#140 – Fire Safety Inspection, Testing, and Maintenance Reporting: The Digital Future

“Getting to 100% ITM Compliance:” Key takeaways from the National Fire Sprinkler Association’s ITM-reporting summits

The National Fire Sprinkler Association (NFSA) and the Automatic Fire Alarm Association (AFAA) held a fire protection summit titled “Getting to 100% Compliance” on November 12th in Fort Lauderdale, FL. QRFS attended the event, along with a diverse group of fire safety engineers, contractors, software companies, National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) researchers, and other stakeholders.

The purpose? Figuring out how to increase inspection, testing, and maintenance (ITM) compliance in fire safety systems, along with standardizing digital reporting to make it easier, consistent, and actionable.

Inspection, testing, and maintenance reports have traditionally been a contractual relationship between a building owner and a fire protection contractor. The owner hires the contractor to perform the necessary ITM at the frequency specified by NFPA standards and fire code, and the contractor provides a report. The government authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) then visits the site and asks to review the reporting.

Today, many of these ITM reports are instantly submitted electronically and uploaded to a cloud-based console for the AHJ to manage and conduct enforcement on deficient and impaired fire protection systems. In the past few years, electronic submission and enforcement have quickly become the preferred method of doing business. This is also a top priority of the National Fire Sprinkler Association which is why it sponsored two ITM reporting summits in 2018.

What is digital ITM reporting?

Digital ITM reporting, typically referred to as third-party reporting, involves a local jurisdiction using software as a service that enables the electronic delivery of reports. The AHJ uses these reports and inspections management software as a means to enforce NFPA standards for sprinklers, fire alarms, and other systems in their community.

Various companies provide the service to issue the reports to local governments and some companies provide inspection software platforms to fire protection contractors. These ITM reporting services that participated in the 2018 NFSA/AFAA summits were:

* These software vendors provide inspection software for fire protection contractors.

Each of these companies has developed its own platform, a method of delivery, and reporting formats, which presents certain challenges:

1. The relationship between the building owner, the life safety contractor, and the local government is not always consistent. For example, in some cases, the government contracts with the software provider, who collects fees and may even issue fines and citations on the government’s behalf – while the contractors (and, indirectly, the building owners) are charged for the software well as other ITM services.

2. Because each of these companies has developed its own platform and reports, the data is not standardized. The formats and methods of reporting the results of inspection, testing, and maintenance are not consistent across the individual platforms. If a common standard were adopted, a national (and potentially international) database of ITM results could provide invaluable information on the performance of life safety systems, including common issues. This would enable an evidence-based analysis of current fire safety standards and code.

For example, NFPA standards and fire code stipulate that building owners are responsible for inspecting various components of fire pumps on a monthly, quarterly, semiannual, annual, or biennial basis. If nationwide reporting found that the failure rate of a certain component was consistently very low over a certain timeframe, these ITM requirements could be adapted – meaning building owners could inspect and maintain these systems less frequently and save money while still keeping them working and compliant. In addition, new systems that automate many ITM requirements could be observed and the data aggregated to figure out if this automation is reliable and safe.

NFPA research on ITM requirements and system reliability

Gathering this large pool of system performance and ITM data is of intense interest to the National Fire Protection Association as it looks to devise evidence-based standards for fire protection systems. In July 2018, NFPA released “Applying Reliability Based Decision Making to ITM Frequency,” a report intended “to develop a framework for applying reliability-based-decision-making using inspection, testing and maintenance (ITM) data.” Researchers explored data modeling techniques and ITM methodologies, and devised recommendations for collecting data with the goal of making system maintenance and inspections more efficient and based on real-world performance.

The researchers developed a model that somewhat accurately predicted the failure rate for fire pumps and could be used to influence ITM schedules and NFPA standards – if “relevant/applicable data is available as input.” The conclusions of the report repeatedly stress this need for good data – reliably collected and in a standardized format – to make these kinds of analysis possible. And the potential for standardized digital ITM reporting to provide this pool of information is huge.

What did the NFSA/AFAA summits cover?

An initial NFSA/AFAA summit in Chicago (June 2018) was an all-day event with presentations from three of the four major stakeholders: fire sprinkler contractors, AHJs, and ITM reporting services. Each explained their perspective on the subject, such as the costs, the impact to business, the extent of services, and much more.

The Fort Lauderdale summit (November 2018) was another all-day event with presentations from additional stakeholders including building owners, fire alarm contractors, and representatives from the insurance industry. The theme of this event was “Getting to 100% Compliance,” with all presentations and afternoon committee-style discussions providing input on how to use ITM reporting to achieve this goal for all fire protection systems.

Are there concerns with digital ITM reporting?

The ITM reporting software business is relatively new to the fire protection market, with the majority of these services starting around 2008 or later. The summits identified several areas where improvements can be made. Jeffrey M. Hugo, Director of Codes and Public Fire Protection for the NFSA, outlined the following challenges:

  • Security: While most users of ITM reporting services are comfortable with data security, careful consideration should be given to how the data is stored and who has access to it. For example, lapses in data security that result in breaches could reveal compromised fire safety systems to the wrong people.
  • Data: NFPA 25: Standard for the Inspection, Testing, and Maintenance of Water-Based Fire Protection Systems and NFPA 72: National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code establish very specific minimum requirements for the information contained in ITM reports. But many ITM reporting services and AHJs provide additional data in the reports. This adds time and expense to the process and, as mentioned above, the lack of a universal standard makes it more difficult to analyze nationwide results.
  • Cost: The expense of these digital services can vary widely. A best-case scenario would be one in which all costs incurred are either neutral or will result in actual cost-savings for building owners, governments, and other stakeholders.
  • Enforcement: Improving fire safety and enhancing the ability of governments to enforce NFPA 25 and NFPA 72 should be driving which data is collected and how it is used. The ability of the AHJ to act on identified deficiencies and improve fire safety is the cornerstone of the entire ITM program.
  • Process: ITM reporting services provide a service that enables code and standards compliance. The interaction with these services should be user-friendly and accessible to all types of technology and contractor platforms – and it should be clear who (governments, contractors, and building owners) is responsible for what.

The digital ITM reporting outlook

Digital ITM reporting is increasing. “Currently third-party reporting is utilized in at least 37 states with many more jurisdictions acquiring and implementing programs,” writes Vince Powers, NFSA’s ITM specialist. “Several jurisdictions are taking advantage of third-party ITM reporting to enforce and track system status throughout their municipalities.”

There is a lot more potential in digital reporting, however. The summits discussed several areas where data collection and technology can drastically improve compliance. These include:

  • As outlined above, frequency-based fire pump testing could modify the frequency of ITM requirements, and NFPA’s Fire Protection Research Foundation is actively examining ways to do it.
  • Automated flow testing of systems and electronic verification of valve position could further automate building systems, enabling owners to conduct and pay less for manual ITM. Current electronic supervision is not necessarily capable of remote monitoring.
  • Insurance and community ratings are based on the consistent operation of fire protection systems. When systems are down, community resources are impacted, and costs accrue for building owners and other stakeholders. Increased compliance and smarter requirements achieved through more efficient reporting may lower expenses.

In the meantime, building owners who are waiting for this automated future can avoid some common compliance issues by reading this series.

Digital ITM reporting is here to stay and it’s rapidly being adopted in many jurisdictions. The smart way forward will leverage its capabilities – instantaneous reporting, the ability to learn what breaks or fails on systems nationwide, and convenience for stakeholders – to take fire protection to a new level of safety and reliability.

QRFS is dedicated to staying on top of developments in the fire protection industry. Our mission is to keep you informed and make sure your systems have the components they need to save lives and property. We’ll be sure to update you on developments in digital reporting and how they impact inspection, testing, and maintenance requirements.

If you need to purchase a fire safety system component, view our extensive online inventory.

If you have any questions, email us at support@qrfs.com or call 888-361-6662.

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