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March 2010: Fire Safety During Construction

You might wonder why fire protection is important in a building that is under construction - especially if the building will have noncombustible and/or fire rated construction. An estimated 4,800 fires occur annually on construction sites in the U.S., according to the U.S. Fire Administration. That is an average of about 13 fires per day, or one fire starting every two hours. These fires occur when both ignition sources and combustibles are present - which often occurs on construction sites.

Examples of combustibles are: wood forms for pouring concrete, wood scaffolding, temporary wood railings, building material packaging, dust, building materials, flammable liquids, flammable gases, and explosives. Potential ignition sources include, but are not limited to: welding and other hot work, smoking, temporary electrical equipment, and temporary heating equipment. Also, oil soaked rags can self-ignite by spontaneous combustion. The above scenarios can result in accidental fires, but arson is another potential for fire on construction sites.

Keeping adequate separation between combustibles and potential ignition sources is one of the easiest ways to minimize the chances of a fire at construction sites. Some ways to control ignition sources would be to: use hot work permit systems; ensure temporary wiring and heating equipment is turned off when personnel are not present; not allowing smoking near combustibles; and properly disposing of oil-soaked rags.

Good housekeeping will also help to keep combustibles away from ignition sources. This would include, but not be limited to: cleaning and properly discarding of any packaging; storing combustibles away from active work areas where ignition sources could be present; and regularly cleaning any combustible dusts that are produced.

The potential for arson can be controlled by providing security to the construction site. This can be accomplished by use of deterrents such as fencing, lights, guards, and cameras.

Fires during construction can be even more damaging than a fire occurring in a completed building. This is due to several factors, including but not limited to: sprinkler systems might not be fully installed; fire alarms might not yet be installed; adequate fire rated enclosures for steel may not have been provided yet; and fire rated building divisions also may not be present.

The effects of a potential fire can be minimized by coordinating the order in which certain stages of construction are completed. Ideally, sprinkler protection would be provided as soon as enough of the building structure is in place to hang the sprinkler piping. However, this is usually not practical, especially in places where freezing conditions can occur. Also, the layout of walls and other items in the building will determine the location of sprinklers. Additionally, sprinklers may be needed under or in some of the equipment provided. Thus, fire rated divisions and sprinkler protection should be provided as soon as possible. A general "rule of thumb" is that combustibles should not be introduced in the building until sprinkler protection for the area is operational.

Once sprinkler systems and/or standpipes are installed, the fire protection control valves should be secured with locks to help deter tampering with these systems. For example, construction workers often attempt to use water from a standpipe. This valve could be left open if a water supply is not actively present. When a water supply is activated, this could result in water spilling into the space. This could cause water damage within the space, and could deplete the water supply so that adequate water is not available for fire protection.

Additionally, fire protection impairment procedures should be followed. A fire protection system may be put into service but then impaired for some additional work. Without proper impairment procedures, this system could be left out of service. This would result in adequate water not being available for fire protection. Part of this impairment system should include ensuring that as much of the fire protection system is left in service as possible. An example of this is remodeling floors of a high-rise building. Floors that are not affected should be left in service, and as much of the floor that is affected should be left in service as well.

Supplying temporary systems may also help to minimize the damage in the event of a fire. For example, temporary sprinklers could be added to sprinkler piping at the ceiling until the full system can be installed. Stand-pipe systems can be added as floors for high-rise buildings are added. Also, a temporary water supply could feed water to sprinklers and or stand-pipes until the full water supply can be provided. Temporary fire detection systems can also help to alert the fire department of a fire.

Prompt fire department response is key to minimizing damage in the event of a fire, especially if sprinkler systems are not in service. Keeping the fire department updated with the status of the project and the ever-changing conditions will help to speed their response. In addition, ensuring that the fire department has access to the site during all stages of the project will help to ensure that a fire is controlled as quickly as possible. This includes providing stairwells as soon as possible in high-rise buildings and allowing access room for their tucks outside.

Each construction project will have its own needs. But keeping combustibles away from ignition sources, providing adequate protection and detection as soon as possible, and working to ensure a prompt fire department response will all help to minimize the chances of a fire that could cause extensive damage at your construction site.

Please contact Risk Logic for additional details on how to protect your construction project from a damaging fire.