Protecting Building Occupants From Wildfire Smoke

Wildfire smoke in the Northeast highlights the importance of ensuring healthy indoor air inside buildings, especially when outdoor air isn’t safe.

wildfire smoke
Adobe Stock / Jennifer J. Taylor

Wildfire smoke from fires in Canada is blanketing the Northeastern U.S., casting an orange haze in the skies. This is a rare scene for cities on the east coast, such as New York and Philadelphia. Landmarks are blurry beyond a haze, and airports like LaGuardia and Newark have halted operations through delays or a complete ground stop.

CNN reports that 55 million people across the Northeast, Midwest, and mid-Atlantic in the U.S. are under air quality alerts. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “the biggest health threat from smoke is from fine particles. These microscopic particles can get into your eyes and respiratory system—whether you are outdoors or indoors, where they can cause health problems such as burning eyes, runny nose, and illnesses such as bronchitis. Fine particles also can aggravate chronic heart and lung diseases and even are linked to premature deaths in people with these conditions.”

As building owners and managers, ensuring that buildings can serve as a sanctuary during a period of unhealthy air is critical for the health and safety of your staff, tenants, and guests. In conversations about indoor air quality (IAQ), often outside air is seen as a method of improving IAQ; however, buildings also have to be resilient to outdoor air pollutants.

“Given current events, it is advisable to avoid introducing external air indoors,” says Manish Sharma, Vice President and Chief Product Officer of Honeywell Connected Buildings. “The main concern is not restricting the entry of outdoor air into buildings, but rather in ensuring the maintenance of healthy indoor air when the option to bring in fresh air is not available.”

Here are ways to help protect building occupants and keep them safe in these conditions:

Monitor The Air Quality In Your Area

Understanding the situation is critical. Facility managers need to know how close the fire is to their location (as this could result in a fire emergency) and take preparations once they have that data.

“To maintain good indoor air quality in a building, it is important to monitor the air quality,” says Jon Douglas, Director of Johnson Controls’ Healthy Building Services and Solutions. He recommends using good quality indoor air quality sensors. “A good indoor air quality sensor will measure the following parameters: temperature, relative humidity, carbon dioxide particulate matter and total volatile organic compounds.”

Keep Occupants Informed

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends staying indoors or limiting time outside. Communicate the situation to staff and building visitors as best as possible via mass communication. Advise occupants, especially those with health conditions, to remain indoors.

Utilize Air Purifying Products

While many try to avoid stepping outside in poor conditions, outside air sneaks into buildings as people enter, through openings in windows, ventilation systems that draw from outdoor air, and more. This is where air purifying solutions come in handy—and can help decrease the risk of fine pollutant particles from impacting your building occupants.

“To promote better air quality in situations like these, buildings have to depend on automated and sophisticated sensing, filtration, air purification, and air circulation,” says Sharma. “The question then arises: how many buildings can presently claim to possess such important capabilities? At times like this, intelligent and advanced technology becomes critical.”

With the right plan and setup in place, schools, office buildings, hotels, community centers, etc. can serve as a much-needed shelter while the air quality is poor.

As another resource, review ASHRAE’s Planning Framework for Protecting Commercial Building Occupants from Smoke during Wildfire Events.