Fire safety steps for high-rise building owners

How to heighten safety during a planned fire alarm system outage
Monday, February 13, 2017
by Jason Reid

A recent fire in a Toronto high-rise apartment building has put the spotlight back on fire safety after numerous residents had to be rescued by Toronto Fire Services. Though no injuries were reported, the incident is a reminder that Fire Safety Plans are critical—especially when building fire alarm systems are rendered inoperative due to repair and maintenance projects.

As most building owners are aware, when undergoing a fire panel replacement project or general system repair, a building’s fire alarm equipment must be temporarily disabled for a scheduled period of time. Typically this means the building’s smoke detectors, manual pull stations and the audible sound for the fire alarm is shut done while the maintenance work is completed. But, as the recent incident highlights, these planned fire alarm system outages require extra precautions must be taken to ensure occupant safety.

Emergency procedures: implementing a “Fire Watch” program

Required by law, building owners are responsible to have an approved building Fire Safety Plan. Fire Safety Plans are designed to provide occupant safety in the event of a fire; to provide effective usage of the building’s fire safety features; and to minimize the possibility of fires. It is this plan that provides emergency procedures, preventative maintenance requirements, and instructions on what to do during a system failure or planned system outage.

Whenever a system is disabled, the building owner is required to ensure that a number of safety steps are implemented. One of those measures is a Fire Watch program. A Fire Watch is the term assigned to an individual (or individuals) dedicated to watching for signs of fire and reporting them. In essence, a physical person or persons must take the place of the detection and alarming equipment during a system outage.

Typically a Fire Watch dictates that the building is patrolled hourly on a 24-hour basis until the fire alarm has been restored to normal operating condition. Patrols are required to be documented in detail at intervals depending on the hazard and impairment. This documentation must be provided to the fire department upon their demand, and remain onsite as evidence of the active Fire Watch.

All common areas, public corridors, stairwells, mechanical/machinery rooms, electrical rooms, service rooms, parking garages and offices are to be patrolled during the Fire Watch. As the Fire Watch typically does not have access to residential suites, residents must also be notified in advance. Patrols are required to be documented in detail at intervals depending on the hazard and impairment, or at the minimum, follow the direction in the building’s Fire Safety Plan for frequency of patrols.

Resident notification

During planned, prolonged outages for repairs and replacements, such as a fire panel upgrade, tenant notification must be posted at all entrances and at every pull station in the building. The notice must clearly state the problem, and expected time of repair—including any special procedures to follow in the event of an incident.

Equipment required for a Fire Watch

In order for a physical person (or persons) to take the place of the alarming equipment during planned outages, the Fire Watch patrol must be equipped with equipment, such as a blow horn, a working cell phone to call 911, a flashlight and rapid access to a fire extinguisher. Your Fire Safety Plan, may or may not contain the above detailed information – but it should. A Fire Safety Plan is also designed to provide building owner and residents, guidance in code and best practices in resident safety.

Fire department notification

In order for your Fire Watch to effectively communicate with the fire department in the event that they do find fire, they will need a working cell phone with which to call 911. This cell phone should not be for personal use, but for emergencies only.

It is important to also note that anytime a life safety system is to be shut down for a period over 24 hours, the local fire department must be notified in writing. Fire departments need to know if they are responding to a building with decreased fire protection so that their tactics and level of response may be appropriate. In addition, at time of notification, fire departments may direct special provisions to the building owner, and even request that the fire safety plan be revised to consider the new plan to be approved prior to any work commencing. This is up to the Authority Having Jurisdiction.

Notification of Persons Requiring Assistance (PRAs)

Ontario Fire Code requires building owners to maintain lists of persons who may require assistance during evacuation. This list is provided to arriving fire crews upon their arrival when responding to a fire alarm, and the list of PRAs is required to be included in the building’s Fire Safety Plan.

Persons requiring assistance during a building evacuation may be described as anyone who has reduced mobility, a speech, hearing or visual impairment, or a cognitive limitation—regardless of whether or not these conditions are obvious, temporary or permanent. It is vital, that during a major fire watch, such as a planned fire panel replacement, that ‘Persons Requiring Assistance’ are advised of the impacts of that impairment. Keep your family of resident informed so that they may make clear decisions in the event of fire, or in the event they are manually notified of fire conditions.

Suspension of hazardous processes

There are many other areas addressed in a holistic Fire Watch program, including the restriction of ‘hotwork’ during the system outage. This prevents building staff, contractors and service providers from doing any work or repairs that result in a higher fire risk, such as work involving heat or spark.

Recent media coverage of high-rise fires within the Greater Toronto Area have highlighted the lack of resident awareness of building emergency procedures, including procedures for persons requiring assistance during evacuations. Building resident information remains an ongoing issue. In summary, property managers should ask themselves: Have I communicated my building’s “approved” building emergency procedures to my tenants this year? If the answer is no, then you certainly should.

Jason Reid is Senior Advisor; Building Safety for National Life Safety Group, a Canadian Consultancy firm specializing in residential high-rise buildings. Jason is a firm believer in the sharing of best practices for the betterment of the industry and is available directly at

2 thoughts on “Fire safety steps for high-rise building owners

  1. Would you not require a new system to be fully installed before removal of the old system, or possibly a floor by floor renovation. Does Toronto allow a system to be removed before installation of a new system.

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