11 Common Fire Code Violations

cluttered hallway leading to door

If you own a business or building, adhering to your local fire code is one of your top priorities. Local fire codes will vary between municipalities, and depend on your business activities, but all building owners are subject to inspections.

Inspections keep the public safe, so to avoid any emergency disasters or fines, you need to know what your responsibilities are. Surprise inspections can be done by fire marshals or building inspectors at any time, so make sure that your fire protection system is safe, up to date, and up to code.

Not only do you need to keep occupants safe, you also want to protect your asset and avoid any penalties and fines. Breaking these can also affect insurance policies and coverage, and possibly shut down your business until the violations are fixed.

In order to avoid any detrimental consequences, check out the 11 most common fire code violations we’ve compiled.

1. Blocked Fire Exit Doors

One of the most frequent violations of fire codes is leaving access routes blocked. This is particularly common in busy workplaces where deliveries are left unattended in passageways that lead to a fire exit.

If a fire breaks out and someone can’t get through a door, just think of the consequences.

Every door and exit must be completely clear at all times, so if your business gets deliveries often, make sure you have the staff to clear the way. This includes stairways, halls, and even outdoor pathways leading to safety.

When you get a delivery, put it away as soon as possible in a proper storage area, as an inspector won't care about the reasons why there was a delay.

Cages, boxes, and trolleys are also regularly left in front of emergency exit doors, which is another violation. Trying to negotiate around them in an emergency can have potentially life-threatening consequences.

Blocked fire exits are one of the more serious infractions, and sometimes fines will be charged on a daily basis until the issue is fixed.

2. Expired Fire Extinguishers

man checking date on fire extinguishers

Every business or building should be fit with fully charged, functional fire extinguishers that are coded to your building site. Not all fire extinguishers are made the same, so it’s your job to know the types you need, and how many, which usually depends on the size of the building.

There are other specifications, too, like securing them with the right bracket, not having them on the floor, and placing them at the proper height. You need proper signage, obstruction-free access, and an extinguisher with no damage or corrosion.

Large stores should have a process in place to make sure someone is in charge of checking and maintaining the logs of fire extinguishers. They need to be serviced annually by a licensed professional, and these services need to be written down (there’s usually a tag on the extinguisher).

The average lifespan of most portable fire extinguishers is around 10 to 12 years before they expire and need to be replaced. This information will be on the extinguisher, as well. Note—even the single use of a water fire extinguisher will require it to be replenished.

3. Faulty Fire Alarm System

Fire alarms, pull stations, and other protection systems should be inspected on a regular basis to make sure they are running properly, and won’t malfunction if a fire happens. Just like exits and extinguishers, the pull stations should be visible and easily accessible.

Inspections of fire alarms and pull stations should be done by a licensed professional, with proper records kept of each service or inspection. These can be done alongside inspection of fire pumps, sprinkler systems, and stand pipes.

Certain companies will keep electronic logs of these tests and services, as well as any maintenance and repairs. While you could keep your own records, DIY record-keeping could get tricky for larger companies or buildings.

Smaller businesses that only have a small storefront may only need a minimized alarm system, which could be easy enough to keep a record of.

4. Faulty Smoke Detectors

dangling smoke detector

Smoke detectors are just as important as fire alarm systems, and once again, the size of the building will determine how many are needed. Smoke detectors can be the first indication of a fire, which is paramount for getting people out safely and quickly.

If you hear the annoying sound of a low battery, don’t delay in changing them, no matter how busy you are. Have batteries on hand so that you can easily remedy the situation, or do it on an annual schedule so that you are never taken by surprise.

Smoke detectors generally have a lifespan of ten years and should be replaced once they’ve reached their expiration date, no matter what. While you may not need an inspector to keep smoke detectors maintained, larger buildings once again may benefit from a professional service that checks these as part of their annual servicing.

5. Improper Signage and Illumination

A standard sign is not a sufficient means of highlighting emergency exit points. All exit signs should be illuminated and placed in positions where they are easy to notice in the event of a fire.

It may not seem like a big deal, but just one letter out in a fire exit sign could land you a hefty fine. While you may get a certain amount of time to fix the issue, don’t wait for the fire marshal to make you aware of it.

Fines are often given on first visits for this infraction, unless you can prove that you are in the process of fixing the situation.

Signs also need to be clear of trees or any other obstructions. In an emergency, they need to remain on for at least 90 minutes if there was ever a power outage, either through backup batteries, or other modes, so that people can exit the dark building safely.

Exit signs need to be checked monthly, as well as annually. Not having them serviced and tested by a licensed professional will result in fines and a failure to pass the inspection. Changing batteries can be done at the same time as smoke detectors to make it easier to remember.

6. Fire Doors

red fire door with window

Fire doors that are left open or used as entry and exit doors will result in an immediate fine. These doors serve a purpose and must be kept shut as they are strategically placed so that in the event of a fire, they can help to contain it.

Fire will go through doorways much quicker if they are open, so a fire door must have a fire-proof rating so that it stifles a fire, rather than encourages it. If a fire is contained to a specific area, this can provide valuable time, even a few extra minutes for people to escape, and for firefighters to arrive.

The specific fire-rating applies to the frame of the door, hinges, handles, and closers, and must be approved by a third party. They must be self-closing and regularly checked to make sure they are up to code.

A fine for an infraction can be costly, however, if a door is wedged open in the event of a fire, insurance policies could deny coverage, which is an even bigger potential financial disaster.

7. Fire Pumps and Rooms

Fire pump rooms are typically only necessary for large commercial buildings and work in conjunction with a sprinkler system. They are responsible for supplying the water pressure to the sprinklers so that they can effectively put out a fire.

These pumps need to be checked regularly, and if it’s overlooked, once again a fine can be issued. More importantly, not checking the system can result in costly repairs from neglect.

Some inspections can be done by employees, but more important ones must be done by a licensed technician.

Fire pump rooms must also not be used as a storage space. Often, these rooms are used as a pseudo-janitorial catch-all, with mops and brooms stored amongst other various store items. This can also lead to an immediate fine, as it is considered a violation of fire code.

In the event of a fire, emergency crews need to access this space without any obstruction or delay, so leave the space clear of items that don’t pertain to the fire pump.

8. Exterior Fire Department Connections and Valves

There’s a reason why you aren’t allowed to park in front of a fire hydrant, these valves are extremely important in the case of a fire. As a business or building owner, you aren’t responsible for monitoring city street parking, but you do need to keep company vehicles and other obstructions cleared.

Proper landscaping is important so that trees, gardens, and benches are not in the way of these exterior fire department connections. Dumpsters and any equipment like fork-lifts and other vehicles must not be in the way, either.

Fines are immediate for such infractions, as any delay can be deadly, or detrimental to the building. Firefighters can also be injured in the event of blocked access points, as the connections require a great amount of strength and focus.

They need to be able to connect their fire hoses instantly, and without any encumbrance. Walk around the exterior of your building regularly to make sure fire safety is being practiced around any fire protection systems.

9. Extension Cables

extension cord plugged into wall

This may seem paltry compared to blocking a fire hydrant, but extension cords that are used on a permanent basis are one of the biggest fire code violations of all, and a common cause of fire. These should only be used as a temporary fix until an electrical issue can be dealt with.

This is a common occurrence in retail stores, restaurants, and when any construction is happening, but the best thing to do is either install more outlets and update your electrical panel, or find a way to reduce the need for the electrical cord.

Cords cannot pass through walls, and must not be “daisy-chained” or connected one after another, which puts too much load on the panel.

Same applies for power strips and multi-plug wall units, as often these devices are not capable of the amperage needed to supply enough power.

Make sure you know the capacity of your electrical panel, and only use extension cords and power strips safely, and as a temporary solution for extra power.

10. Commercial Kitchen Safety

Not all businesses have kitchens, but if yours does, adhering to the fire code is extremely important. There are very specific rules and specifications that must be followed, as well as suppression and fire systems that must be in place.

Exhaust hoods must be cleaned, as well as the venting that connects to them. Grease and food debris can accumulate quickly when cooking food, and these exhaust hoods are responsible for removing the greasy vapor.

A fire can quickly erupt if one of these gets blocked from neglect.

Check your local code to see how often you need to have them cleaned. It’s usually every few months and costs approximately $300. This may seem hefty, but fines aren’t cheap either. The loss of life or a business to a fire is even worse.

11. Sprinkler Systems

Sprinkler systems are often installed in commercial spaces, but also in large apartment buildings. It's always the owner’s responsibility to check and maintain any provisions of the fire code, no matter what a lease says.

If a tenant or maintenance worker paints the head of a sprinkler, it can render it useless. Stacking items like boxes, or hanging things from the pipes are also obstructions that would result in a fine, and potential disaster in the case of a real fire.

Check the necessary clearance needed for sprinkler heads, and perform regular maintenance just like other fire protection systems. They’ll need to be inspected at least once a year, and if any repairs are needed, they must be done immediately.

Sprinkler heads commonly need to be replaced, or at least cleaned if dust and debris collect on them. These systems are in place for a reason, and maintenance is key for their performance when it counts.

Remember that it's ultimately your responsibility to learn and follow all of the necessary fire code rules and regulations. While these are the 11 most common fire code violations, there are many others, so get to know the ones that apply to your business or building.

For large enterprises, a fire protection company can help maintain all of your systems, including proper record keeping.

Not having the right paperwork when an inspector comes by is another fine in and of itself. While you may get a pass on the first infraction, fire marshals won’t be so nice the second time—nor should they be.