By Kristin Bigda, P.E., Technical Lead Building & Life Safety and Principal Engineer, NFPA
In the months since coronavirus took hold in the United States, each and every one of us has been rattled both personally and professionally. There have been days that we’ve been glued to news reports, grappled with science and surges, questioned restrictions in place, and struggled to find our voice and vision as this virus plays out.
Without question, the staff at the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has experienced a similar journey — but when you work for a global organization that has been reducing risk and addressing emerging hazards for nearly 125 years, you can’t help but refocus and think, “What will our stakeholders need to do their job right now?”
Typically, the approach that NFPA takes to respond to a hazard or proactively address an issue is geared towards one or maybe two audiences that could use some thought leadership. Given our broad scope that could mean healthcare authorities, designers and engineers, facility management, code enforcers, emergency responders, fire safety educators, policymakers, or the general public. With COVID-19, it seems that all NFPA audiences in our ecosystem have been caught in the crosshairs of this global crisis.
To best help professionals and practitioners during this time, we knew that we needed to respond with resources that would help them navigate the new normal and address all phases of the pandemic. Immediately, NFPA put forth a position urging officials to ensure that, during COVID-19 even when buildings may be fully or partially vacant due to closures, fire protection and life safety systems be maintained in all commercial and multi-occupancy residential buildings; and that the personnel and vendors that service those systems be deemed essential.
We then worked with internal and external sources to identify steps that authorities responsible for converting unused buildings or other occupancies into overflow hospitals would need. We recognized that modifying or constructing spaces in strict compliance with fire and life safety codes while getting ready to treat critically ill patients was not feasible; but we stressed the importance of looking at the fundamental purpose of codes and standards such as NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code, and the risk-based approach found in NFPA 99, Health Care Facilities Code when revisiting occupancies.
Our stakeholders have faced a number of challenges as the coronavirus picked up steam in all 50 states. Commercial buildings were dormant, inspection, testing and maintenance (ITM) was impacted, new construction was halted, and we saw a wide range of issues including propping fire doors open for hands-free access, storage and use of large quantities of sanitizer solution, large retail stores locking exits to thwart hoarders, egress restrictions at grocery stores, and other COVID-19 occupancy outcomes that we addressed in various communications and resources for our stakeholders. We emphasized the importance of ITM, championed innovative technologies like remote video inspection (RVI) to keep ITM on track, and reinforced the need for a fire safety plan when demobilizing buildings under construction.
Reopening Buildings Safely
Now, with recent announcements from the federal government and many states beginning to allow businesses to reopen, building owners and facility managers will be heavily impacted.
Regardless of the level of ITM performed during this time, it is imperative that building owners and facility managers verify the performance of all building fire protection and life safety systems prior to reoccupation. To assist with these efforts, NFPA developed a list of factors that should be confirmed by a qualified person before re-opening a building to ensure the safety of all its occupants.
Based on the assumption that the building was in compliance prior to being closed, a new Fire and Life Safety Checklist for Reopening a Building provides some initial steps to help ensure that the occupancy is safe enough to reopen until a qualified professional can complete the regularly scheduled ITM of all fire protection and life safety systems. The handy document covers everything from general considerations, fire extinguishers, fire alarms systems, water-based systems, means of egress, electrical, and references 10 NFPA codes and standards that should be considered. Any alterations to the building that adhere to public health guide-lines, such as the installation of physical barriers or automatic door openers, will also need to be evaluated to ensure that they are properly designed and installed; and that they do not negatively impact the fire protection and life safety systems currently in place.
A second checklist, called Ensuring Safety as Buildings Re-Open to a New Normal provides guidelines for specific issues such as egress arrangement, storage, seating and the addition of products and solutions used to meet social distancing requirements. Many buildings, including offices, restaurants, and retails stores will need to address these adjustments, as well as those that apply to physical reconfiguration of spaces and changes in operational use.
- Changes to how occupants typically enter and exit buildings as well as travel within them may need to be modified to avoid two-way flow encounters. Barriers or other means used to do this should not obstruct occupant’s access to exits and egress paths at any time
- Queuing lines out of a store or building should not impede exit discharge of adjacent stores or buildings.
- Hand sanitizing stations will likely be provided throughout buildings and, in most cases, administered through alcohol-based hand rub (ABHR) dispensers. The location and placement of ABHRs as well as the stored flammable liquid quantity must be verified to not exceed the limits allowed by codes and standards.
- Door operation cannot be impeded by the use of non-compliant hold-open devices to ensure the egress doors remain operable and in good working condition.
- When modifications to seating arrangements are needed in restaurants, adequate spacing must be provided between parties; being careful not to obstruct or block needed egress paths, exits, or access manual fire alarm pull stations.
- And finally, if changes to operations require the storage of extra materials, the storage cannot block egress, fire protection equipment, or be located too close to ignition sources.
Since early March, NFPA has swiftly provided insights to help facility managers, building owners, and others that play a role in the fire and life safety ecosystem navigate the here and now — while making clear that specific safety parameters are non-negotiable. We issued tip sheets, white papers, videos, webinars, podcasts, infographics, checklists, and a steady stream of relevant content so that those responsible for protecting people and property could balance safety basics with crisis-born demands. They can all be found at www.nfpa.org/coronavirus.
The building and life safety activity that has taken place in recent months and the new considerations that undoubtedly are on the horizon serve as a great reminder of the important work being done every day by those charged with facility management. This reality is not lost on those of us at NFPA; in fact, every day you will find us working on ways to make your burden just a little lighter.
Bigda, P.E., is the technical lead for building and life safety, and principal fire protection engineer in the Technical Services Division at the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). She manages the allocation of technical resources and contributes to and oversees the development of technical, stakeholder-driven content for NFPA’s portfolio of building and life safety related products and services. Previously, Bigda worked with NFPA’s Technical Committees developing the Fire Code, Life Safety Code, Building Construction and Safety Code, and opening protectives standards. Prior to joining the NFPA staff in 2007, she attended WPI where she received degrees of Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering and Master of Science in Fire Protection Engineering. Bigda is also a registered Professional Engineer in the discipline of Fire Protection in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
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