Reinventing the Fire Prevention Inspection Process

The Atlanta Fire-Rescue Department is taking a new and interesting path to approving building permits, plans review and issuing certificates of occupancy. The expressed goal is to be able to issue a final certificate of occupancy in a timely fashion...


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The Atlanta Fire-Rescue Department is taking a new and interesting path to approving building permits, plans review and issuing certificates of occupancy. The expressed goal is to be able to issue a final certificate of occupancy in a timely fashion without any surprises to the building owner, contractor or developer.

In a concerted effort to be more "customer friendly" and useful to community and economic development, Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin challenged the fire-rescue department to streamline and remove the "mystery" from the initial building inspection and permitting process. As Atlanta is becoming one of America's fastest-growing communities, with about $10 billion of new construction underway and an average of 502 residents moving into the metropolitan area every day, changing our permitting process only makes sense.

The project that served the test bed for our new program is the Georgia Aquarium. This article will take a critical look at the revisions that Atlanta Fire-Rescue is using in the plans-review and permitting process. These changes will raise the bar of customer service and discuss how we are becoming a partner, rather than a perceived barrier, in our community's economic development, while ensuring that Atlanta continues to be one of America's safest cities to live, work and play.

The Test Project

The Georgia Aquarium held its grand opening on Nov. 23, 2005. This was an amazing accomplishment, knowing the scope and degree of difficulty of the project. The design process timeline started months before the site preparation, with Georgia Aquarium CEO Bernie Marcus and his team taking a worldwide aquarium tour. During this brainstorming phase, nearly every public aquarium throughout the globe was visited to gather ideas about "best practices."

I was very pleased to hear in the initial team briefing that safety of the visitors, employees and animals was the driving force behind this elaborate travel and planning phase. In fact, some of the specific lessons learned, which were subsequently incorporated into the building design, included well-marked and identified areas; corridors and exits that are much wider than required; and automated external defibrillators (AEDs) being located throughout the visitors areas.

The building is of Type I fire-resistive construction. I am proud to report that the building is a fully sprinklered facility with all of the required detection and smoke-removal features that are indicated in the International Fire Code (IFC). The fire loading is low to very low, but the emergency response work is expected to be significant. The Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau estimates that in the first year of operation alone, between three million and four million guests will visit the attraction. Of course, we are planning for and anticipating a reasonable number of emergency medical responses as a result of this large visitor population.

Incorporated into this building are a public-use food court and a retail outlet center. In other words, the public can enter the non-display area, buy a gift or lunch, and never go into the aquarium tour. It is difficult to predict the visitor numbers that these services will attract, but knowing that Centennial Olympic Park and the CNN Center are only a few blocks away, the best guess is that there will be a significant number of meal-time walk-ups.

The footprint of this complex measures 237,000 square feet. There are two levels in the building, which includes a fish hospital and a world-class aquatic animal research center, operated by the University of Georgia. The plan is to attract the best and brightest "fish doctors" from around the world to study at the Georgia Aquarium. Another major feature of the building is an 1,800-car parking structure. This is connected to the main building and is also fully sprinklered with a wet standpipe system built in for manual fire protection functions.

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