June 20, 2019
An uncontrolled fire can be extremely damaging to your organization, and while a fire protection system may be able to protect against many threats, impairments are an inevitable part of a fire protection system’s life cycle. For the safety of your organization and its employees, it is necessary to have a fire protection impairment program in place.
An impairment is any time that a fire detection, alarm or suppression system is out of service or unable to operate to the full extent of its intended design. During an impairment, the chances of a fire developing and causing major damage is greatly increased. The goal of a fire protection impairment program is to minimize the risk of a fire developing and spreading during an impairment while maintenance, repairs and tests are performed to the system.
There are two types of impairments: planned and unplanned, which are grouped into two different levels of severity: major and minor.
• Planned—The system is purposely put out of service for maintenance.
• Unplanned—The system is unintentionally out of service, and may be so without anyone’s knowledge.
• Major—The impairment lasts more than ten hours and/or affects multiple systems.
• Minor—The impairment lasts for fewer than ten hours and is limited to a single system.
When an unplanned impairment is discovered, accurately determining its severity is crucial to understanding how to handle the impairment. When scheduling an impairment, such as for routine maintenance, it’s important to limit the extent of the impairment as much as possible, aiming to make it a minor impairment so that the threat of fire damage is lessoned.
Roles and Responsibilities During Impairments
Ensuring safety and efficiency during an impairment requires a great deal of work, planning and coordination. To be prepared for an impairment, organizations should develop a written program, assign responsibilities to staff and train employees in the procedures to be followed during an impairment. The written program should outline exactly what to do before, during and after an impairment based on its type and severity, as well as assign and detail the role and responsibilities.
Commonly, there are two primary roles needed during an impairment: an impairment supervisor and a fire watcher. Responsibilities should only be assigned to supervisor-level staff, with impairment supervisor responsibilities going to a safety manager. There should be a primary and alternate impairment supervisor for each shift.
Impairment supervisor—The impairment supervisor’s job is to implement and manage the fire protection impairment program. They take care of scheduling planned impairments and implementing the plan during unplanned impairments. The impairment supervisor must also minimize the impact of the impairment by considering the unique factors of the situation and keeping as many effective fire protection systems online during the impairment as possible. This person is also responsible for notifying all relevant personnel, departments and agencies of the impairment, including the fire watcher.
Fire watcher—The fire watcher’s job is to work with the impairment supervisor to ensure that conditions during the impairment are as safe as possible, and to report any unsafe conditions to the impairment supervisor. As part of this, the fire watcher is in charge of and should be fully trained on using temporary fire protection, such as fire extinguishers and water hoses, which they should keep at the ready in the area with the impairment for the duration of the impairment. This person should be very familiar with the impairment program, the facility and the procedures related to sounding a fire alarm.
Managing the Impairment
Before an impairment period, or upon discovering an unplanned impairment, the impairment supervisor should obtain a copy of the organization’s fire protection impairment program form and fill it out. This form must be updated as progress is made to include further details of the impairment and repair process.
The following persons and organizations should be notified in the event of an impairment as soon as possible:
• Insurance company or companies
• Local fire department
• Safety manager, or relevant managers and supervisors
• Building owner or their designated representative
Prepare the area to reduce the risk of a fire as much as is possible. Cease all processes that may be hazardous, and relocate all combustibles from the impaired area. Ensure that fire protection systems are working in all but the smallest area necessary to carry out maintenance during the impairment, and have manual fire extinguishers and other fire protection alternatives at the ready.
Display a fire protection impairment permit during the duration of the impairment and issue a hot work permit if any operation involving open flames, sparks or excessive heat is necessary. Maintain a continuous fire watch throughout the impairment and work continuously until systems are restored, keeping the impairment time as short as necessary. In the event that an impairment lasts longer than a single shift, have a formal handover procedure in place to ensure an efficient transition and continued safety. Supervisors taking over should be made fully aware of the details of the situation and the precautions in place.
When repairs are complete, restore the fire protection systems and test to ensure that they are fully operational. Once operational status has been verified, notify the local fire department and insurance company that the impairment period has ended. Lastly, finalize the impairment form and keep it filed for at least one year, as it may need to be referenced at a later date.
For more information about protecting your organization from a fire, reach out to your friends at Garrett-Stotz Company.