Business stairway

As many as 60% of businesses never recover from a fire, making it critical to ensure your fire and life safety systems are up to code. Follow these guidelines for fire sprinklers, fire alarms, fire extinguishers, and safe food service operations

Each year in the U.S., fire departments respond to more than 3,300 fires in offices and other business properties. The primary cause of business fires is cooking-related incidents, followed by electrical equipment and installations and intentionally-set fires. Cooking fires typically resulted in the least amount of damage, with intentionally-set fires causing the most. All of these blazes result in annual averages of four deaths, forty-four injuries, and more than $100 million in property damage.

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) defines business occupancies as facilities, buildings, or structures which are “used for the transaction of business other than mercantile.” (NFPA 101: A mercantile occupancy is one that uses its space primarily for the display and sale of merchandise. So, if the primary purpose of your business is to provide a service, then you are a “business occupancy.” However, if you primarily sell merchandise, your business is a “mercantile occupancy.”

Some common facilities that are classified as business occupancies include:

  • General offices (accountant, attorney, etc.)
  • Banks and financial institutions
  • Doctor and dentist offices
  • Municipal buildings (tax collector, town hall, courthouse, etc.)
  • Barber shops and salons
  • Small college classrooms or labs

NFPA 101: Life Safety Code identifies the fire protection and life safety requirements for business occupancies in chapters 38 and 39. Let’s review the basic classes of fire protection and when they are required:

QRFS Ask A Pro

Fire sprinklers may or may not be required in business occupancies

In the business occupancy chapter of NFPA 101, the only areas listed as requiring fire sprinklers are those that house or contain high-hazard contents that exceed the maximum allowable quantities permitted by the code.

From the 2018 edition of NFPA 101* High Hazard Contents. High hazard contents shall be classified as those that are likely to burn with extreme rapidity or from which explosions are likely.

This classification would not necessarily apply to a small janitor’s closet or a small collection of incidental-use chemicals. The intent of this requirement is that it only applies to areas that store these contents in excess of the “maximum allowable quantities,” or MAQ. The MAQ is the maximum amount of hazardous materials that may be stored, used, or dispensed within a single control area. Allowable quantities and the process for determining the MAQ are outlined in chapter 60 of NFPA 1: Fire Code.

Nevertheless, if your office or business is located in a multi-story building, you may have looked up and noticed sprinkler heads coming from the ceiling. For the sprinkler requirement, we have to look to the code sections related to high-rise buildings, not necessarily occupancy type. If your building meets the definition of a high-rise, then a fire sprinkler system, as well as a standpipe system, are required.

From the 2018 edition of NFPA 101* High-Rise Building. A building where the floor of an occupiable story is greater than 75 ft (23 m) above the lowest level of fire department vehicle access.* High-rise buildings shall be protected throughout by an approved, supervised automatic sprinkler system in accordance with Section 9.7. A sprinkler control valve and a waterflow device shall be provided for each floor. High-rise buildings shall be protected throughout by a Class I standpipe system in accordance with Section 9.10.

A fire sprinkler in an office

A fire sprinkler in an office. Source: NewYork Engineers

It’s also important to note that various state codes require fire sprinklers in many larger buildings, period – including most new commercial buildings that exceed 5,000 square feet and existing structures that expand to over 12,000 square feet.

Statistics show that sprinklers functioned 90% of the time and were effective at maintaining the fire to the area of origin in 88% of fires in office properties. Compared to business occupancies without fire sprinklers, the deaths per 1,000 fires were 62% lower.

Fire codes for business: Fire alarms are needed under certain conditions

For a smaller business, a fire alarm system may not be needed. However, as the business and building size grow, so do the requirements for a fire alarm system. There are three configurations in which a fire alarm system will be required:

  • The building is three or more stories in height
  • 50 or more occupants are located above or below the level of exit discharge
  • The building has a total occupant load of 300 or more

From the 2018 edition of NFPA 101 Occupant Load. The total number of persons that might occupy a building or portion thereof at any one time.

Occupant loads are determined by dividing the available floor area square footage by the occupant load factors shown in Table of NFPA 101:

Business occupant load table

This table shows areas that specifically pertain to business use occupant loads.

To determine the occupant load, you measure the square footage of a given area and divide it by the allowed square feet per person. For example, a 450-square-foot office would have an occupant load of 3 people, given the maximum of 150 square feet per person listed in the table above. Each type of area should be calculated individually based on the numbers in the above table and then added up. In the end, you will have the overall occupant load for the structure.

Besides having a total occupant load over 300, an alarm is also required when 50 or more occupants are located above or below “the level of exit discharge.” NFPA has a pretty convoluted definition of this:

From the 2018 edition of NFPA 101* Level of Exit Discharge. The story that is either (1) the lowest story from which not less than 50 percent of the required number of exits and not less than 50 percent of the required egress capacity from such a story discharge directly outside at the finished ground level; or (2) where no story meets the conditions of item (1), the story that is provided with one or more exits that discharge directly to the outside to the finished ground level via the smallest elevation change.

Put in simpler terms: Let’s say your building is built on the side of a hill and the main entrance is on level two. If there is no back entrance on the lower level that would account for 50% or more of the ability for people to leave, that exit on level two is the level of exit discharge. And if there are 50 or more occupants above or below that level, you must have a fire alarm.

Fire alarm in an office

Fire alarms are required in a building of three or more stories, one with a total occupant load over 300, or one with 50 or more occupants above or below the level of exit discharge.

If any of these building characteristics exist, then a fire alarm system with manual pull-stations, automatic activation appliances, occupant notification devices will be required, and it must report directly to the fire department or emergency services.

Fire extinguishers are always required in a business occupancy

Fire extinguishers are required to be located throughout the building and employees must receive recurring training on the proper use of the fire extinguisher.

From the 2018 edition of NFPA 101

38.7.3 Extinguisher Training. Designated employees of business occupancies shall be periodically instructed in the use of portable fire extinguishers.

The exact requirements for how many and which types of fire extinguishers are needed, as well as where they are placed, are extensive and covered in NFPA 10: Standard for Portable Fire Extinguishers. Fortunately, QRFS has a blog that covers many of the details you need to know, so check it out: “When and Where Should Fire Extinguishers Be Installed? A Practical Guide for Building Owners.

A buffet line
Cooking and food service areas require special consideration

More and more businesses are incorporating food into their work day and culture, often through special events, catering, hosting, and luncheons, and even fully-operational cafeterias. In general, the requirements for commercial cooking operations must be followed when food service and cooking takes place in a business occupancy. This involves referring to NFPA 96: Standard for Ventilation Control and Fire Protection of Commercial Cooking Operations.

From the 2018 edition of NFPA 101

9.2.3 Commercial Cooking Operations. Where required by another section of this Code, commercial cooking operations shall be protected in accordance with NFPA 96 unless such installations are approved existing installations, which shall be permitted to be continued in service.

This requirement does not apply to outside cooking or food warming equipment, however, and does not “prohibit the use of equipment that is used less frequently and does not produce significant grease-laden vapors” [A.].

Questions often arise concerning the safe and code-compliant use of catered food warming devices, open flames, and candles. For functions and events that employ them, the food service operation requirements of NFPA 101 must be followed.

From the 2018 edition of NFPA 101

38.7.4 Food Service Operations. Food service operations shall comply with 12.7.2. All devices in connection with the preparation of food shall be of an approved type and shall be installed in an approved manner. Food preparation facilities shall be protected in accordance with 9.2.3 and shall not be required to have openings protected between food preparation areas and dining areas. Portable cooking equipment that is not flue connected shall be permitted only as follows:

(1) Equipment fueled by small heat sources that can be readily extinguished by water, such as candles or alcohol burning equipment, including solid alcohol, shall be permitted to be used, provided that precautions satisfactory to the AHJ are taken to prevent ignition of any combustible materials.

(2) Candles shall be permitted to be used on tables used for food service where securely supported on substantial noncombustible bases located to avoid danger of ignition of combustible materials and only where approved by the AHJ.

(3) Candle flames shall be protected.

(4) “Flaming sword” or other equipment involving open flames and flamed dishes, such as cherries jubilee or crêpes suzette, shall be permitted to be used, provided that precautions subject to the approval of the AHJ are taken.

(5) Listed and approved LP-Gas commercial food service appliances shall be permitted to be used where in accordance with NFPA 58.

Let’s unpack this statement: “All devices in connection with the preparation of food shall be of an approved type and shall be installed in an approved manner.” What that means is, technically speaking, all devices should be “approved” by your local government authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) – and many businesses do in fact bring in inspectors or other officials to validate the use of devices.

Of course, many don’t. In the absence of getting an approval (which you should do), common sense rules, at a minimum. Common issues include using equipment that’s not approved for indoor use, using kitchen equipment without required fire suppression equipment, and simpler things, such as not setting up a hot crock pot full of scalding cheese with twisted cords that could cause it to be easily knocked over.

If your business occupancy gets into anything but the simplest, infrequent food preparation and service, realize that additional fire safety and inspection requirements apply, and take appropriate action.

Keep your business fire safe and code compliant

As many as 60% of businesses never recover from a fire, making it critical to ensure your fire and life safety systems are up-to-code. If your building does require a fire sprinkler and standpipe system, check out our series:

NFPA 25: The 10 Most Common Fire Safety System Compliance Issues and How to Avoid Them, Part 1

NFPA 25: 10 Most Common Fire Sprinkler System Compliance Issues and How to Avoid Them, Part 2

Mind the relevant code and standards and if you need life safety components, browse QRFS’s selection of fire extinguishers and extinguisher accessories, commercial fire sprinkler heads, sprinkler system components, or fire department connection and standpipe components.

If you have questions about business occupancy fire safety or you need help finding an item, give us a call at 888.361.6662 or email [email protected].