The topic of vacant buildings seems minute in the scale of the Fire Code provisions, and the provisions can often be overlooked. However, vacant buildings, especially those of combustible construction, pose a hazard to adjacent exposures, fire fighters, and the community and can often be the scene for disastrous fires during the cold winter months. For example, 6 fire fighters in Worcester, Massachusetts, died on December 3,1999 fighting a fire in an abandoned cold storage warehouse. Two Chicago, Illinois, fire fighters died while fighting a fire in an abandoned warehouse on December 22, 2010.
Section 10.12, NFPA 1, Fire Code, requires that every person owning or having charge or control of any vacant building, premises, or portion thereof shall remove all combustible storage, waste, refuse, and vegetation and is required to lock, barricade, or otherwise secure the building or premises to prohibit entry by unauthorized persons. Reducing the fuel load in a vacant building (buildings used on a seasonal basis are exempt) is critical because, in the event of a fire, little or no combustible contents should contribute to the spread of the fire. In addition, vacant buildings are subject to vandalism and arson and, therefore, must be kept secure by placing substantial barricades on all doors, windows, and other openings at all levels where access can be gained.
All fire protection systems must be maintained in service in seasonal and vacant buildings unless otherwise approved by the AHJ. (With the approval of the AHJ, fire protection and fire alarm systems in these buildings may be removed from service, see Section 10.12.2.1) All fire protection systems, including fire alarm, sprinkler, and standpipe systems, and all associated waterflow and supervisory alarm systems must be maintained in a manner acceptable to the AHJ. The maintenance of the associated alarm systems and supervisory systems is important to ensure that they are monitored properly and have the ability to transmit alarms when needed.
Vacant buildings of totally fire-resistant construction that are void of any combustible contents and that pose no hazard to exposures might be exempt from maintaining fire alarm, sprinkler, and standpipe systems where approved by the AHJ. The AHJ may also require other systems or components pertaining to fire protection to also be maintained. This might include fire doors, fire barriers and other passive or active systems.
Finally, the AHJ has the authority to require an inspection and test of any fire protection system or fire alarm system that has been out of service for 30 days before restored back into service. Whenever a fire protection system is shut off for an extended period of time, an inspection and test of the system for system integrity are necessary before the system is put back in service. When any system is out of service, the potential exists for damage or vandalism that might not be detected until the system is tested.
Moral of the story...don't neglect vacant and seasonal buildings. Even though they may not be occupied, they still pose a threat to firefighters and the environment around them. Following the guidelines of the Code will help make sure these buildings stay on the radar and are properly maintained.
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