Condo and HOA Fire Inspections

By
Real Estate Services with Buildium.com

By Ken Kmet, Condo Voice, Clearwater, FL

Say the phrase “fire inspection” and every property manager, board member, and maintenance engineer will make a face. It is that annual visit to your property by the local fire marshal. It is usually unannounced, may not necessarily happen every year, and often comes with a price tag to repair, fix, label, identify, upgrade, add, test, certify, or change out something. Even though you have complied with the previous inspection report, and did what was asked then, that doesn’t mean something new will not be written up this year. You may feel like you are being picked on. Don’t; this is a very common thing. Things that change from year to year include new codes, new personnel, new technology and equipment, new facilities, new use of the facility, and new laws. Buildings and equipment age between inspections, and although something may seem to function well enough for you and the residents, that doesn’t mean it is functioning well enough to contain or distinguish a fire or evacuate the residents.

What gets inspected? Virtually everything within your building, and outside, is subject to inspection. Anything that could cause a fire, fail to contain a fire, fail to help fight a fire, or restrict an exit to safety during a fire is a candidate. A partial list of those include signs, fire extinguishers, fire pumps, alarm systems, alarm monitors, fire pull stations, horns, lights, smoke detectors, fire sprinklers, fire hydrants, stairways, railings, and generators, to name a few. They all get inspected annually themselves and certified to be operational by their designated service companies. If the inspector does not see a tag that is current, then it gets red tagged, sometimes literally.

The above list is just the equipment. Some of the other concerns of the fire inspector include storage of flammable, combustible, and incompatible liquids and/or materials. Some routine violations include gas cans in an enclosed room, such as a maintenance or storage room in a condominium or HOA. The inspector looks for combined storage of chlorine for the swimming pool with gas, paint, cleaning supplies, or other maintenance materials. It is critical to have fire rated doors, and signs, on these rooms to contain, and to indicate to the fire fighters what is “behind the door” that feels hot or smoke is coming out of.

Does your community association have a grille? Do you use LP gas cylinders to fuel it? Keep your LP, gasoline, chlorine, acid, and janitorial supplies separated and in different approved rooms, containers, or areas. Most of what an inspector will find is where people just don’t use common sense. If something even looks like it might be a safety concern, it probably is. So be proactive, and be preventive. Don’t wait for the fire inspector to write you up. Practice safe use and storage of all of these chemicals and supplies. Whoever is in charge of managing your facilities should conduct inspections quarterly. People move things, store things, and use things without your knowledge or permission. Just because something is safe today doesn’t mean those conditions will remain that way.

The other people who will have sad faces will be the insurance agent and company. Improper storage of chemicals and supplies, and failure to keep the buildings and facilities up to fire codes, is putting not only life, but also property, at a risk level they will not want to insure, and may, after forensic studies results are in, deny a claim for damages. There is language I have found in virtually every insurance policy and condominium and HOA covenant, declaration of condominium, and supporting recorded documents: “Nothing shall be done to increase the insurance risk to the property, the residents, the units, or the facilities.”

Containment and possible causes for a fire extend everywhere. A common area for problems is on the roof, which is usually difficult to access. Most often, it is on the roof where your air conditioning equipment is located and your dryer venting exists. Some A/C companies leave junk, old units, and electrical wiring, boxes, and connections to a sub-par level. Fire inspectors go there, inspect, and report on any conditions that may cause a fire, whether it is the associations or the unit owner’s obligation to correct it. If your dryer vents are not cleared, the fire inspector will insist these issues be repaired quickly. He or she doesn’t care who fixes it, just that it gets repaired, because failure to do so puts everyone potentially in harm's way.

There are always costs associated with fire safety and inspections. You should budget accordingly. Here is a list of common expense items virtually every multifamily community incurs each year:

1.  Fire extinguisher inspections, recharges, and certifications.

2.  Fire pump (if you have one) flow and pressure test, and certification.

3.  Fire hydrant flow test, and certification.

4.  Fire alarm test and certification.

5.  Generator or backup power test and certification.

6.  Fire sprinklers test and certification.

This is not intended to be a complete list of possible certifications need for your community, city, or state.  You may have other equipment or issues specific to your community.

The costs of each of these, of course, varies depending on what, if anything, needs to be repaired. But fire service companies are heavily regulated, require licenses difficult to qualify for and keep, and are a trade that carries with it very high liabilities for failure to perform. As a result, their hourly charges are pretty high. Inspections for each service can range from $200 to $500, plus cost of materials. The inspection for the fire marshal can range from $200 to $400 per visit. Return visits are usually much less, from $25 to $100.

Not directly related, but usually with shared resources, are your elevator services. There is a phone monitor, which is related to the phone line that monitors the fire alarm systems. This cost, as well as their inspection and operational license and associated fees, should also be included in your budget.

Once you have received your inspection report, generally you are given a week to a month to have the problems corrected. If it is a major expense, or something you have to get bids for, the inspector will give you more time, if you ask, and if you supply a letter explaining how and when the work will be completed.

There will be a re-inspection, and hopefully all is well. However, these days, there are charges for the inspections, and for each return trip. Most fire department budgets are running thin due to the struggling economy, and even though you may receive an extension, you can expect to be charged for each trip to your property.

The bottom line is, the fire inspector is there to protect lives and property. Everyone thinks, quietly, that it is a bother and an unwanted expense to have to keep up fire equipment to the latest standards. However, when there is a fire or an emergency, those that survive are very glad for the inspector, the fire department, and the EMS, and that the association spent the money to keep up the equipment that saved their lives.

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