Safety

Update Fire and Life Safety Standards for a Safer Winter Season

Onsite fires are a leading cause of loss of life and costly damages. The need for education and safety is high.
By James Pecz
November 28, 2022
Topics
Safety

With fire on construction sites still a leading cause of loss of life and costly damages, the need for worldwide education and safety provision remains high. As winter closes in, bringing with it further perils for site safety managers, Ramtech's 2022 white paper, “No Site Left Behind: The Modern Fire and Life Safety Solutions for Construction” helps deliver fire and life safety awareness in the United States.

At the heart of the white paper is an understanding of the fire safety challenges faced by American construction sites, which continue to receive mainstream attention, such as the recent three-alarm blaze that took place at an under-construction memorial school in Massachusetts.

However, despite such attention and readily available statistics for fire disasters disseminated in the media, many U.S sites continue to rely on air horns as the primary source of evacuation. Furthermore, as fire safety rules can vary from state to state and sometimes city to city, there isn’t a unified approach to this national problem. Instead, safety is very much in the hands of site owners and managers, which means that ongoing education to ensure compliance is so important.

With winter on the periphery, focus is very much needed to ensure site managers remain on high alert and plan for the worst during a period in which fire risk is at its highest.

Understanding the issues

To illustrate the fire safety issues experienced in the United States, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) found local fire departments responded to an estimated average of 3,840 fires in structures under construction and 2,580 fires in structures under major renovation per year in 2013 to 2017. Of these incidents, the highest numbers came in the cold weather months of November, December, January and March.

What’s more, the fires in structures under construction caused an average of four civilian deaths, 49 civilian injuries and $304 million in direct property damage annually. While those in structures under major renovation caused averages of eight civilian deaths, 52 civilian injuries and $104 million in direct property damage annually.

Further, a recent report from leading global corporate insurance carrier Allianz insurance analyzed the new risks to the construction sector. Figures provided in the report showed fire and explosion incidents already account for more than a quarter (26%) of the value of construction and engineering claims over the past five years. With insurance claims from 2016 to 2020 reaching a total approximate value of $12.8 billion, this is a sizable chunk of the economy.

U.S. construction sites risks

Although the U.S. is not unique in its fire safety issues on construction sites, the sheer size of the United States and its various conditions and landscapes mean that there is a bigger challenge to protect vastly different types of sites.

From extreme weather at opposite sides of the spectrum to cities and coastal areas, construction and site managers across the country need to plan accordingly for the weather, type of site and other location-specific considerations.

On top of this, the United States is also subject to global construction site challenges, which happen during the construction phase, as open sites are often more vulnerable to theft, vandalism and arson. Further adding to this risk is the fact the typical building protection systems such as sprinklers, fire walls and detectors are not always in place until the final stages of construction. Even breakout areas where construction workers go to prepare hot meals and drinks can present a hazard if equipment is incorrectly used or left unattended.

More awareness and understanding of NFPA guidance, specifically the NFPA 241 (Standard for Safeguarding Construction, Alteration and Demolition Operations), must be prioritized to save lives and protect construction sites.

The NFPA 241

A large portion of the white paper seeks to unpick the NFPA 241 standard, which has been central to fire safety education and compliance in the United States for 125 years.

According to the NFPA’s CodeFinder, NFPA 241 is referenced 121 times across 43 U.S states and territories. While the majority are following the 2019 edition, there are several using the 2009 and 2013 editions and a handful still referencing the 2004 edition—indicating a lack of consistency.

California was the state with the highest number of references, with 22 cities and counties listed as following NFPA 241. In North Carolina, there are eight mentions of the standard from varying editions.

In areas where there is no presence of NFPA 241 referenced, there are often other codes followed. New York City, for example, follows its own NYC Fire Code, last updated in 2014 with some amendments made in 2018.

This extremely varied approach to fire safety standards is part of the challenge faced by the NFPA in encouraging a consistent approach to construction site safety. It indicates the state of confusion across America, particularly for project managers seeking to understand which codes and practices to follow. This lack of clarity is increasing the risk of huge damage to employee safety and site assets across the country.

With recent changes made to the NFPA in 2022, now is a particularly apt time to reassess the requirements, including aspects such as emergency contacts and communication procedures and a range of fire protection systems for different operations. Onsite security, protection of existing structures and documentation, as well as direction for a life safety plan and actions for temporary utilities.

Another crucial area is the role of the Fire Prevention Program Manager (FPPM)—every U.S. construction site needs one person and an alternate to ensure that site safety is maintained and processes are enforced in line with NFPA 241.

In practice

The NFPA Code 241 standard states that construction sites need to have security measures in place from the very moment ground is first broken, up to and including the final phase of building. To do this, many sites still rely on outdated air horns as an evacuation method on construction sites. However, this does come with disadvantages.

Namely, an air horn cannot provide sitewide evacuation, as it isn’t able to tell you where the fire is located, merely that there is a fire somewhere on the site. It can also be hard to distinguish the noise of an air horn above other background sounds on a site, and in colder weather, air horns can fail and not work at all. Furthermore, air horns don’t have the capability of adding smoke/heat sensors and other added value functions, such as a medical call feature.

Another form of widely used protection is watch patrols, where workers will walk around the site at regular intervals to check for safety issues. However, across large or complex sites, it is impossible for patrols to be everywhere at once. The time taken to walk across the site could mean a fire started long before the patrol reached it.

This is why investigating how technology can help to alleviate these traditional problems is a solution that the white paper sets out to explore.

Final thoughts

Ultimately, it should be the ambition of construction and fire safety professionals in the United States to educate all industry stakeholders to take a uniform approach by choosing the latest edition of NFPA 241 for construction, alteration and demolition standards.

With today’s rising costs, incoming harsh weather conditions and supply chain issues, discussing these challenges and how they can be overcome is opportune. The white paper can serve as a conversation starter and bring about real, positive change for the U.S. construction industry—with lessons that can also be applied to support the rest of the world to raise standards through life-saving technology.

by James Pecz

James Pecz is global marketing and business development manager at wireless solutions firm Ramtech. Ramtech designs and develops industry-leading end to end Internet of Things (IoT) and innovative wireless solutions to suit a variety of different industries, including construction and holiday parks. Its wide-ranging communications and hardware expertise has been developed for more than 30 years. Ramtech’s solutions – which are used across almost 30 countries worldwide – provide businesses with improved safety, security, operational efficiency, data insight, profitability, and more. 

To download "No Site Left Behind: The Modern Fire and Life Safety Solutions for Construction," visit www.ramtechglobal.com/white-paper

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