Are Earthquakes a Risk for Fire Protection Systems?

The American Midwest in general and the state of Oklahoma in particular (2,000 earthquakes in the last year) has seen a dramatic increase in the number of earthquakes they have experienced over the last decade. The danger from the tremors caused by these natural phenomena cannot be overstated especially when it comes to the fire safety risk they pose. Here are some of the facts that every commercial building owner should know:

  • Doors and windows are just the start– Pre-and post-tremors as well as an actual earthquake can easily throw a building out of plumb or level. This fact is most noticeable when doors and windows will no longer close smoothly and easily. If you or your staff notice this problem, it is essential to check out some of the more important systems in your facility.
  • Other damage can be hidden– The mere vibration from an earthquake effects everything in a building from the structural elements to the plumbing and electrical systems. Most obviously, cracks will develop in the walls and ceiling but the continual vibrations will also contribute to the loosening of utility connections of every type as well as the screws, bolts and nails that hold everything together.
  • Check the stairwells– As per code, stairwells are required to be kept in good working order and unblocked in case of emergency. Even a minor earthquakes – is there really such a thing? – can really wreak havoc on these structures, however. In fact, stairwells may fail prematurely in a future quake or even with a slight tremor if not properly inspected and maintained. In short, it is imperative to have any stairways – especially those allocated for emergency use – inspected after any seismic activity.
  • Still, the damage it is not always structural– As mentioned, the damage caused by an earthquake is not always structural. Instead, it can effect technological systems – HVAC, fire safety and security, for example – where the damage is far less obvious and actually won’t be noticed – unfortunately, usually at the worst possible time! – until another emergency occurs.
  • It matters – a whole lot! – to be proactive– A fire safety system is only as good as its installation and maintenance. Ignoring either will significantly reduce its performance. It is simply common sense to have a commercial one checked after an earthquake to ensure that it is still functioning properly. Otherwise, you may end up paying a much higher price in the long run.
  • Pay special attention to the sprinkler systems– Most of the fire protection systems, active or passive, in your building – this includes the sprinkler system, fire stop materials and any heat-activated fire door plus fire dampers  – should be checked immediately after any significant geophysical action. In addition, it is a good idea to have them inspected and maintained on a biannual basis even if there are no untoward natural events.

A final note – There is little doubt that earthquakes will impair a number of systems within any commercial building. A fire protection engineer can help identify risks to systems in advance of a failure. To recap, anytime tremors affect your building, it is a wise choice to have your fire protection systems checked. Hopefully, you, your employees and your visitors and will never have to realize why but they will be immensely thankful if they do.

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