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Why supermarkets are moving towards centralized fire protection

In an effort to reduce the chance of incidents, grocers are increasingly turning toward centralization of fire safety system inspections, testing, and maintenance (ITM)

IMG_1505 4.jpgTom Parrish is the fire safety vice president of compliance and training for Telgian Engineering & Consulting. Parrish is also the newly elected president of the National Automatic Fire Alarm Association (AFAA), as well as a retired firefighter and Fire Marshal. With more than 25 years of experience in fire protection and emergency response, Tom is dedicated to positive change within the industry and serves on several National Fire Protection Association committees including the Committee on Loss Prevention Procedures and Practices, Signaling Systems for the Protection of Life and Property, and Emergency Communications Systems.

Supermarket owners and managers may not be fire safety experts, but they are tasked with keeping their properties compliant.

U.S. fire departments respond to an estimated average of 13,570 structure fires in stores and retail properties each year. And according to the Structure Fires in Stores and Other Mercantile Properties report, published by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), grocery and convenience stores have the highest frequency for fire occurrence at 28%. (NFPA, n.d.). Grocery and convenience stores also ranked third highest in fire losses across all types of retail properties.

The wide range of commodities stored in the average supermarket can impact the size and severity of these fires. A typical cross section of products may include mountains of highly flammable paper goods and discarded packing cartons, combustibles such as hand sanitizer, cleaning products and lighter fluid, and lithium-ion batteries. The combination can create a fire that can reach dangerous proportions rapidly and, in cases involving lithium-ion batteries, may be hard to extinguish completely.

In an effort to reduce the chance of incidents, maintain compliance with regulations, and keep costs under control, store owners and managers are increasingly turning toward centralization of fire safety system inspections, testing, and maintenance (ITM).

This article will introduce the fundamental advantages to centralizing fire protection programs, including how fire safety systems can be managed across multiple locations from a corporate level, allowing greater visibility and tracking of critical systems. Maintenance records and test results for all stores can be maintained at a corporate location instead of at each individual location, allowing easier access during audits or inquiries from Authorities Having Jurisdiction (AHJs).

Improved accessibility and tracking of ITM activities

Many of the adopted fire protection codes have provisions that hold the building owner responsible for the proper inspections, testing, and maintenance of their onsite fire protection systems such as fire sprinklers, fire alarms, and fire extinguishers. When owners and managers operate stores across many locations or many states, this can be a daunting task. 

In the past, a “local store, local provider” mentality has been a common approach. Using a single unit method, each manager is responsible for the proper maintenance of his or her store’s fire protection systems, as well as the maintenance of the correct, required documentation of these services. A second option is a modified regional model, which performs the same basic functions within a region or state.

However, if there is a problem with a fire safety system or if the store experiences a fire loss event, a company’s main office may not have immediate access to important ITM records such as dates of inspection, testing performed, or maintenance needs cited. In addition, if all the records are located onsite where the fire loss occurred, there may be no records left to review until duplicates can be obtained from the fire protection service provider. 

When using a centralized system, all ITM records are retained by the provider in one location, such as a customer portal, which all stakeholders can retrieve at any time. The portal can provide access to inspection reports, repair reports, work order activity, and completion information, as well as detailed spend information. It is a powerful repository of information that is always accessible, providing reassurance that inspection reports will be available when needed. This instant access can greatly speed up necessary reporting and may alleviate time-consuming issues with the request of records by an AHJ.

Keeping budgets in check

In addition to improved access, centralizing the management and documentation ITM activities can significantly help control cost factors. For example, using a centralized repository of information enables a corporate office to stay apprised of services needed by location, timelines, and updates, keeping budgets in check. A centralized system may even allow service scheduled to be adjusted, so that expenses can be balanced throughout the year. 

When managing multiple sites, whether in a single state or spread across the country, centralization can provide leverage when negotiating with service providers. The number of locations can factor in heavily for a provider, who may offer a substantial quantity discount based on an expanded coverage area and logistics scheduling ability, which allows the provider to add customer inspections into an existing schedule.

One call for service

When utilizing a centralized fire and life safety reporting system, both individual store managers and the corporate office can use a single phone number for all fire protection services, regardless of location. Streamlining the process is more efficient, saving time and alleviating any confusion.

And because each store doesn’t use a unique service provider, a centralized “one call for service” option allows a seamless transition as store managers and other associates may move from one location to another.

Consistent data across locations

As fire and life safety providers vary widely across the country, so do their individual reporting methods. Inconsistent quality, thoroughness, and documentation of ITM services between various stores may generate exposure and litigation risk in the aftermath of a fire or life safety emergency. Using a centralized system eliminates potential reporting data variation between locations.

While abandoning the single store reporting method may require a change in thinking, the benefits of centralizing fire safety systems inspections, testing, and maintenance far outweigh any initial growing pains. Forward-thinking supermarket and grocery store owners and managers can take advantage of economies of scale and keep rising costs at bay, while ensuring, with the most accurate, up-to-the-minute reports, that their properties remain safe and secure.

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