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Averting Disaster

Top 10 tips for protecting stores against fire-related dangers

Fire safety presents extra challenges to retail locations. Stores are filled with combustibles that aid the spread of fire and smoke. And confusing store layouts impede escape during emergencies. The results can be expensive: loss of revenue from store closures, and worse, loss of life.

Chain Store Age spoke with three leading fire safety experts as to what steps retailers could take to avert fire disasters. Here are their top 10 recommendations.

1. WATCH THE STOCK

One rule that is an absolute among fire codes nationwide is that racks and displays should not put merchandise within 18 ins. of a sprinkler head.

“Any closer than that and you will block the spray pattern, which should cover a diameter of 8 ft.,” said Mike Rose, CEO of Maspeth, N.Y.-based Academy Fire Protection, which serves some 140,000 retail locations nationwide.

Rose also advises store managers to regularly check that sprinkler concealer caps are in place. The caps prevent the heads from clogging, a special risk in clothing stores with lint in the air.

2. GET SMOKE DETECTORS OUT OF CORNERS

Place smoke detectors a minimum of 18 ins. away from corners. Heat rises — which is why these units are on the ceiling in the first place — but heat levels remain consistent in corners and push smoke away, rendering detectors ineffective.

3. CHECK EMERGENCY EXITS

“Badly maintained exits are something that make fire inspectors particularly nervous,“ said Gregory Harrington, a principal of the National Fire Protection Association in Quincy, Mass., which designs model codes for fire departments. “Open the doors. Make sure they are not locked or blocked. Personnel may decide to store boxes in back of a little-used doorway.”

Red “EXIT” signs over emergency exits should be lit 24-7.

4. CHANGE BATTERIES AFTER POWER OUTAGES

If your store loses power for an extended period, you need to check and most likely replace batteries in exit lights and alarms. Batteries are drained completely when power is out for two days. Building fire panels should also be checked since their motherboards could be fried by a current surge when power is restored.

5. MAINTAIN THREE-FOOT AISLES

Another nearly universal fire code standard is that store aisles need to be a minimum of 36 ins. wide. Limit in-aisle displays, which can block an aisle during evacuation.

6. INSPECT THE BACKROOM

Backrooms can be tinder boxes. Too much stock piled too high, oily rags on the floor, empty cardboard boxes and smoking employees all add up to danger. Walk backrooms occasionally with an eye to safety. Secure all flammable liquids in storage cabinets.

7. EXTINGUISHERS, ALL RISE!

All fire extinguishers must be hung on walls, not resting on floors. Although fire codes for checking extinguishers are loosely written, experts say they should be checked monthly.

8. DO BASIC EMPLOYEE TRAINING

Few fire codes require emergency training for store associates, but minimal emergency education can save lives and lawsuits. The basic message: “Get out fast!”

“Extinguishers last 12 to 15 seconds and aren’t going to do much in a big fire, so the main point of training should be to just get everybody out as quickly as possible,” Rose advised.

Employees should be instructed to check dressing rooms for customers while evacuating, and they should know the difference between red pull-boxes that trigger building alarms and red boxes with white stripes that alert the fire department. 

9. HOLIDAY CONSIDERATIONS

Decorations hanging from the ceiling can spread fire quickly if ignited. They should be treated with a fire retardant spray. And watch how you manage extra stock, advised Lt. Tony Mancuso, director of the New York City Fire Department’s Fire Safety Education Unit, who performed inspections in the Herald Square retail district.

“We were usually very concerned about stock areas,“ he said. “Are they blocking aisles, and are they storing things in stairwells or near elevators?”

10. MIND THE KIDS

If your store caters to moms and kids, be sure there are no cleaning materials or open electrical sockets to which children might gain access.

“So many people child-proof their homes, but a lot of retailers fail to child-proof their stores,” Rose said.

Al Urbanski is a New York City-based freelance writer.

© 2014