensuring that there is an adequate water supply for fire fighting. Too few departments seem to address this or naively assume that others are looking after it. This is not unique to career or volunteer departments or it is a rural versus urban problem. The challenges are different but the underlying truth is the same – too few departments are managing water supplies for fire fighting.

Water supplies need to be managed in a community and NFPA 1201 Standard for Developing Fire Protection Services for the Public makes this clear. “The fire department shall carry out a continuing program of evaluation for all water supplies for fire fighting, maintaining a liaison with the water authorities on fire protection water supply matters.” This individual would liaise with water authorities and their peers in other communities, and perform regular assessments of existing water points or of the adequacy of the fire flows in the community. NFPA’s standard NFPA 1142 Standard on Water Supplies for Suburban and Rural Fire Fighting 2007 Edition also has detailed information on water supplies for these areas.

In many urban communities I have visited there is a general assumption that there are adequate water supplies for fire fighting because the building department addresses that when the buildings are built. The building codes state that there shall be adequate water supplies for fire fighting for every Part 3 building and for other high-risk Part 9 buildings. Yet, in training sessions I have done for building officials across Canada, no one has ever asked the engineer on record for the project for proof of this, nor does anyone seem to verify and document the requirements. Every project should be assessed to ensure adequate fire flows and residual pressure. This might be fine at the time of construction and for many years after but not when the fire flows are needed. By then, the engineer on record is long gone and the building records are misplaced. It then becomes a fire department problem, with fault for inadequate firefighting flows being placed on the department. This should have been avoided by insisting on proof of adequate firefighting flows in the design stages of the project. NFPA’s fire, building and life safety codes all require that water supply be properly documented to the authority having jurisdiction. Just because there is a municipal water supply source and a hydrant nearby does not mean that there will be adequate firefighting flows.

In rural areas where no municipal water supplies are available, the need to verify firefighting flow availability with the fire department’s capabilities is more critical. Too few building departments are doing this. Fire departments, regardless of location, need to be involved in the building planning stages to avoid these major problems. The building codes do have a provision that impacts volunteer departments. They state that where fire department response is not adequate then consideration should be given to installing sprinklers. The code does not define what adequate is, therefore, no one seems to be enforcing this provision.

In my opinion, any high-risk or essential facilities in a community without a tanker accredited program (assessed as equivalent to a municipal water supply), should be sprinklered. The above clause in the code permits this. A fire department is therefore within its rights to demand this and it would be acceptable according to the building code in any jurisdiction – it just needs to be enforced.

Communities, regardless of size, should also consider how they address their water-supply deficiencies. Standby fees can be levied that would cover the costs to maintain or improve these systems for their fire flows. All non-sprinklered properties, including residential properties, should have a fee levied based on their property values at risk. Properties that have fire sprinkler systems that meet the code should be exempt from these fees. The fees in municipal water supply locations go to funding the maintenance and inspection of the water mains that are in place to meet their demands. In rural areas not on municipal water, the fees go toward funding the construction and maintenance of dry hydrants, water supply points, water tankers and other apparatus necessary to meet these capabilities. 

NFPA has made available a free, downloadable training program on rural water supplies at www.firewise.org . In addition, NFPA will be delivering training programs across Canada with programs scheduled for the Alberta building officials and Saskatchewan fire chiefs in 2009. We are available to assist associations and communities with this essential matter. Two provinces, Alberta and Ontario, have guidelines on water-supply calculations on the Internet that should be reviewed. The resources are out there but we need fire departments to take a more proactive role and take control of water-supply needs – no one else is doing it for you.



Sean Tracey, P.Eng., MIFireE, is the Canadian regional manager of the National Fire Protection Association International and formerly the Canadian Armed Forces fire marshal. Contact him at stracey@nfpa.org


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