Fire Marshal’s Office Reviews 11K Fire Protection Plans Annually

The below article originally appeared in the Tuesday, August 16 edition of Fairfax First which is an internal Fairfax County employee publication. A special Thank You to the author for allowing us repost it below.

By: Matthew Kaiser, Public Information Officer III
Department of Public Works and Environmental Services

The Fire Marshal’s Office (FMO) added two engineers to its team this year using Booster Shot funding; however, due to two unexpected vacancies the agency hasn’t been operating at full strength. But one would never guess that fact based on the 18 sprinkler saves logged so far this year. A sprinkler save occurs when a building’s fire suppression system functions the way it was designed, installed, and tested – the fire is successfully extinguished by the sprinklers thereby avoiding loss of life and additional property damage beyond the immediate area.

Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department Battalion Chief John Walser, Fire Prevention Services, says the county is averaging one sprinkler save every other week, a remarkable number. “When sprinklers don’t work, responding firefighters have to drag hose lines into a building and search for the fire.  They then can be faced with a much larger fire and pour hundreds of gallons of water onto the fire to extinguish it.  Sprinklers save lives and money by extinguishing fires quickly and efficiently,” Walser explained.

Serving a key function in the Fairfax First effort, FMO plan reviewers and inspectors work closely with other land development agencies and industry to deliver new, safe buildings on time. FMO reviewed approximately 11,000 fire protection plans in each of the last two years.  “Reviewed plans include fire alarms, sprinkler systems, special locking arrangements, evacuation plans, fire lanes, etc.,” said Walser. “There are about 27 distinct types of plans that we review.”

Four Fire Department plan reviewers (Engineer III’s) are embedded with the Land Development Services Building Division: Cheryl Wood, Keith Ruby, Terry Tewalt, and Damien Chaves. Another engineer, Tim Schwarting, works in the Burkholder Building. (Chaves and Schwarting were both hired with Booster Shot funding.) This group looks at sprinkler shop drawings to ensure the proper system is being designed. Among the things looked at by reviewers are:

  • Will the sprinklers provide adequate coverage?
  • Can the system support the demands required of the occupancy?
  • Will the system be properly constructed?

There are two categories of acceptance tests/inspections during the inspection phase. A visual inspection ensures the installed fire protection system is the same as what was approved on the plans. After that has been done, a full test of the system is required. “For sprinkler systems, this is a two-hour hydrostatic test to make sure the system holds pressure.  For fire alarms, this would be a full system test,” said Walser.

Fire protection systems are reviewed when the shop drawings are submitted, typically after the building plans have been approved. Walser says, “After installation, our inspectors ensure that the systems are built according to the approved plans. They also ensure that any field changes meet the applicable code. To do this, they must be very knowledgeable of the codes to be able to recognize changes and what must happen to get a system to pass.”

All branches work hard to make sure buildings open on schedule, but inspectors performing acceptance testing in buildings nearing completion face many dangers and challenges. “There is a great deal of construction activity underway as the building is nearing its occupancy deadlines,” said Walser. Inspectors must also coordinate with multiple tradesmen and subcontractors.

FMO has a team of inspectors dedicated to large projects. They work in partnership with general contractors to keep buildings on schedule and reduce the time to market. “These are the projects that usually require multiple inspections and tests due to the complexity and size of the fire protection systems,” said Walser.

Stories about sprinkler saves don’t make the news, but they demonstrate the importance of FMO’s role in ensuring structures in Fairfax County can withstand fires until firefighters arrive to finish the job. FMO is steadily reviewing fire protection plans and helping developers open buildings on time in which people feel safe living and working.


Fire Marshal’s Office inspector Garry Martin conducts an inspection of a business. FMO reviewed 22,000 fire protection plans during the last two years.