Fighting Fire With Wire: Keep Your Work From Going up in Smoke

According to data from “Fires in Structures Under Construction,” published in this month by the NFPA Research, Data and Analytics Division, and other media reports, fires occurred at 3,820 U.S. construction sites with an estimated loss of $176 million in direct property loss between 2011 and 2015. In 2017, at least seven large-scale construction fires occurred. Two Massachusetts fires resulted in a combined estimated loss of $140 million. Understandably, these property owners did not want their buildings to burn down during construction and neither do the fire departments in the United States who have averaged more than 232 firefighter injuries because of these fires.

For an electrical contractor, a fire that burns down a project that intended to add to his or her revenues and gainfully employ a team of technicians is even more frustrating. The owners will typically have insurance to cover their losses. The EC has nothing. What if the fire consumed materials not yet invoiced and damaged tool boxes left on site? Nobody wins.

Because more commercial buildings consist of wood construction—many of them five or six stories in height—this has prompted the local fire officials to enforce NFPA 241, Standard for Safeguarding Construction, Alteration and Demolition Operations. Wherever the authority having jurisdiction enforces NFPA 241, it applies regardless of the building materials used.

Additionally, in states that have adopted NFPA 1, Fire Code, the International Building Code, or the International Fire Code, the requirements of NFPA 241 must be followed regardless of job size.

According to an NFPA bulletin published last year, Preventing Construction Site Fires, the following reasons explain why buildings under construction present such a high risk:

  • “Buildings under construction are largely unprotected—fire-protection systems such as sprinklers, smoke detection, fire alarms, and fire walls are typically nonexistent or not yet operational until a building is near completion. Often, construction site fires can spread rapidly before the fire department can arrive.
  • “Construction sites are often unsecured and are then vulnerable to trespassing, which can lead to vandalism, theft and intentionally set fires.
  • “Ignition sources are common on construction sites, including equipment (such as heaters) and hot work (such as welding, cutting, grinding, soldering and roofing). Any lapse in adherence to safety procedures can result in damage to the site itself as well as to adjacent buildings and can put site workers, civilians, and first responders at risk of injury and death.”

Enforcement of this standard requires the development of an overall construction or demolition fire safety program and that responsibility lies solely with the owner, or general contractor as the owner’s designated representative.

First, the owner must designate a person who will be responsible for the fire prevention program and will ensure the implementation of that program to completion. The standard also requires that the fire prevention program manager have full authority to enforce the provisions of NFPA 241, as well as all other referenced codes—for example, NFPA 72, National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code, and NFPA 70, National Electrical Code .

As stated in Annex A of the standard: where an entirely new structure is being constructed, the owner should ensure that specifications for new buildings contain a clause stating that the “contractor will take all reasonable precautions against fire in accordance with good fire protection engineering practice.” Loss prevention is the owner’s responsibility. However, loss prevention recommendations normally are accomplished by the contractor. Ensuring recommendations are carried out promptly may require the owner’s assistance.

Some opportunities for contractors include the installation of temporary fire alarm equipment, typically a manual fire alarm box with a horn/strobe above on each floor, typically at the stairway used for all emergency exiting.

Because NFPA 241 applies, it makes sense to develop a separate bid package to address the fire alarm and electrical issues from your electrical and systems package. Ensure the installation team understands the logistics of installing these systems. For construction operations, you must install new, fully operational fire protection systems as work progresses. For demolition operations, preserve as operational the existing fire protection systems during demolition.

Not understanding the implication of NFPA 241 could negatively impact your bottom line. Don’t let your work go up in smoke!

About the Author

Wayne D. Moore

Fire/Life Safety Columnist

Wayne D. Moore, a licensed fire protection engineer, frequent speaker and expert in the life safety field, is a principal member and past chair of NFPA 72, Chapter 24. He is a vice president with Jensen Hughes at the Warwick, R.I., office and can be...

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