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Why Your Buildings Haven't Met Fire Code for 30 Years
Jen L. Hoyt - Jen
Jen: I am the chief fire protection engineer for the state fire marshal’s office. In that role, I take on a lot of technical aspects of code writing and consulting with different industry groups to try to come to a good consensus code that’s reasonable and practical and meets the minimum level of life safety.
I will put a disclaimer in here: I’m also a full volunteer firefighter, so if you ask me for my opinion, it’s going to be to sprinkler everything and put smoke alarms and everything because that’s my personal opinion, but I understand it’s not always possible. We try to come together for the best possible level of life safety that’s reasonable in a building.
I’ve had some discussions in my table earlier about where Massachusetts falls in terms of our life safety codes and some of the downfalls of that are the financial implications to folks like yourselves, like landlords.
At the end of the presentation, I will have my contact information out there, and we do like to hear feedback from groups like this, and I’m glad to hear that you’re advocating for different policy changes and law changes because if you don’t speak up, nobody ever hears your perspective. It’s important that even if people don’t agree that at least everybody is heard.
The same thing goes for the building and fire codes. If you guys hear that there is some kind of code change proposed or something that you feel very strongly about, we want to hear from this group, so I definitely hope that you’ll write down my contact information if you have any questions or issues with your daily operations of your businesses, but also in terms of new code changes that come out, please feel free to contact me and we’ll try to pull everybody together and kind of come to some kind of agreement.
We have more than 50 people in this room. For the fire code, there is a requirement, so just go through the safety aspects. The two exits are in the back of the room, and you do have sprinklers in this building, which is excellent and a fire alarm system, so if you hear the alarm, please come out to the parking lot in a nice, calm manner. I think we’re going to save questions until the end, but you do have a notepad, so make sure to write them down or take them if we have some time.
I’m going to talk about smoke and heat detection requirements in Massachusetts and I was asked specifically to come and talk about Mass General Law 148 Section 26C. Specifically that applies to pre-1975 buildings with six or more dwellings. That’s very limited in scope to what it applies to. The interesting thing about is that that law can be applied at any time. It does not get triggered by a sale or transfer of property.
If your building is noncompliant, that law can be enforced by the head of the fire department. It's important to understand what those regulations are, and if you are noncompliant to start thinking about capital planning and how you might come into compliance. Typically, the fire department is very reasonable that they understand that money doesn’t grow on trees. They want to work with you to find a way to bring the building up to compliance in the right way.
The code and the laws are a little bit confusing on how they use the words “alarms” and “detectors.”
Just to clarify it, an alarm is what you might have in a single-family home. It’s the device that you can go to a big-box store like Home Depot or Lowe’s and buy off the shelf and stick it on your ceiling. Sometimes, they are hardwired and you put the wire, plug it into the back of the device; sometimes, they’re battery powered. That’s typically an alarm.
When we talk about a detector, we’re talking about a commercial system where the detector talks to the panel. Typically, detectors have a bigger aptitude for technology. You can change the sensitivity to smoke on them. They’re usually more expensive and they’re part of a system. The law doesn’t necessarily adhere to that definition distinguish, but we’re going to try to do that in this presentation.
The next thing we’re going to talk about is system. You think of a package at the big-box store that says, part of a system. What they mean is that there are other parts; what we talk about in the code is being part of a system is a listed system, so something that’s designed and tested to work together is a whole system.
When we look at the building and the fire codes, we consider the building to be a system. If you have a building that’s newly constructed and it has detectors in it or smoke alarms in it, and it has [unintelligible 0:05:12] and it has [unintelligible 0:05:14] valves, the fire is going to spread between the apartments. If the tenant leaves the door open, the smoke is going to move through that building. The system is compromised, so having self-closing doors is part of that system. We might not think that’s important aspect of the building code, every little piece works together, so if you take one piece out of it, you need to put something back in to help make that system more functional.
This is my disclaimer slide. I’m trying to put this in layman’s terms and not put you all to sleep. If you do always go back to the actual code language, if you do have a legal question, and I’m certainly a good resource for interpreting that, specific to a specific case or property.
The language of 26C applies to buildings not covered under 26A and 26B, so we’re going to talk about those. 26A, if a high-rise building that has an automatic sprinkler system, so probably doesn’t apply to anybody here. 26B is a low-rise residential building constructed after 1975. In Massachusetts, we have a very large number of buildings that are older stock, built prior to 1975, and that cutoff is important because in 1975 is when we adopted the first building code. Theoretically, everything built after 1975 would be attached to a building code. As long as you don’t undertake substantial renovations, whenever that building code required, would be enforceable. you have to maintain it to what it’ constructed under, but if it was pre-1975, it’s a Wild West; people can do whatever they wanted and we want to make sure there’s at least a minimum level of life safety.
This is where 26C comes in. It applies to “Apartment houses containing six or more dwelling units, hotels, boarding, lodging houses, basically anything that has six or more dwelling units in whatever format which are not a high rise, which were constructed prior to 1975. It must be equipped with automatic smoke or heat detectors as provided by the fire code.
The head of the fire department enforces the provisions of this section and is not attached to sale or transfer. It can be enforced at any time.
I think you guys might get copies of the flyer as soon as you [unintelligible 0:08:02] something with that.
The law came into effect in 1989, so it’s been around for a while, and when it was published into a law, there was a grace period where people were given a certain amount of time based on he population of the town or city that the building was located in to come up to compliance. The last big [unintelligible 0:08:24] was 1994, so every building should be compliant with these regulations at this point.
We know that’s not the case. Usually, we find it when there is a sale of a multifamily residential building from a family ownership to somebody who’s outside of the family. Typically, the fire department may not have a reason to go in there and kind of certify that the building is compliant if it just gets passed from family member to family members, but then when it goes through a real estate transaction, typically that’s when the problems are found. We do not like coming in there a couple of days before the transaction is supposed to happen and say, “You need to put in a full fire alarm system.” That’s not a good place for the fire department to be in, so hopefully, you go back to building, take a look at it and see kind of where you are.
Luckily, because it’s pre-1975 homes, buildings, a lot of them have been brought into compliance where there’s a renovation that’s done. If you’ve done a substantial renovation to your building, changed a lot of walls around, changed how the dwelling units are configured around the space, the building code might have required you to bring the building up to compliance. If it’s been substantially renovated and you’ve done a lot of work and touched the fire alarm system and kind of moved it around and put more devices in, then it’s probably compliant. If you haven’t done anything to the building in a very long time, that’s where you should be a little bit concerned.
When this law came into effect in 1989 up until 1994, in order to get some of these buildings through, some of them were partially grandfathered, so there might be some written or otherwise documented approval by the local fire department. We went into one building in Berlin where the way that the fire chief enforced the code was a very specific way, a very specific system and it wasn’t totally code compliant. It was about 90 percent code compliant but because the fire department approved that system at the time, we’re not going to require that building to come all the way up to the compliance. It was approved at the time.
We had this very long battle back and forth, kind of talking to the landlord and trying to move things as quickly as possible to not hold up the sale. Then finally, I don't know how the message got through but I think I was on the phone with them, and I was like, “The fire department just needs some paper, you have anything. “
He’s like, “Oh, these building permits?”
“Yes, those building permits are exactly what we need, but I didn’t think that we can have them, and Berlin had a fire in their the townhall, so the records were damaged. It ended up with a happy ending and we got that permit and that’s exactly what we needed. It had the information right on there. It was perfect. I’m glad we could resolve that. But it’s not always the case. When that comes up, we’re always the resource to kind of the moderator between the fire chief that’s in the position now and the fire chief that was in the position in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
The regulations, like I said, you always go back to code, the regulations are in the Comprehensive Fire Safety Code, which is the Fire Safety Code from Massachusetts. There’s been a Massachusetts amendment. We have lawyers in our office that write regulation and sometimes it’s confusing for me to read it, so we do summarize it.
Here, like I said, give me a call if you’re confused, but typically you need a fire alarm system for the common areas. One of the space where tenants can go into, typically your stairways, your basements need a fire alarm system. Like I said, in the very beginning, a fire alarm system is going to be a panel that has notification devices that blare throughout the building, which makes sense. If there is a fire in the stairs, everybody who uses that stair should probably know there is an issue and start getting out of the building either through that stairwell or another one. It’s important to kind of think about why, but that’s why.
The system needs to be monitored, which is a requirement that’s for pre-1975 homes specifically when it’s six units or more. That’s specifically because there has been advances in construction from the 1900s to 1975, so we’re trying to kind of bridge that gap a little bit.
Then individual dwelling units, you have to have to have single and multi-station interconnected smoke alarms, so you would need that. Anyways now, in any dwelling unit, you want to have a similar system that you would have in a single-family home where you have smoke alarms, which are the little individual units are all talking to each other.
If you burn toast in your kitchen in your apartment, it turns on only the alarms in your apartment. If you’re burning a couch in your apartment and you open the door to go into the stairway and smoke goes into the stairway, then the whole building alarm system goes off. It kind of makes sense. Like I said, if you’re burning toast in your apartment, you don’t want to wake up all your neighbors, but if you’re putting smoke in the hallway because there’s something that’s going on in your dwelling unit, everybody needs to know and everybody needs to get out. That’s kind of the mentality behind it. There’s also a requirement to put manual pull stations within 5 feet of the exits.
If anything is going to be installed, as part of the code, even though the law came into effect in the ‘80s and the ‘90s, the way that it’s installed, the way that we wire things has to be compliant with current code. The locations are laid out very clearly in our fire code, but then you need to have an electrician come in and do all the wiring and make sure that everything is complaint with how the technology is today.
That’s like the meat of 26C and I went through it very quickly. I do want to talk about this, but we certainly have time for questions. I do want to talk about maintenance systems because it’s one thing to make your building as compliant as possible, but then if you walk away and the system falls into disrepair or a racoon chews through a wire, that system is now compromised.
It's important to make sure that you’re regularly checking the fire alarm system and compliant with the code for when those annual inspections and biannual inspections should be occurring. It is the responsibility of building owners to maintain the buildings especially now based on some of the recent events that have transpired in Worcester and some other fires, it's important for building owners to recognize that making sure the building is compliant is one thing but making sure it’s space compliant is a very important task.
As we look at it, everybody here, the fact that you’re in this meeting, I hope I’m not talking to you, but those people that are not here in this meeting that are not part of these groups and don’t go and try to be certified and take part of the local business organizations. Those people that kind of just live out of state and don’t necessarily maintain their buildings, that’s what the issue is, and I know that, so I’m preaching to the choir a little bit but hopefully if this group advocates for fire safety, within this group, then we can start to change the way the industry has view it and have tenants look for a level of fire safety in the buildings that they’re living in and choose good landlords over those slumlords.
When you have smoke and carbon monoxide alarms in your dwelling units, they typically have to be replaced every 10 years, and that goes for single-family homes as well. My parents had a device and it was yellow looking. I’m like, “Mom and Dad, you cannot have a fire in your house because people will find out that you’re my parents, so you need to take that down and replace it.”
Jen: After about 30 months of me telling them exactly what the requirements are and then going to the big-box stores and sending them pictures of the devices that they had to buy, they finally did. But I don’t think they replaced it since my brother was born, so I was like 25 years old.
But typically, now the new devices have an end-of-life beep. It’s an annoying beep that goes off so long. It should last for seven days unless it’s replaced. That’s telling you that the device is at the end of its life and if you take the device off the ceiling, you can look at it. It should have a date stamped on the back; if it doesn’t have date stamped on the back, it’s probably more than 10 years old and needs to be replaced.
That’s a pretty easy one to look at. Definitely if you have annual inspections of your tenant space and your dwelling units, you kind of go through it, just figure out when the device needs to be replaced.
Carbon monoxide lifespan is about five to seven years. They’re a little bit less because the technology is a little bit more new; the newer devices have 10-year lifespan but it kind of depends on when they were installed, so those might start beeping before your smoke alarms.
If you have a fire alarm system, it should be tested annually and you should really have a fire alarm company come in, do a full report, test everything. A report has to be available for fire official if they request it and it’s becoming more prevalent for fire officials to request it, so it’ nice to kind of have the company that you have a contact with, that you’re currently meeting.
There’s other things as well, making sure that the egresses are clear, that people are keeping their apartments clean and making it a safe living environment and all of that, which doesn’t really go into this. But like I said, it’s a system. You kind of perpetuate this idea of fire and life safety and let the tenants know how important it is that their alarms are working and within the device lifespan, then they start thinking a little bit about not taking the device off the ceiling if they burn their food and making sure that it’s beeping, they call you, so you can come and replace the device or whatever the case is.
That is my little soapbox on that. My contact information is the very bottom one. I’m a fire safety protection engineer. I take on a lot of different technical aspects for our agency. But we do have two engineers that are in the office and they have different areas that they cover. If you have a very complicated question and you need one of us to come out and kind of take a look at the building and walk through the fire department, those are the two people that you would contact.
So, do I have any questions? Oh, boy?
Male Audience 1: [unintelligible 0:20:20] information to everybody that’s in here, I think the Red Cross will do your entire house, smoke and fire, free. All you got to do is approach them and they’re on Plantation Street. I had it done last year. They connected all the apartments, fabulous job.
Jen: All right, just to repeat that for people. You can look into the Red Cross program to see if they can come in and do your building for free. I think there might be some restrictions on what they may or may not do, but it certainly is a good resource.
Male Audience 2: Yes. There’s restrictions and it’s not hardwired.
Jen: Okay, so there’s restrictions and it’s not hardwired. Dep