Business owners ignore fire protection system at great risk

By M.L. Dehm For the Herald Business Journal

Purchasing and managing a business property is complex.

One of the most confusing aspects can be the monitoring and maintenance of fire protection and emergency systems and ensuring these meet ever-changing state and local regulations.

It’s too easy to procrastinate about these issues, because most business owners are focused on day-to-day operations, said Gary Holland, the Snohomish County branch manager of Smith Fire Systems Management.

“You don’t think about it because you are busy running your business,” Holland said. “If you pull up to your business and the grass is knee high, you know it’s time for a cut.

“But a lot of times the fire sprinkler system gets forgotten.”

His company handles the testing, monitoring and maintenance needs of more than 3,000 customers. These include large venues and corporations such as Safeco Field, Husky Stadium, and the Fred Meyer chain of stores throughout the Northwest.

Holland said he receives lots of questions from new business owners about how this works.

“If they bought the business and there is no property management company, usually their insurance provider can tell them what was taking place and then they can reach out to the company that does the maintenance,” Holland explained.

If renting, the owner should contact the property manager and request to go over the maintenance plans.

When a business starts up in a newly constructed building, the company that installed the fire and security systems typically seek out the owner and offer a proposal for routine inspections, testing and maintenance.

Alternately, the business owner can shop for a different company to handle these tasks.

Smith Fire Systems Management often receives calls from panicked business owners to come right away after they receive warnings from the fire department, insurance company or water district. That is something that usually would not happen with regular maintenance.

“The water department is right on top of backflows being tested,” Holland said. “Every building that has a sprinkler system has a backflow to prevent that sprinkler water from getting back into city water and cross-contaminating it.”

The way to catch and correct deficiencies before they become an issue that could hurt your business is with a regular maintenance and testing schedule from a reliable monitoring service.

Maintenance needs will vary depending on the type of equipment that is used by the business, the location of the business and local regulations and insurance requirements.

“They want to make sure that their sprinkler system and their fire alarm system, extinguishers and any kitchen hoods are inspected at a minimum of annually,” Holland said.

It also pays to ask the company handling the inspections as well as your insurance agent if there are any new changes you need to know about.

“For example, a lot of property owners don’t understand that their insurance requirements might be above what the state or the local jurisdiction has as its requirements,” Holland said.

Smith Fire Systems technicians often get questions from clients asking why their sprinkler or fire alarm testing has been scheduled quarterly when a casual conversation with a local fire official suggested it only had to be done once a year.

But if the insurance policy requires quarterly testing then that is what must be done to keep a policy active.

Not following the terms of an insurance policy means that the business is not covered in the case of a disaster.

“The first thing they do after a fire is they want to see the inspection reports,” Holland said.

That is not the time to find out that the business was not covered because of outstanding deficiencies or lack of compliance with the terms of the policy.

Holland said they often do what are called “lunch and learns” to sit down with business owners and help them understand what they need to do.

“This is fire and life safety so we take it very seriously. I think a lot of our customers recognize that,” Holland said.

He takes pride in the fact that his company does not sub out any of its work and offers 24-hour service and state-certified inspectors.

The company handles fire sprinklers, fire pumps, backflow devices, alarms, emergency lighting and other fire and life safety equipment for both commercial and industrial accounts as well as residential customers.