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New Training From NFPA to Slow Massive Blazes in Buildings Under Construction

A conference series event slated for June will cover an array of building and life safety issues, including construction site fire safety. Meanwhile, a revamped NFPA 241 and new trainings from NFPA aim to slow the trend of massive, costly blazes involving buildings under construction or renovation.

 

BY ANGELO VERZONI

On a cold morning in March, a thick column of black smoke rose from the center of Washington, DC, less than a mile from the United States Capitol.

According to comments posted on Twitter, the smoke could be seen in Arlington, Virginia, more than five miles away. “I thought we were under attack,” one observer wrote.

It was not an attack, but rather a fire on the roof of a high-rise building under construction.

 

On average, US fire departments respond to a blaze in a building under construction or major renovation every hour and a half. These sites are notoriously rife with fuel, including piles of trash and excess building materials. Combine that with no shortage of ignition sources, ranging from heating and cooking equipment to welding and other hot-work activities, as well as the fact that fire protection systems like sprinklers may not yet be active. It can all add up to an environment primed for a devastating fire.

Such fires make headlines weekly, often after they’ve razed massive, multimillion-dollar complexes nearing completion. Less than a month after the DC fire, four apartment buildings under construction in Dallas were destroyed in a fire; an arson blaze in a building under construction in Seattle caused an estimated $3 million in damage; and a Hampton Inn & Suites under construction in Ontario, Canada, was deemed a total loss after flames tore through the site in the middle of the night.

“Construction is a vulnerable point in a building’s life cycle just because of the sheer amount of change that’s going on in the structure,” said Kevin Carr, a senior building fire protection specialist at NFPA. Carr is the NFPA staff liaison to NFPA 241, Standard for Safeguarding Construction, Alteration, and Demolition Operations, which outlines the steps needed to keep construction sites safe from fires.

Although NFPA 241 has existed for over 80 years and is referenced in two of NFPA’s most widely used codes—NFPA 1, Fire Code, and NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code®—Carr said many people remain unaware of the document or its requirements. “When I’ve gotten the opportunity to talk to stakeholders, whether they’re AHJs [authorities having jurisdiction] or contractors, their knowledge of NFPA 241 tends to skew towards one of two extremes—they either have fairly detailed knowledge of the standard or they may have never used it,” he said. Knowledge of other NFPA standards seems more balanced among stakeholders, Carr added.

Carr and other building safety experts hope an updated version of NFPA 241, which went into effect in April, will help make fire safety more understood and attainable at these locations. New NFPA training programs and other educational resources related to fire safety in buildings under construction or renovation could also help reduce fire incidents. On June 22, as part of NFPA’s 125th Anniversary Conference Series, a daylong schedule of virtual educational presentations on building fire and life safety will feature presentations related to construction site fire safety, including changes to the 2022 edition of NFPA 241.

“I’m really proud of the latest edition of the standard,” said Bruce Campbell, a fire protection engineer and vice president at Jensen Hughes, who serves as the chair of the NFPA 241 technical committee. “I think people are really going to embrace it, and I hope it’s a big help.”

A revamped standard 

Like Carr, Campbell said many AHJs don’t enforce NFPA 241 because they don’t know much about it. But awareness isn’t the only issue. Some building owners, construction contractors, and subcontractors fear that the standard could hinder construction by making it slower or more complicated to complete, Campbell said.

 

“They may look at it as something that would restrict them or be too difficult to enforce,” he said. “But they need to start looking at it holistically and learn how to use it to their advantage. Nobody wants to have a large fire.”

Fear of higher construction costs is another factor that impedes NFPA 241 use, said Dave Chandler, vice president of environmental health, safety, and quality at Maryland-based Davis Construction. “But people need to understand that the requirements outlined in NFPA 241 are there for good reason,” he said. “I think they need to learn more about the standard and that standards evolve for a reason. Investing properly in safety minimizes the risk of catastrophes and loss of life.”

The direct property losses from the roughly 6,500 fires that occur in buildings under construction or renovation in the US alone each year totals over $400 million, according to the most recent NFPA data. Costly construction site blazes occur with regularity outside the US, too. In January, a fire at a facility being built for COVID-19 vaccine production in India killed five people and caused an estimated $130 million in losses.

The 2022 edition of NFPA 241 includes several changes designed to make it easier for the standard to be implemented and reduce some of these fears. One major change allows for sprinkler systems temporarily installed in buildings under construction to not comply with NFPA codes and standards—namely, NFPA 13, Standard for the Installation of Sprinkler Systems.

“The change gives us a good way of getting a sprinkler system in service quickly,” Campbell said. “Even if it may not be completely compliant with NFPA 13, it’s still there and can potentially make a difference in these fires.”

In July 2020, the National Fire Sprinkler Association (NFSA) published an article that acknowledged the issue with NFPA 241’s past NFPA 13 compliance requirement. “NFPA 241 defers installation issues to NFPA 13, even though many NFPA 13 requirements cannot be met until the late stages of construction or in a completed, functioning building with a certificate of occupancy,” NFSA wrote. At the same time, however, NFSA raised the question of whether non–NFPA 13 compliant systems can be fully trusted.

Others have raised similar concerns. In an interview with Fire Engineering in February, Jeff Hutchens, former safety director for the global construction company Avalon Bay, called the idea of turning on non–fully compliant sprinklers systems “a non-starter,” citing risks like the inadvertent activation of sprinklers from construction heating equipment, frozen pipes, and sprinkler damage from construction activities.

But to the NFPA 241 technical committee members, the benefits outweigh the risks. Additionally, Carr noted the change may not be as drastic as it seems, since AHJs are already permitted to make exceptions to codes and standards when they deem it appropriate. “The AHJ determines compliance with the code and is granted broad authority to require compliance in a number of ways,” he said. “This helps to ensure safety for both those working onsite as well as future occupants.”

According to Fire Engineering, getting sprinkler systems turned on as soon as possible on construction sites is something AHJs highly value and are already doing—even if it means devising creative, temporary solutions.

 

SIDEBAR: STILL HOT

By Angelo Verzoni

Sparks generated from welding ignited at least six fires in the United States and Canada during the last week in March alone, according to various news reports. These fires claimed one man’s life, caused hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage, and challenged the firefighting crews that responded.

“As soon as we got it under control, it started getting hotter and hotter and hotter,” one firefighter who responded to a blaze sparked by welding in Pompano Beach, Florida, told reporters from 7 News Miami.

According to the NFPA report “Fires in Structures Under Construction or Renovation,” published last year, welding and other hot work activities are responsible for about 7 percent of the fires that occur in buildings under construction in the US each year and about 9 percent of fires in buildings under renovation—that’s over one a day. Many more hot work fires occur at private homes, often when homeowners take on renovation projects themselves. … [READ ON]

“We have had excellent success in working with our local sprinkler contractors and building contractors in West Des Moines [Iowa] to have dry attic sprinkler systems connected very early in the building construction process to temporary fire department connections that our firefighters can connect to and supply with water during a fire,” West Des Moines Fire Marshal Mike Whitsell told the magazine. “Most sprinkler installations start from the attic down during the construction process, so the infrastructure is in place early on. And while the city water supply isn’t yet connected to the system, hydrants are active, so our fire trucks become the sprinkler riser for the sprinkler systems.”

Other changes to the standard include a new section to help AHJs with enforcement, a new chapter on large wood-frame construction, enhanced requirements for creating a fire prevention program for construction sites, and references to NFPA documents that focus on protecting historic buildings from fire. (More on these changes is outlined in “The Beat Goes On” from the Spring 2021 issue of NFPA Journal.)

Everybody’s responsibility 

Complementing this year’s updated version of NFPA 241 are a number of educational resources from NFPA related to fire safety in buildings under construction or renovation, including new online trainings on the 2019 edition of NFPA 241the fundamentals of construction site fire safety, and fire prevention program manager (FPPM) credentials.

The FPPM training fills a gap that’s existed for years. While NFPA 241 has long required construction projects to have a fire prevention program and an FPPM to oversee that program, up until the release of this training there’s been no way of ensuring these individuals are knowledgeable enough to do the job. “I think now we’re going to see some jurisdictions saying to contractors, ‘OK, who is your FPPM, and are they able to facilitate the role as it’s required by the standard?’” Carr said.

The beauty of both the FPPM training and the fundamentals of construction site fire safety training is that they aren’t based on NFPA code language, but instead on the general concepts surrounding the fire hazards that exist on construction sites. It’s an important distinction that will make the education more accessible to a larger number of people, including the workers who carry out day-to-day activities on construction sites.

“Everybody’s responsible for fire safety on a job site,” said Shawn Mahoney, an engineer at NFPA who helped develop the new trainings. “You could have the best FPP in the world, but if you don’t have properly trained people to enforce it and the workers on site don’t understand how they play a part in the FPP, it all falls apart. You’re only as strong as your weakest link.” This idea is reinforced by the concept of the NFPA Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem, which stresses the need not only for using and complying with codes and standards like NFPA 241, but also having a skilled workforce to carry out potentially hazardous construction activities.

 

Watch an NFPA webinar about fire safety for buildings under construction.

Valerie Ziavras, another NFPA engineer who helped develop the trainings, agreed and likened the fundamentals of construction site fire safety training to NFPA’s successful online certificate program on hot-work safety. “It’s similar in that it encourages everyone on a construction site to take responsibility for fire safety, but instead of just focusing on hot work, it goes further to address all of the other hazards,” she said.

The FPPM training, in particular, interests Chandler, who said he was eager to bring it to the attention of a group of safety professionals known as the DC General Contractor Safety Leadership Group, which represents about two dozen construction contractors in the Washington, DC, area. “When you look at the standard, it requires building owners to be involved with designating a fire prevention program manager, so I believe this training will be extremely valuable, not only to general contractors like Davis but to the owners involved in projects as well,” Chandler said.

Experts like Chandler hope the virtual events, online trainings, and a revamped NFPA 241 will begin to reduce the numbers of fires in buildings under construction or renovation.

“I think NFPA 241 and these related resources are underutilized,” he said, adding that after nearly two decades in the construction industry, he only discovered NFPA 241 about six months ago. “We can all benefit from implementing and utilizing this standard. It takes a really proactive approach at minimizing the risk, and any construction, alteration, or demolition has that ever-present risk of fire.”

ANGELO VERZONI is a staff writer for NFPA Journal. Follow him on Twitter @angelo_verzoni.

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