(Fire And Life) Safety First

A closer look at the fire and life safety considerations for construction, alteration, and demolition projects.

By Dan Kester
From the August 2022 Issue

Take a minute and think about what you as a building owner, construction/demolition manager, project manager, or planner should consider during the construction planning phase. Of course, your immediate focus should be how to get the job done as quickly as possible to keep costs low for you and your customer so everyone can turn a profit for their business. To help protect your company, project, and people, as well as your client’s investment and reputation, it is important to integrate fire protection and life safety measures into your policies and procedures into project plans.

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) publishes a national standard that covers construction, alteration, and demolition. This standard, known as NFPA 241, Standard for Safeguarding Construction, Alteration, and Demolition Operations, was originally published over 80 years ago and is the go-to document to reduce the risks of fire during construction, alteration, and demolition. NFPA 241 provides the information and practices that construction/demolition project managers, building owners, and construction/demolition crews need to reasonably address the building’s fire and life safety needs while it is under construction/alteration/demolition and to protect people and the property from fire.

fire and life safety
Without proper planning, the risk of fire during a construction process increases. (Photo: adobe stock / Grand Warszawski)

Setting Up For Safety

Within NFPA 241, the building/site owner’s role is to designate a person to be responsible for the fire prevention program during the project. This designated person is known as the Fire Prevention Program Manager (FPPM) and is responsible for protecting lives and property from fire during construction, alteration, and demolition activities throughout the project.

Additionally, if adopted by the Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ), one or more acceptable alternates should be selected. The FPPM’s responsibilities include but are not limited to the following: daily inspections; fire prevention awareness and education; control of hot work; fire system impairments; and pre-incident plans.

When selecting the FPPM, consulting a Fire Protection Engineer with NFPA 241 experience for the assignment may be the best solution, as they will have the competence to protect lives and assets. Additionally, they could be assigned to a quality assurance roll and oversee the installation of active fire protection systems (e.g., sprinkler and fire alarm systems) and passive fire protection systems (e.g., fire walls, barriers, and firestopping).

The placement of temporary construction offices, sheds, and combustible construction supplies is an important fire safety element and should be strategic. If their separation is inadequate, a fire can quickly spread. The objective of separating office trailers, sheds, and combustible construction and supply materials from one another is to keep small fires small (i.e., keep fires from spreading), which is why the applicable NFPA standard includes separation distances information.

NFPA 80A, Recommended Practice for Protection of Buildings from Exterior Fire Exposures, is another resource to reference when planning the layout of construction site office trailers, sheds, and different combustible materials.

Because utilities are one of the first things to be installed on any project, it is important that clear and unobstructed (physical and visual) access to fire hydrants and utility isolation points (e.g., electrical disconnects, gas valves, water valves) are maintained. To aid the first responders, depending on field conditions, it may be prudent to post these isolation points with signs and to post a map with their locations on each site entry gate.

The building owner, construction/demolition manager, and project manager all put a project plan in place to create the best possible outcome. For the same reason, the FPPM should work with the local AHJ to develop a Pre-Incident Plan and keep it updated throughout the project. Pre-identifying, documenting, and recording the hazards and the information that the emergency response crews will need in an emergency makes Pre-Incident Plans extremely valuable to the owner, project, and emergency response agencies.

Preventing Fires And Identifying Fire Hazards

Whether you are constructing a new building or performing alterations, installing temporary fire sprinkler and fire alarm systems will help protect the property and personnel. A temporary sprinkler system is normally not required, but is significantly cheaper than losing a project to fire. Until the building is ready for the permanent fire alarm system, fire alarm system technologies are now available that make it possible to have a fully functioning wireless remote network fire alarm system on site and functioning while the project is in motion.

Having a system that can sound local and site-wide evacuation alarms, be equipped with heat and/or smoke detectors, and send out notifications for a medical or other emergency is advantageous and is an attractive asset that can help save a project and lives.

fire and life safety
Workman spraying water over a demolition site to prevent dust and possible fire from the demolition process. (Photo: Adobe Stock / Michael Evans)

Areas that are shielded from natural light need temporary lighting and emergency lighting. Night crews will need temporary lighting and emergency lighting in all of their work areas and along all designated escape routes and/or means of egress. To help prevent fires and to reduce the hazards and maintenance associated with bulb-type light strings, temporary lighting of the LED type is recommended. Because power outages occur and because gas/diesel generators can malfunction or run out of fuel, the emergency light fixtures should be of the battery back-up type and automatically illuminate upon the loss of power.

During alteration projects, maintaining passive fire protection systems (e.g., fire rated barriers, fire doors, firestopping) is vital to minimize fire spread. Always return fire doors to the closed position when leaving the area, during breaks, and at the end of the workday, and avoid propping fire doors open or obstructing their closure.

Having a daily work plan checklist that includes the subject of hot work and the controls is highly recommended and is a simple measure that promotes personnel and fire safety. Hot work requires planning and a permit (a hot work checklist can serve as the hot work permit per NFPA 241). On a daily basis, all construction personnel should know if hot work will be taking place, the times it will occur, and where it will occur. Taking these measures to prevent hot particles from escaping the work boundary area will help prevent fires and personnel injuries.

Performing a pre-inspection of the hot work area on a daily basis (at minimum) to verify the correct shielding is being used and is in place—and relocating combustible materials and flammable/combustible liquids out of the required combustible free zone (includes wall and floor openings within the required 35-foot radius)—can also prevent fires and personnel injuries.

Further hot work guidance can be found in NFPA 51B, Standard for Fire Prevention During Welding, Cutting, and Other Hot Work. Because pits, tanks, and sumps can contain flammable vapors or gases, they are a potential hazard if they are within the OSHA and NFPA stated 35 ft. protection area. In some cases, hazard analysis and gas sampling in and around pits, tanks, and sumps may be necessary before hot work begins. NFPA 51B allows the fire watch to have concurrent duties, but the fire watch activity must remain in place for an hour after the activity is suspended. Additionally, the NFPA 241 requires a dedicated fire watch during torch-applied roofing operations and for a period of two hours after the activity is suspended.

There is significantly more fire safety information in NFPA 241 and NFPA 51B. Whether or not these are required by your AHJ, adopting them into your policies and procedures, and then integrating their fire protection and life safety measures into your overall project plan, will help you protect your company, project, and people, and your client’s investment and reputation.

Kester is a Fire Protection Engineer with NV5 where he helps his clients manage their fire protection risks.

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