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Risk management is the process of assessing risk as it applies to buildings and sites, general liability issues, and life safety inspections. Risk management is often overlooked because we assume people know how to prevent hazards and what to do in the event of an emergency. This discussion assumes that the original design of the building in question and any equipment within it have been approved by a governing agency. If you have any questions or doubts that there has been official approval of your building or a remodeled component, you need to contact home office management.

One focus of risk management is fire prevention, detection, and protection. There are two categories of fire protection systems: active and passive. Active systems are automated and only work during an emergency. We do not actively rely on them on a day-to-day basis as we do other systems, like the elevator or the boiler. We know the boiler works because we get hot water, and we know the elevator works because we use it rather than walking up flights of stairs. With active fire systems, however, we assume they are functioning if they are not leaking or alarming. This leads to a false sense of security and makes us complacent. The only time we think of these systems is when that 1 in a 1,000 emergency occurs. This situation then becomes life threatening if the system we rely on is not working when we need it most. This is why fire detection and protection systems must be checked regularly and kept in good working order.

Active fire system components include alarms, communications, sprinklers, fire extinguishers, procedures for boiler operations, and general fire prevention protocols.

Passive fire protection systems, on the other hand, are not actually systems in the true sense of the word. They are no more than the proper design of the physical structure. Some cities classify residential buildings as either fire-resistive or non-fire-resistive structures. This classification refers to the buildings design and materials, which ideally limit the spread of fire from one area to another. Design features are best left unchanged for either classification. In other words, structural changes should not be made before evaluating the effects the changes would have in case of a fire.

It is important to protect the rest of the building from higher-hazard areas such as boilers, laundry rooms, and maintenance shops. To reduce risk, keep doors leading to the higher-hazard areas closed. Doors leading to apartments, offices, stairwells, and mechanical and storage areas must also be kept closed. Never prop doors open in any area. Doors to higher-hazard areas must be equipped with self-closing and self-latching mechanisms. The mechanisms must be kept in working order. A good risk management program will include a periodic check of all doors. Before making any changes to the passive fire system, consult with a professional who can evaluate the effect of the change in the event of a fire.

Another area that is commonly overlooked is the decor and design of common areas. Most people do not consider the impact of changing the furniture or type of carpet. All materials must be in accordance with local codes. All the materials used should be chosen with fire safety in mind. We must be especially mindful of wall, floor, and ceiling materials in common areas.

Management is responsible for properly maintaining the system in common areas, mechanical spaces, and vacant areas. This task must receive top priority. These are not systems to be left until later for repair. A system that is not functioning as designed is a hazard to all residents.

The National Fire Alarm Code NFPA 72 specifies the inspection, testing, and maintenance requirements of these systems. Some of the provisions of NFPA 72 require testing by licensed contractors, but staff can perform a few of the inspections and tests.

For example, when a fire alarm system is to be out of service or impaired for any reason for more than 4 hours in a 24-hour period, we must:

  • Notify proper authorities (usually the local fire station).
  • Provide a fire watch to monitor the affected area. The watch should walk the affected area and be able to contact the fire department immediately in the event of a fire. If a watch is not available, the building should be evacuated.

Notifying occupants is a key element in the life safety program. Occupants that are hearing impaired need visible signals installed. At the communication point, a map is posted to help identify building zones, areas, and floors. Some cities require that all apartment buildings post a fire safety plan near the mailboxes, provide a copy of the plan to residents, and post evacuation procedures on the inside of each apartment door each year.

Smoke detector placement is very important. Smoke detectors are required outside each sleeping area and other areas defined by local codes. Most buildings have smoke detectors in common areas. Some cities require that carbon monoxide detectors be installed within 15 feet of each bedroom or sleeping area.

Before a new resident moves in, all detectors in the apartment must be inspected and tested. A record of this inspection and testing should be maintained.

The detection, alarm, and communication inspection and testing program should follow local codes and NFPA guidelines.

The most effective tool in extinguishing a fire is the automatic sprinkler system. These systems have a history of keeping a fire under control so that occupants are less likely to be injured. Sprinkler systems must be maintained in good working order with a complete inspection, testing, and maintenance program. It is very easy to forget or neglect sprinkler systems, but this can lead to disastrous consequences if the system does not operate in a fire situation.

If the sprinkler system needs to be impaired due to repairs, maintenance, or modifications, the procedures of the Fire Protection Impairment Program provided by the loss control consultant should be followed.

Most high-rise buildings have standpipes located in the building stairwells, which are for fire department personnel to attach fire hoses to without having to stretch long hose lines up many flights. Water for the fire main is supplied by a segregated portion of a water tank located on the roof. Fire engines provide a connection called a Siamese connection from a fire hydrant to a pipe that is located outside the building. Siamese connections and all standpipe valves should be inspected regularly.

Portable fire extinguishers must be located in the boiler rooms, employee locker rooms, gift or retail shops, bulk laundry areas, smaller laundry centers, maintenance shops, storage spaces, trash collection rooms, and common areas of the building. There are several types of fire extinguishers used in different fire situations. All fire extinguishers are to be inspected monthly by staff and annually by a licensed contractor.

Boilers create a fire as well as an explosion hazard. Buildings using boilers to provide building heat or hot water should have an established inspection and testing program. There should be a written procedure for the startup and shutdown of the unit that follows the manufacturers specifications. All affected employees should be trained on these procedures. All safety devices should be inspected and tested annually.

Rubbish and laundry chutes can also create a potential fire hazard to the building. A frequent problem found with rubbish and laundry chutes is a disabled automatic closing device.

The base point of the rubbish and laundry chute must be installed with an automatic closing door. The discharge door is originally installed with a fusible link designed to hold the door open. Common problems found during inspections include the fusible link being replaced with plain wire and the spring being removed from the door. Using a wire or disabling the door in any way is dangerous and strictly forbidden. Spare fusible links should be kept on the premises. The access door leading into the rubbish or laundry room on each floor must be self-closing and capable of latching shut. It is common to find the self-closing mechanism disabled, as residents and staff find them inconvenient. Thus, frequent inspections of the access doors on each floor must be preformed.

General fire prevention techniques include infrared surveys and written programs for work that poses a fire hazard.

Infrared surveys of electrical equipment should be performed periodically. Electrical equipment failure and breakdowns are leading causes of fires. A licensed contractor should perform an infrared survey as often as practical, but no less than every 5 years. You may need to do surveys more often if the building is experiencing frequent electrical problems or if there have been changes in the operational or load conditions.

Emergency lighting systems and illuminated exit signs provide protection for residents. These devices generally are powered by building 60-cycle power and have batteries that provide for a limited amount of illumination during a building power failure. We will discuss emergency lighting in more detail later.

A self-inspection sheet is a convenient means of verifying that all stationary equipment has been reviewed. This sheet is the documentation of your efforts to maintain the building. Inspection reports should be periodically reviewed to identify trends and can be customized to your building. It is important to document identified deficiencies that have not been corrected. The ultimate goal is to correct all deficiencies that may expose residents and buildings to loss.

General liability, for our purposes, is the exposure for damages resulting from events that occur on the property. We will discuss a very broad spectrum of issues arising from alleged bodily injury and property damage that occurs to non-employees. There are endless combinations of conditions that can cause injury or damage, so only some of the major points will be discussed.

This training is not intended to replace your legal staff. It is only provided to help you identify some ways that allegations of bodily injury and property damage can occur and some potential hazards to look for when doing inspections. For other issues, such as leases, evictions, fair housing, and sick building syndrome, among others, consult with legal counsel.

The first point we will discuss is something called attractive nuisance. This is defined as any novel device particularly enticing and potentially dangerous to children. These types of hazards are significant liability exposures to the property owner. The major attractive nuisance is swimming pools. Another is playground equipment. Swimming pools are the most significant, as the potential for death is very real. The evaluation and maintenance of pool protection devices is of the highest priority. A swimming pool checklist must be used for the inspection.

Another major hazard area is trips and falls. These are the most common types of incidents in the apartment industry. The injuries associated with this loss source can be serious, such as broken bones or contusions . Worn floor coverings, poor housekeeping, and inadequately maintained interior and exterior walkways, stairs, parking lots, and other common areas can cause this type of incident. Properly maintained lighting is a key factor in helping people identify trip hazards. The property checklist should note acceptable conditions. All personnel should work to identify and remove trip and fall hazards daily.

Slip and fall hazards are similar to trip and fall hazards in that floor maintenance is essential. Simply drying a wet floor is not sufficient. Slippery floor surfaces can be created from roof leaks, plumbing leaks, housekeeping operations such as mopping, and spills. In all cases, the condition should be corrected. The water source must be identified and corrected to remove the slip and fall hazard.

When contractors are used, management is responsible for their actions and the tenants safety. Contractors activities on the premise can cause bodily injury or property damage. Only contractors that have liability insurance of their own should be used. Proof of adequate insurance must be obtained from every contractor that performs work in or around a property. Care must be taken not to lend, or allow contractors to borrow, any building equipment or tools, especially ladders, scaffolds, or safety devices. Lawsuits frequently arise from claims that equipment failed to operate properly.

Security is also an area of liability concern. In some states, landlords are required to take at least minimal precautions to protect tenants against foreseeable criminal harm. Security is considered to have been compromised when it is proven that the criminal was an intruder in the building who took advantage of an entrance that was negligently maintained. Intercom systems must be maintained, tested, and quickly repaired when requested.

Key control is another security issue that should be addressed during each evaluation of liability issues. Apartment keys must not be labeled with the apartment number or as the master key. A code or encryption should be used to label keys and should be kept in a secure box accessible only to authorized employees. Resident records should be locked, and computer records should be encrypted so that only authorized personnel are able to read them. Follow an attorneys advice in regards to what type of violent/criminal activity notifications need to be passed on to the residents, the method of notification, and proper wording for such notifications.

The general liability issues inspection checklist is used to identify trends and document more ways to make a building safer. Room for additional comments/suggestions was left in each category. When doing your first inspection, question everything. Do not omit items because they are common sense or obvious hazards. When you find a problem during the inspection and correct it, check the NO box anyway and describe your correction.

Our last topic for discussion is the Life Safety Code. It defines means of egress as a continuous and unobstructed way of travel from any point in a building to a public way consisting of three separate and distinct parts:

(1) The exit access

(2) The exit

(3) The exit discharge

A life safety evaluation of a building does not consist of only checking exit doors; it must include the components of the egress system. Some of these components are:

  • Swinging or revolving doors
  • Stairs outside individual apartments
  • Stairwells designed to limit smoke movement
  • Horizontal exits, which are defined as protected passageways from one side of a building to another and have a 2-hour rated barrier
  • Ramps
  • Exit passageways, which are corridors at the bottoms of stairwells that do not open to the building exterior
  • Areas of refuge, defined as temporary staging areas used during egress
  • Fire escape stairs

Fire escape stairs have been grandfathered into the egress system but are not preferred. Other components that are approved but are not to be used by residents include:

  • Portable fire escape ladders
  • Alternating tread devices
  • Escalators

All components of egress must be maintained in working order at all times. Disabling or hindering any of the components can present serious consequences.

No matter how well-maintained the egress system, we have to be able to see it to use it. All means of egress must be properly illuminated. An egress system is of no good if you cannot find it. Criteria have been set using the light levels required for each type of location in the egress system. The proper lighting level has been designed into the system.

To ensure that proper lighting levels are maintained, replace the original lighting only with lights of the same wattage and in the same orientation. Without light, distance is extremely difficult to measure. Add smoke and fire, and a lit emergency sign may be what guides you to safety and makes the difference between life and death.

Emergency lighting systems must have a switchover time from regular power to backup power of 10 seconds or less.

Battery-powered lights must be tested manually every month for at least 30 seconds and annually for 1 hours. Remember that the signs are part of the system. Visually inspect signs, exit markings, and lighting every 30 days.

Now that we have checked the lights and signs and verified the power, we must be sure that the egress path is properly marked and that all signage is always in place. Visually inspect signage to ensure everything is still in place and legible. Keep in mind the following for marking egress routes:

  • Make sure signs are located, are sized, and are a distinctive color for visibility.
  • Make sure decorations and interior finishes allow good contrast to the signs.
  • Do not move existing signs without checking the applicable codes. There are specific rules for height and orientation of signs.
  • When making signs from stencils, make sure the size of the stencils is proper for the application.
  • It is just as important that a person know when a door is NOT an exit. The applicable codes may require a NO EXIT sign be set in place.

There is more to a life safety inspection than just checking exit doors. These national standards are modified every two years. It is important to stay current with the Life Safety Code as many changes are made in response to lessons learned from events in which lives were lost. This concludes our discussion of risk management.