By John Holpuch
Fires can wreak havoc on buildings, causing property damage to both occupants and building owners and in the most severe cases, fatality. Non-residential building fires in the United States spiked 22% for the 10-year period between 2011 to 2020, causing 95 deaths, 1,025 injuries and more than $3 billion in losses. 
Fires not only cause a substantial financial impact to insurers but can have a significant economic impact on a community leading to job losses and business closings. For these reasons fire protection and prevention is an essential part of building maintenance.
How to Protect Your Building from Fire
Since fire is one of the many perils covered under a standard property policy, building owners must have their fire protection systems regularly inspected and confirm the systems are up to code. Inspections can be performed by a building engineer, but the testing and maintenance should be performed by qualified experts such as specialty contractors and licensed fire engineers.
The following fire protection systems should undergo regular inspecting, testing and maintenance (ITM) to help protect your building against fire.
Portable Fire Extinguishers
All commercial buildings must have wall-mounted portable fire extinguishers placed along paths of normal travel throughout a facility to help in fighting a fire.
There are five types of portable fire extinguishers specifically designed to help put out small fires:
- Class A fire extinguishers are for ordinary combustibles
- Class B fire extinguishers are for flammable and combustible liquids
- Class C fire extinguishers are for electrical fires
- Class D fire extinguishers are for combustible metals fires
- Class K fire extinguishers are for cooking media
In areas with flammable liquids or cooking apparatuses, fire extinguishers should be placed up to 30 feet apart at a maximum; in areas with ordinary combustibles such as paper, wood or cloth, these devices should be placed no more than 75 feet apart.
These devices should be inspected monthly to ensure they are placed in the correct location and are in working condition. In addition, once a year building owners and operators should retain the services of a professional contractor to inspect your building’s fire extinguishers and certify them.
Commercial buildings — and occasionally smaller buildings — can have dedicated water pumps installed to boost the water pressure and flow supplied to automatic fire protection sprinkler systems.
Two types of fire pumps can be installed: electric-driven fire pumps and diesel-driven fire pumps. Both have differing recommended maintenance requirements:
- Electric-Driven fire pumps should be start-tested (aka churn tested) once a month. This test does not flow water; it is initiated by a water pressure drop and the pump is run for 10 minutes.
Inspectors should record the pressure readings on the discharge and suction gauges from this test. In addition, since each pump has a designated pressure rating, any pressure difference greater than 95% should be investigated and corrected.
- Diesel-Driven fire pumps should be start-tested (aka churn tested) once a week and run for 30 minutes without flowing water.
In addition, the pump manufacturer or a qualified sprinkler contractor should perform an annual full flow test on your building’s fire pumps. During this test, record the suction and discharge pressures for no flow (churn), 100% rated flow and 150% of the rated pump flow to help confirm your fire pump is operating as intended.
A working and well-maintained sprinkler system not only helps protect your property but could lower your insurance rates as well.
Wet pipe automatic sprinklers and dry pipe automatic sprinklers are the two most commonly installed sprinkler systems. Both have similarly recommended ITM schedules, though dry pipe automatic sprinklers have some additional ITM requirements since they are generally located in cold climate, unheated areas where freezing pipes can be an issue and feature more working components including an air compressor to maintain the air pressure in the piping.
Here’s a breakdown of what should be performed for both systems:
- Test water pressure gauges every five years and replace them if necessary.
- If your building contains individual sprinkler heads that are more than 50 years old, take a sample number of them to a lab for testing to confirm they function at the intended temperatures. Note: Sprinkler heads that pass inspection need to repeat the test every 10 years. If your sprinklers fail the test, all sprinkler heads of that age and type must be replaced.
- Inspect the main shut-off valve on a weekly basis to ensure the systems remain active and there are no leaks or other obvious issues.
Dry pipe automatic sprinklers also need to have the air compressor inspected weekly to ensure it is functioning properly and to confirm the dry valves have not tripped. During periods of extreme cold temperatures, inspect the dry pipe enclosure daily to confirm the heating systems are working as well.
- Hire a fire sprinkler contractor to perform an annual main drain test and record the results of static and residual water pressure for comparison purposes. If unusually low residual pressure is detected, there could be a water supply problem which should be further investigated.
Note: Some jurisdictions may require quarterly testing, so confirm the testing frequency appropriate for your area.
Dry pipe automatic sprinklers also need to have the dry valve trip times tested and recorded. In addition, a professional contractor should perform a full-flow trip test every three years.
Multiple types of alarms are linked to sprinkler systems. Some of the most common alarm types include:
- Heat or smoke detection
- Manual pull stations
- Sprinkler valve tamper
- Sprinkler water flow
- Fire pump running
- Fire pump water flow
At a minimum a qualified contractor should test these alarms annually, though monthly or quarter testing is preferred. In addition, it is recommended that these fire protection alarms link to a 24-hour central station monitoring service.
Taking steps to ensure that your fire protection systems are inspected, tested and maintained regularly could help save lives and protect your building in the event of a fire.
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 U.S. Fire Administration “Nonresidential Fire Estimate Summaries,” September 21, 2022.
 The University of Texas at Austin Fire Prevention Services “ABCs of Fire Extinguishers,” 2023.