Up in Smoke: Protecting Your Work From Fire Risk

Published On
Jan 16, 2018

Early on a Sunday morning in July 2017, a massive fire destroyed a luxury apartment complex under construction in Waltham, Mass. The fire was the second Boston-area blaze in a month to ravage a new project built with an increasingly popular method—using almost entirely wood. The fire destroyed the 264-unit apartment building and damaged adjacent buildings and 20 vehicles. In this case, no one was hurt, but that doesn’t help the contractors who were counting on that work to keep them busy through the summer.

This fire was one of four fires in wooden buildings under construction during a three-month period. Given the fact that more builders are using wood to construct taller buildings, the chance grows each day that you will work on this type of building yourself.

Many cities and towns are attempting to prevent such large fires by enforcing a standard that is already referenced by the building codes to protect against fire in buildings under construction: NFPA 241, Standard for Safeguarding Construction, Alteration, and Demolition Operations. It is the standard intended to require and define “safeguards for construction, alteration and demolition operations to provide reasonable safety to life and property from fire during such operations.”

It is important to know the standard exists so you can assist your customer by providing temporary fire alarm systems throughout the building while it is under construction.

In general terms, the standard requires the owner to provide these temporary systems, as well as to establish a fire safety program. This program usually includes the requirement for a security patrol for the unoccupied time during the construction period. Program enforcement may fall under the general contractor who will then require all the subcontractors to participate in the safety program. A typical fire safety program is outlined in Section 7.1.2 of the standard with all the following items required to be addressed in the fire safety program:

(1) Good housekeeping
(2) On-site security
(3) Fire protection systems:
    (a) For construction operations, installation of new fire protection systems as construction progresses
    (b) For demolition operations, preservation of existing fire protection systems during demolition
(4) Organization and training of an on-site fire brigade
(5) Development of a prefire plan with the local fire department
(6) Rapid communication
(7) Consideration of special hazards resulting from previous occupancies
(8) Protection of existing structures and equipment from exposure fires resulting from construction, alteration and demolition operations

Note items 3a and 3b, because these requirements could lead to additional costs during construction by affecting your new fire alarm system installation plan. It is very important to know in the jurisdictions where you work whether the NFPA 241 standard will be enforced.

The property owner must designate a person to ensure the fire safety program is carried out to completion. Also, the fire safety program manager must have knowledge of the applicable standards, the tempory fire protection systems and fire inspection procedures. Where a guard service is used on the property, the fire safety program manager will be responsible for managing that service.

The manager will also be responsible for establishing a prefire plan with the fire department that will be responding to all fire calls. Part of the prefire plan will include additional inspections by the fire department’s fire marshal or fire prevention officer. The standard requires in Section 7.2.4.2 that the manager “be responsible for the presence of adequate numbers and types of fire protection devices and appliances and for their proper maintenance.”

Of course, this presents an opportunity to provide the additional equipment during construction in addition to the new system that will be installed. I recommend you do not try to install any of your planned equipment for the new system to “protect” the building during construction. If this equipment gets contaminated, after the building is occupied, you will suffer numerous false alarms and call backs that will erode any profit from the project. Instead, investigate what is available to serve this specific temporary fire alarm system needs. At least one manufacturer has produced a wireless approach to temporary fire alarm systems, as shown below. The standard also requires that, while this system is installed, it must be maintained and tested in accordance with the appropriate NFPA standards which of course in our case is NFPA 72, National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code.
Additionally, there is a requirement to provide a “readily available public fire alarm box near the premises, telephone service to the responding fire department, or equivalent facilities.”

When this requirement is in place, the connection off-site could take on many forms, including wireless radio or cellular telephone systems.
It is your team’s responsibility, as well as the responsibility of the other subcontractors on-site, to be aware of the need for fire safety during the construction process. The owner is required to place instructions for the immediate notification of the fire department in the case of a fire. This could be through signs placed throughout a building to enable someone unfamiliar with the area to call the fire department and give the proper instructions for response including the site address. The standard also requires that, where telephone service is employed, the local fire department number and site address must be conspicuously posted near each telephone.

Keep in mind that the temporary fire alarm system must be treated the same as any other fire alarm system. For example, if there is a need to impair the temporary system in any way, follow the requirements outlined in NFPA 72 and these impairments to the system during construction can only be authorized by the fire safety program manager, generally with the permission of the local fire marshal.

NFPA 241 also must be used for renovations to buildings. As it says on 3b, you must preserve existing fire protection systems during demolition. This means that using the existing raceways for your new fire alarm system will not be allowed. If your price for the fire alarm system installation was based on using the existing raceway, you will stand to lose your profits and then some as you install new raceway for the new fire alarm system installation. NFPA 241 requires that temporary protective coverings be used on all fire protection devices during renovations to ensure that painting or construction dust will not contaminate the smoke detectors and other devices and control equipment. If you do not ensure compliance, there will be false alarms and they will not stop until the detectors are cleaned and free from all contamination, further eroding any profits you might make on the project. Finally, all protective coverings must be removed promptly when renovation and painting work has been completed in the area.

NFPA 241 offers opportunities for contractors who know their way around the codes and standards system. It is obviously very important to speak with the owner about providing a temporary fire alarm system even if NFPA 241 is not adopted in the area. Because you can use the temporary fire alarm system multiple times, it would appear to be a good investment that you can use to set yourself apart from the competition. I suspect knowing about the requirements of NFPA 241 would also accomplish the same purpose.

About the Author

Wayne D. Moore

Fire/Life Safety Columnist

Wayne D. Moore, a licensed fire protection engineer, frequent speaker, writer and expert in the life safety field, has been a principal member and chair of NFPA 72, Chapter 24, as well as a former principal member of NFPA 909 and NFPA 914. He is the...

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