What Campuses Can Learn from the Surfside Condo Collapse
Here are some fire alarm and voice evacuation practices campus life safety professionals can glean from last year’s Miami condo collapse that killed 98 people.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in Campus Safety sister publication Security Sales & Integration magazine and highlights the liability exposures that could arise in any building or campus that doesn’t have an updated, functioning and well-maintained fire alarm and voice evacuation system. Although written with alarm installation and central station monitoring companies as the primary audience, this article brings up some interesting points that should be considered by fire, life safety, emergency management and security professionals responsible for protecting K-12 schools and school districts, institutions of higher education, and healthcare facilities.
Nearly 100 people were tragically killed, from elderly couples to young children, after the Champlain Towers South 12-story oceanfront tower condominium partially collapsed in the Miami, Fla., suburb of Surfside before dawn on June 24, 2021.
As one of last year’s highest profile stories, the immediate aftermath and ongoing coverage of this disaster played out before millions of horrified television and online news viewers.
Among other things, it included common-area smoke detectors, manual pull stations, voice evacuation speakers inside each of the apartments and in the common areas throughout the premises, and a remote alarm annunciator located in proximity to the 24-hour guard station in the lobby.
It appears that a manual fire alarm pull station in the lobby of the building was activated before the collapse. Against the foregoing backdrop, issues surrounding liability have arisen due to myriad reports that persons who were able to get out of the building and escape before it collapsed never heard the building fire alarm system activating through its voice evacuation function.
Is a building fire alarm system designed and intended to detect a building collapse? Of course not, but that is not the focus of the forensic and liability investigation in this matter. In 2007, mass notification signaling (MNS) was introduced into NFPA 72 as Annex material.
Then, MNS was incorporated into Chapter 24 of the 2010 Edition of NFPA 72, National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code. The “Emergency Communications Systems” chapter also includes emergency voice alarm communication systems (EVACS).
In the early morning hours of June 24, before the partial building collapse, there are multiple sources of information that confirm the security guard who was working in the lobby at Champlain Towers South was hearing strange sounds coming from within the building. These sounds were so concerning that the guard decided to try and call each of the 129 apartments to tell them to get out of the building.
This calamity serves as a jumping-off point for a critical discussion of essential elements for providing fire and life-safety systems that every security dealer and central monitoring station must always keep top of mind — and execute upon.
What May Have Gone Wrong During the Surfside Condo Collapse
It is not axiomatic as to why the building fire alarm system did not function as it was designed and intended to do. Moreover, a determination has not yet been made as to if the security guard who was stationed in the lobby in the early morning hours before the partial building collapse was trained in how to use the system’s onboard all-call voice evacuation feature that would have been heard inside each of the condominium units at Champlain Towers had it been utilized.
Preliminary forensic examination of the central station’s account history report reveals that prior to the building collapse, the fire alarm system was in trouble, and a supervisory condition existed. The underpinnings of what part(s) of the fire alarm system was not functioning correctly and why it had not been restored to a functional mode through performing service on the system is continuing forensically.
Early on June 24, 2021, before the partial building collapse, there are multiple sources of information that confirm the security guard who was working in the lobby at Champlain Towers South was hearing strange sounds coming from within the building. These sounds were so concerning that the guard decided to try and call each of the 129 apartments to tell them to get out of the building.
Nonetheless, as the professional and technical community of the alarm and central station industry knows, trouble and supervisory conditions need to be addressed on any commercial fire alarm system. In other circumstances, a fire watch needs to be instituted based upon the building occupancy type and/or how long the system will remain nonfunctional.
Stated differently, inspection, testing and maintenance programs should be sold on all fire alarm systems. With that plan in place, the likelihood of addressing and identifying defects and irregularities is enhanced due to the routine nature of the relationship between the alarm contractor and the subscriber.
Preemptive Practices to Consider
Let us assume that your alarm company had received a call for service on the Champlain Towers South fire alarm system before the building came down. What is your average response time to commercial fire alarm system service requests? What, if any, policies and procedures do you have in place to determine the hierarchy of prioritizing responses to service calls from both residential and commercial subscribers?
What, if any, escalation measures do you have in place in the event you cannot dispatch a technician until the next day or two from after receiving the service request? Is there any information that can be gleaned from the system, but you know it’s no longer under warranty and the subscriber is unwilling to pay for service?
Have you identified material part(s) of the system that are nonfunctional after you receive the call for service or after you review the central station activity report that indicates multiple problems?
Do you disclose to the subscriber the need to institute a fire watch for their building until the system can be serviced, or do you wait until the technician arrives to make this determination onsite days later?
Do you contact the local authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) and advise them that the building fire alarm system is nonfunctional? Or do you say nothing because you believe that the costs for the repairs will push the subscribers to cancel their services?
From a forensic perspective, it is instructive to understand that risk is ubiquitous in the alarm and central station industries, and regardless of the venue, employees need to be professionally trained and supervised.
Additionally, in Florida, like in many jurisdictions across the country, there are licensing laws of which all alarm contractors are required to comply. These statutory duties are set forth in Chapter 489, Part II, of Florida Statutes and Rule 61G6 of the Florida Administrative Code. There are also qualifier requirements whereby the license holder is required to supervise the company’s installers when they perform alarm contracting services.
Points of Failure
Notwithstanding the foregoing, in this tragic loss of life, the issues relating to the building fire alarm system may circle around what, if any, difference it would have made had the voice evacuation system in the premises worked, whereby persons in their apartments could have been warned to leave the building immediately.
Notably, the window of opportunity for persons in this building to escape is estimated to be seven to 19 minutes from when the security guard recognized that everyone in the building needed to be warned to evacuate. The clock starts when the security officer recognizes the need to react, and then what, if anything, they did and/or did not do before the building partially collapsed.
In the alarm contracting business, you never know when one of your subscribers will suffer a loss by burglary, an act of God, fire, smoke, earthquake or in this case the building partially collapsing down onto so many unsuspecting occupants who perished while living at Champlain Towers South.
Some in the industry believe their alarm and monitoring contracts will protect them no matter what and/or who files a cause of action against their company in that their contracts contain a limitation of liability, third-party indemnification, and other protective clauses such as waiver of jury trial and/or waiver of subrogation provisions.
However, no alarm company can rely on their contract to legally protect them under all circumstances based on differing fact patterns and the way in which cases and claims are made against alarm companies and central stations across the country.
Alarm Company Checklist
With this in mind, how many of your accounts are in trouble and/or in supervisory today? How long have they been in trouble and/or in supervisory? Have any of your subscribers refused service, and/or have they refused service based upon the costs it would be to repair their system?
Have any of your subscribers asked for service, and when your technician arrives and analyzes the problem, the customer decides they do not want to have the repairs made? Have you notified the AHJ about any of your subscriber’s fire alarm systems being in a trouble and/or in a supervisory state and that this condition has been present for more than eight hours?
How did you notify the AHJ? Did you leave a message, and/or did you email them? Do you have a record of who you spoke to? If you left a message for an inspector, how do you know if they received the message? Do you provide notice to the owner and/or the AHJ via certified mail return receipt requested when their fire alarm system is not fully functional?
Will your company continue to monitor a fire alarm system if you know it is not fully functional and/or that it is impaired? Have you informed the central station to log only fire troubles? Have you told the central station to log only supervisory conditions?
How many zones on a commercial fire alarm system will your company allow to be on no action with the central station? Do you allow your subscribers to put their systems and/or zones on test for months and/or for years at a time? If there was a fire in the premises, would the building fire alarm system function as it was designed and intended to do?
Would the failure of the fire alarm system at the protected premises be based upon an existing trouble condition that was never repaired? Would the failure of the fire alarm system be based upon a supervisory signal that was never restored to a functional state?
If the supervisory signal was associated with a gate valve being turned off and there was a fire, how would the building sprinkler system provide water to help suppress and/or control the fire? How would the central station know that a waterflow alarm had activated if the gate valve was turned off?
What is the purpose of designing, installing, inspecting, testing and maintaining a commercial fire alarm system? Are you aware of your duties as a state licensed alarm contractor? Does your company consistently comply with NFPA 72, National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code? When was the last time your company provided training to the technicians who are responsible to design, install, program, inspect, test, and maintain your subscribers fire alarm systems?
Do each of your techs have a current copy of NFPA 72? Have they been trained on the requirements set forth in NFPA 72? Have your alarm contracts and inspection, testing and maintenance documentation been created, reviewed, and approved by legal counsel specializing in the alarm industry?
When was the last time your errors and omissions insurance coverage was reviewed by an insurance agent who specializes in the alarm and/or central station industry? Do you have an umbrella(s) to cover/insure your company in the event that claim(s) made against you exceed your primary insurance coverage?
If a fire alarm and/or sprinkler suppression system is not fully functional, is it foreseeable that persons in the building could be seriously injured and/or killed? Is it foreseeable that property damage would be increased if the fire alarm system was not fully functional and/or due to it being put on test by your company and/or your subscriber?
Would anyone and/or everyone have escaped before Champlain Towers South’s building partially collapsed had all persons in the building been warned to evacuate by the premise’s building fire alarm system with voice evacuation? That’s a jury question.
Jeffrey D. Zwirn, CPP, CFPS, CFE, FACFEI, CHS-IV, SET, CCI, FASI&T, MBAT, writes Security Sales & Integration’s “Security Science” column. He is also president of IDS Research and Development, an alarm and security consultation, expert witness and training authority providing nationwide services on all issues related to alarm and security matters. He can be reached at (201) 287-0900.