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What are the distance requirements for portable fire extinguishers?

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November 30, 2019

By Brad Keyes, CHSP (www.keyeslifesafety.com)

Q: During a review of NFPA 10 Chapter 6 dealing with the installation of portable fire extinguishers, I couldn't find anything that addressed the installation requirements for ABC extinguishers, such as the maximum distance for installation. Can you help?

A: You are correct in saying NFPA 10-2010 does not have a specific standard that explains maximum distance for installation of ABC extinguishers. But they do have standards for maximum travel distance to individual class of extinguishers, such as:

  • Class A: (6.2.1.1) Maximum travel distance: 75 feet
  • Class B: (6.3.1.1) Maximum travel distance: 30 feet or 50 feet, depending on the capacity of the extinguisher and the level of hazard
  • Class C: (6.4.3) Class C fires start with electrical current, but the fire is either a Class A fire or a Class B fire. Maximum travel distance is based on Class A or Class B standards.
  • Class K: (6.6.2) Maximum travel distance: 30 feet

Section 6.1.1.2 of NFPA 10-2010 says fire extinguishers with ratings less than those specified are permitted to be installed provided they are not used to fulfill the minimum protective requirements of the standard. This means if you place an ABC extinguisher on a typical nursing unit to meet the maximum travel distance requirements of a Class A extinguisher (no more than 75 feet), just because the extinguisher has a Class B rating also does not mean the extinguisher is placed incorrectly by exceeding the maximum travel distance for Class B extinguishers (30 feet or 50 feet).

The assumption is that a typical nursing unit has no need for a Class B extinguisher. You place portable extinguishers in facilities based on the maximum travel distance to get to the extinguisher, as well as the capacity of the extinguisher and the potential hazard the extinguisher is expected to protect against. If there is no Class B hazard on a typical nursing unit, then an extinguisher with a minimal Class B rating is permitted, but not required. Therefore, extinguishers that are combination classification, such as dry chemical ABC extinguishers, could be located at a 75-foot travel distance for Class A hazards, but the same extinguisher would have to be located at the 30-foot (or 50-foot) travel distance if it was protecting against Class B hazards.

Medical gas cylinder storage

Q: We recently had our triennial survey and the surveyors are saying that each individual oxygen tank must be labeled as being “Full” or “Empty,” even though the rack is labeled or there is a sign above the tanks to indicate partial cylinders. Is this correct?

A: NFPA 99-2012, section 11.6.5.3 is pretty clear: “Empty cylinders shall be marked to avoid confusion and delay if a full cylinder is needed in a rapid manner.” So that tells me that cylinders that are empty need to be marked. But since the standard does not say how the cylinder needs to be marked, and since the accreditation organization did not say how the cylinder needs to be marked, the hospital gets to decide how to mark the cylinder.

So if the plastic cap is missing from the empty cylinder or the plastic strap that holds the cap on is missing, then the hospital can claim that as the method to mark the empty cylinder. NFPA 99-2012, section 11.6.5.2 says: “If empty and full cylinders are stored within the same enclosure, empty cylinders shall be segregated from full cylinders.” So as long as the cylinders are segregated and as long as the empty cylinders are marked somehow, you should be good.

Active shooter security in the operating room

Q: Our surgery staff are worried about an active shooter entering the operating rooms. We are looking at having a drill soon, and the question came up about how to secure the operating room doors if a surgical team was in the middle of surgery and an active shooter was identified in the building. We need some kind of door security bar inside the operating room doors to prevent a shooter access. We are fairly secure to the public, but if the shooter were an employee, they would probably know codes to get into the department. What are your thoughts?

A: No, no, no ... you cannot put a bar across the door to prevent an active shooter from entering the operating room. That is a direct violation of the 2012 LSC, section 19.2.2.2.4, which says doors in the means of egress cannot be equipped with a lock or latch that requires the use of a tool or key from the egress side unless that lock or latch meets one of the following descriptions:

  • Delayed egress lock (requires the use of electric magnetic locks—see section 7.2.1.6.1)
  • Access-control lock (which are not locks at all on the egress side—see section 7.2.1.6.2)
  • Elevator lobby lock (this does not apply in your situation)
  • Clinical-needs lock (this does not apply in your situation)
  • Specialized protective measure lock (this is a possibility, but requires the use of electric magnetic locks; in addition, the building needs to be 100% sprinklered and the locked area needs to be fully smoke detected—see section 19.2.2.2.5.2)

Also, according to section 7.2.1.5.10.2, you are not permitted to have more than one releasing operation to operate the door (i.e., one latch that doubles as a lock—this effectively eliminates the use of dead-bolt locks that are separate from the latch-set hardware). Thus, placing a bar across the door to prevent an active shooter from entering the operating room is definitely a big no-no. So, to answer your question, my reply would be to install locking hardware that is integral with the latch-set hardware, and when the lock is activated, the door unlocks and unlatches in the same motion. Do not allow a bar to be installed across the door—it’s extremely dangerous (preventing quick egress from the room in the event of a fire) and very illegal.

ABHR dispensers

Q: Are there any rules on alcohol-based hand rub (ABHR) dispensers being mounted in non-sprinklered patient care areas?

A: Yes. According to section 19.3.2.6 of the 2012 LSC, ABHR dispensers may only be installed in healthcare occupancies over carpeted floors if the smoke compartment is fully protected with sprinklers. Other than that, there are no other requirements regarding sprinklers and ABHR dispensers.

Manifold room signs

Q: What signs are needed for a manifold room with oxygen, nitrous oxide, medical air, and carbon dioxide that is behind two doors?

A: According to NFPA 99-2012, section 11.3.4.1, the door needs a sign that reads: “CAUTION: OXIDING GASES STORED WITHIN—NO SMOKING.” Make sure the sign does not cover more than 5% of the door surface, and secure it to the door with adhesive, not screws.

Technician qualifications on water flow switch testing

Q: Have I misinterpreted the new NFPA-25-2010 Testing and Inspection criteria for sprinkler systems? It’s my understanding the technician performing the T&I services for water flow testing of sprinkler systems must also demonstrate certified training and experience in the "initiating devices" that accompany such testing?

A: Since the waterflow switch and the tamper switch is connected to the fire alarm system, those devices are considered to be components of the fire alarm system (according to Table 14.4.5 of the 2010 NFPA 72) even though they are installed on sprinkler systems. Section 10.4.3.1 of NFPA 72-2010 requires certain qualifications for individuals testing and inspecting fire alarm systems, which includes factory training on the brand and model of systems being tested, certification from an approved training agency (i.e., NICET, IMSA), state/local licensing, or working for a company that is UL listed as a qualified fire alarm testing company. Even though many healthcare organizations will hire sprinkler contractors to test the water flow switches and the tamper switches, those technicians are typically not qualified to do so, according to NFPA 72-2010, 10.4.3.1.

Dry standpipe systems

Q: We have dry standpipe systems in stairwells in the older areas of our hospital. Are dry systems required to be inspected/tested under pressure? I do not notice inspection tags on these, as there are in the wet systems in newer areas.

A: Yes; the dry standpipe systems are supposed to be hydrostatic pressure–tested once every five years. According to section 6.3.2.1 of NFPA 25-2011, hydrostatic tests of not less than 200 psi for two hours, or at 50 psi in excess of the maximum pressure, where maximum pressure is in excess of 150 psi, shall be conducted every five years on manual standpipe systems and semiautomatic dry standpipe systems, including piping in the fire department connection. The hydrostatic test pressure is required to be measured at the lowest elevation point of the system being evaluated.

IT closets

Q: Are IT closet plywood backboards required to be fire rated with the rating showing in closets that are sprinklered?

A: No. Section 19.3.3.2 of the 2012 Life Safety Code® (LSC) requires all interior finish to be either Class A or Class B. Class A is all materials that have a flame spread rating of 0–25, and Class B is all materials that have a flame spread rating of 26–75. The average plywood, including flame-retardant type, has a flame spread rating around 150. So, on the surface it would appear that plywood cannot be used as an interior finish. But wait, there’s more! Section 10.2.8.1 allows Class C materials where Class B is required if the area is protected with sprinklers. Class C is all materials that have a flame spread rating between 76–200.

So plywood, even the non-flame-retardant type, is permitted as an interior finish in a room that is protected with sprinklers since it has a flame spread rating of about 150, which is less than the maximum allowed of 200. But to qualify as interior finish, the plywood has to be secured to the wall with a layer of gypsum board between the plywood and the steel studs. In other words, the plywood cannot be attached directly to the steel studs. If it were, it would no longer be considered interior finish, but rather part of the structural wall, and combustible materials are not permitted in walls of Type I and Type II construction buildings.

Editor’s note: Each month, Brad Keyes, CHSP, owner of Keyes Life Safety Compliance, answers your questions about life safety compliance. Follow Keyes’ blog on life safety at www.keyeslifesafety.com for up-to-date information.  




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