This post is part of a series sponsored by IAT Insurance Group.
Fires can wreak havoc on buildings and cause property damage to both residents and property owners and, in the most serious cases, death. Fires in other buildings in the United States increased by 22% in the 10-year period between 2011 and 2020, causing 95 deaths, 1,025 injuries and more than $3 billion in losses. 
Fires not only cause significant financial consequences for insurers but can have a significant economic impact on a community leading to job losses and business closures. For these reasons, fire protection and fire prevention are an essential part of building maintenance.
How to protect your building from fire
As fire is one of the many perils covered by a standard property policy, building owners must have their fire protection systems inspected regularly and confirm that the systems are compliant. Inspections can be performed by a structural engineer, but 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 inspection, testing and maintenance (ITM) to protect your building against fire.
Portable fire extinguishers
All commercial buildings must have wall-mounted portable fire extinguishers located along normal routes of travel in a facility to help fight a fire.
There are five types of portable fire extinguishers specially designed to help extinguish small fires:
- Class A fire extinguishers are for common combustible substances
- 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 metal fires
- Class K fire extinguishers are for cooking media
In areas with flammable liquids or cooking appliances, fire extinguishers should be spaced up to 30 feet apart at most; in areas with common combustibles such as paper, wood, or fabric, these units should be placed no more than 75 feet apart.
These devices should be inspected monthly to ensure they are in the correct location and in working order. Additionally, once a year property owners and operators should hire a professional contractor to inspect and certify your building’s fire extinguishers.
Commercial buildings – and sometimes smaller buildings – may have dedicated water pumps installed to increase the water pressure and flow supplied to automatic fire sprinkler systems.
Two types of fire pumps can be installed: electric-powered fire pumps and diesel-powered fire pumps. Both have different recommended maintenance requirements:
- Electric fire pumps should be initial tested (aka churn tested) once a month. This test does not flow water; it is initiated by a drop in water pressure and the pump runs for 10 minutes. Inspectors should record the pressure readings on the discharge and suction gauges from this test. Also, since each pump has a specified pressure rating, any pressure difference greater than 95% should be investigated and corrected.
- Diesel-powered fire pumps should be start tested (aka churn tested) once a week and run for 30 minutes without running 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 suction and discharge pressures for no flow (churn), 100% rated flow, and 150% of rated pump flow to confirm that your fire pump is operating as intended.
A functioning and well-maintained sprinkler system not only helps protect your property, but can also lower your insurance rates.
Automatic sprinklers for wet pipes and dry pipe automatic sprinklers are the two most commonly installed sprinkler systems. Both have similar recommended ITM schedules, although dry pipe automatic sprinklers have some additional ITM requirements because they are typically located in cold climates, unheated areas where freezing pipes can be a problem, and have more operating components including an air compressor to maintain air pressure in the pipes.
Here’s a breakdown of what should be done 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 number of samples of them to a lab for testing to confirm that they are working at the intended temperatures. Note: Sprinkler heads that pass the inspection must repeat the test every ten years. If your sprinklers fail the test, all sprinkler heads of that age and type must be replaced.
- Inspect the main shut-off valve once a week to ensure that the systems remain active and that there are no leaks or other obvious problems. Dry pipe automatic sprinklers must also have the air compressor inspected weekly to ensure it is working properly and to confirm dry valves have not tripped. During periods of extreme cold temperatures, inspect the dry pipe casing daily to confirm that the heating systems are also working.
- Hire a fire sprinkler contractor to perform an annual main drain test and record the static and residual water pressure results for comparison purposes. If unusually low residual pressure is detected, there may be a water supply problem that should be investigated further.
Note: Some jurisdictions may require quarterly testing, so confirm the testing frequency appropriate for your area.
Dry pipe automatic sprinklers must also test and record the dry valve actuation time. Additionally, a professional contractor should perform a full flow test every three years.
Several types of alarms are connected to sprinkler systems. Some of the most common alarm types include:
- Heat or smoke detection
- Manual traction stations
- Sprinkler valve sabotage
- Sprinkler water flow
- Fire pump running
- Fire pump water flow
At a minimum, a qualified contractor should test these alarms annually, although monthly or quarterly testing is preferred. In addition, it is recommended that these fire alarms are connected to a 24-hour central station monitoring service.
Taking steps to ensure your fire protection systems are regularly inspected, tested and maintained can help save lives and protect your building in the event of a fire.
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By John Holpuch
 US Fire Department “Non-Residential Fire Estimate Summaries”, 21 September 2022.
 University of Texas at Austin Fire Prevention Services “ABCs of Fire Extinguishers”, 2023.
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