That’s the time to start thinking about fire protection for a new large-building project.

Photo courtesy of www.aquafina.com/blog


Voluminous fires seem to run in waves. Thankfully, fires of a large magnitude occur less frequently today than in the past, due to the diligent efforts of building designers, construction teams, building owners and operators.

The size of building projects today seems to resemble small cities. It's not uncommon to see one building complex include a hotel with thousands of rooms, permanent living areas, sports venues, multiple large restaurants, museums, theaters, retail stores, water parks and large convention halls.

Due to the increasing pressure to outdo the competition on these types of projects and create an even greater "wow" factor for potential customers, building designers are adding design requirements outside the norm of traditional construction prescriptive codes. Building and maintaining an effective fire protection strategy in today's building project environment requires a proactive, team-based approach.

This article describes some of the unique challenges facing industry executives and emergency service personnel to protect large projects from fire before, during and after construction, while also identifying ways to collaborate on preventative fire measures.

Concept Phase

There are several points during the construction lifecycle of a building project for facility owners, design team members, fire service personnel, building code inspectors (or other authorities having jurisdiction), insurance carriers and fire protection consultants to collaborate. However, the first, and probably the best, opportunity for interested parties to interact is usually during the concept phase.

Meeting and discussing the scope of the project before the first shovel of earth is turned or tight construction deadlines begin to factor into decisions gives all parties the opportunity to perform a hazard analysis, weigh concerns that may surface and resolve any differences. Any changes made at this planning stage are likely to cost significantly less than trying to correct problems that surface later on.

Taking time to thoroughly analyze the concept of a project is increasingly necessary today, especially since facilities designers are implementing more performance-based concepts into their designs. The simple premise is that the more unique the project, the more time authorities will need to approve it. When creating a project for a public use building, there is a fine balance between maintaining maximum use of space versus providing adequate fire design protection. Before the project begins, all parties involved should review building codes, contact local emergency service authorities and inform property owners about the time it takes to obtain permits and complete plan reviews.

One pitfall that can occur from a lack of research before construction begins is when the conceptual team uses the wrong codes or wrong versions of codes. The urge is to use the most recent version of the model code. However, many areas are running at least one or two cycles behind in their adoption of codes. This may particularly become an issue when new technology (such as a water mist extinguishing system) is proposed. The earlier codes don't usually address new technologies as adequately as the current version. Using the wrong code also can occur when a project is being built in a suburb of a metropolitan area and the suburb uses a different version or even different code. The designer, not knowing there are two different codes, may apply the city version of the code versus the suburban version.

During this concept phase, it is also important to contact local emergency service authorities to provide the answers to the following questions:

  • How do the project managers move employees and visitors to the project out of harm's way?

  • Are there ample means of egress and means of alerting the occupants?

  • How do emergency personnel access the area with their equipment?

  • How do project managers or emergency personnel safely disable or render equipment, such as cranes, automatic retrieval systems, processing equipment, or other equipment, should automated safeguards fail?

    During the concept phase, it is also helpful to inform the project owner of the amount of time it takes to complete permits and plan reviews. The review process may take several weeks, especially in fast-growing areas or in an area known to have a complex review process. If this is the situation, project leaders should build the appropriate amount of time into the project plan.


  • Design Phase

    As the project takes shape, costs invariably rise, which can increase the temptation to lessen or eliminate fire protection features not required in the code. However, it is beneficial to all parties involved to avoid this temptation. There also will be a temptation to substitute lesser quality materials in order to reduce costs. While this may indeed save on the front end costs, the price of repairs and disruption going forward due to the shorter life span of these components cannot be underestimated.

    The model codes, such as National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 13 or the International Building Code (IBC), serve as a helpful blueprint for sprinkler design issues. However, increasingly, there are no code provisions that address some of today's elaborate construction projects. In some cases, fire protection and detection features are built and designed at the same time. Such complex projects may warrant taking a performance-based approach to designing fire protection rather than a prescriptive-based approach.

    The design phase is a good time for fire protection consultants and insurance carriers to get involved. Most insurance carriers have staff available to review plans, and the earlier the insurance carrier gets involved the better. Be sure to communicate any build-design or other unique approach to all parties involved. Due to the large areas and values at risk during construction, insurance carriers and authorities having jurisdiction may require items like a redundant water supply, a different power source, or a backup pump.

    Having an adequate, reliable water supply is the basis for which the entire fire protection scheme is based. It is important to have water-based fire suppression systems placed as close to the water supply as possible. If the supply is deficient, several alternatives may be available, including installation of a pump and tank, bringing water onto the site via a larger main, or supplying the project from a second water source.

    When testing a water system, it's important to take the demands on the system from other users into account. When selecting the water supply, it is also important to consider the long-term water needs for the project. For example, if the water supply is located in a growing area or the water supply is at a borderline low level, supply deterioration could occur in the near future. The design phase is the proper time to identify these potential issues and then recommend the appropriate solution. In the case of the borderline low water level, the design phase is the time to recommend the use of a tank and pump.

    Construction Phase

    During the construction phase, a carefully planned fire protection scheme can fall apart if not monitored. Even the best design can go awry if project specifications are altered or incorrectly detailed or bid. The owner and developer, as well as fire protection consultants and insurance carriers, should agree to fire and life safety provisions.

    Fires are common during construction, so the fire department should be a key player in this phase as well. Often, detection and suppression systems are not yet in service, open flames are present and fire loads involving building materials are concentrated. It is vital to protect building materials from the elements to maintain their integrity and prevent water or physical damage. Fire department access to the site is crucial.

    One system that has proven to be effective is the use of hot work permits and procedure. This system is used to outline procedures and practices to follow in order to maintain control of activities that create heat, flame and/or sparks in areas where they do not normally occur, such as welding or roof repairs. Failure to use a version of a hot work system has been a factor in many large fires over the years.

    Information on project status should also be available to the fire department. It is important that they know which systems are in service and how they can access the site. Many minor fires have become major fires because the fire department didn't have up-to-date information about the water supply or standpipe, or access to the scene and facility.

    Contractor selection can have a significant impact on fire safety. Contractors should have a track record of work in the geographic area and in the industry. They should have written programs pertaining to debris minimization, hot work, site security, and storage of flammables and valuables. Contractors should also be required to produce evidence of insurance and should have indemnification provisions in each contract.

    Control of flammables and open flames is even more critical if the project involves an existing facility that remains open during construction. In these cases, the public should not be permitted to access the construction area. Flammables should be returned to marshaling areas at the end of the workday, and grounding and bonding procedures should be used if transfer is occurring between large and small containers.

    Substitute material is another issue that arises during construction. With most large construction projects, specified building components and systems are tested in advance. But substitute components may not perform as effectively as the original products used in testing. Examples of this could include substituting insufficient fasteners, using alternative adhesives and substituting higher flame-spread insulations.

    Pre-Opening

    Many projects are under intense pressure to open as soon as possible, which could provide the motivation to take shortcuts during system acceptance testing and final punch list items. However, allowing facilities to open with impaired or partially completed systems puts the project at risk.

    The pre-opening is a good time for local responders to tour the facility and flesh out access points, utility cutoffs, command center information needs and incident management procedures. The fire service uses a National Incident Management System. Collaboration can be enhanced if the facility follows this same methodology.

    It also helps to have responders present as systems are commissioned or placed into service. Many responders may never have seen a fixed fire pump operate or witnessed an acceptance test for a fire protection system.

    Opening and Operations

    After the facility opens, a normal business routine quickly ensues. This is when both emergency responders and facility staff can become complacent. For example, if the facility is subject to a large number of false alarms, emergency responders can become unconcerned about responding to yet another call. Facility staff can also get into the habit of not taking alarms seriously.

    Many industries are required to conduct documented fire drills and evacuation training on a regular basis. Once again involving emergency services enhances the realism of the drill, allows them to observe evacuee flow patterns and for both sides to develop a rapport prior to an emergency.

    Some authorities having jurisdiction to the location will require a fire command center to be installed in larger facilities. These centers can be as simple as a location where alarm and suppression system information is contained in a functional emergency operations center. Beyond the mandated equipment and hardware, having the following in the facility would help during an emergency:
      1. Facility maps – Blueprints are great, but notebook-sized layouts of buildings or sections of buildings are very useful to the fire service when search and rescue or evacuation becomes necessary. If blueprints are also included, they should be "as-built" drawings to reflect conditions as they currently exist.

      2. Map of areas covered by sprinkler systems – The risers and divisional valves should be marked to show the areas they cover. This information should also be provided on a print or drawing.

      3. Utilities – Utility shutoff locations and areas covered should also be clearly marked. Even though a staff member is likely to be present at all times, having this information can help the fire service and the location's staff decide on the safest means to de-energize areas.

      4. Means of accessing facility information – During an emergency, resources may be limited. Having a report showing the areas that are occupied can help the fire department focus their initial search-and-rescue efforts.

      5. Ability to communicate – During an emergency, the facility should have someone available who can communicate between site staff and the fire department.

      6. Facility emergency procedures – These procedures provide the fire service with information on what activities are in progress and what the facility expects from its staff during an emergency.

    After the facility opens, inspection, testing and maintenance procedures take on increasing importance. These procedures, which should include fire suppression and detection systems, should be in line with model codes such as NFPA 25 and 72. Comparing these results, particularly involving flow tests, to prior years is key. A reduction in pressure may indicate deterioration of the water supply system due to growth or off-premise water main damage. Other fire protection systems, such as kitchen systems, gaseous suppression systems and fire pumps, should be tested and maintained.

    As appropriate, implement and revise procedures for human element programs. Such procedures include reporting sprinkler impairment to the insurance carrier, hot work procedures for staff and contractors, and infrared electrical system inspections, as well as use of lockout tagout procedures for energy control. Roles and responsibilities for emergency response should be established and revised after each incident to incorporate any lessons learned.

    Special Challenges in Operational Phase

    Facilities with large assembly occupancies can encounter additional challenges in protecting against fire, some of which are listed below.

    Large Assembly Areas. Arenas, large dinner theater venues, other entertainment venues and convention centers require special attention. In the event of an emergency, staff must be able to notify and evacuate attendees. NFPA 101 includes a process for conducting a Life Safety Evaluation that assesses building systems and management features designed to provide occupant safety. Large facilities require at least one crowd manager, with additional managers added based on occupant load. Some municipalities require a certified person be on staff based on potential occupant load. 

    Challenges for Industrial Facilities. In an emergency, facilities may need to bring in portable supplies such as power and/or cooling. A point in the concept or design phase that can help this process if necessary is to think of where portable power or cooling supplies would need to be interfaced into the facility. In some industries, it is also common to work with their competitors to provide storage or even production in some cases.

    High-Rise Facilities. High-rise buildings are a unique type of occupancy. Employees are generally office workers who are unlikely to be aware of the fire protection features and means of egress. For the fire service, accessing a serious fire that invariably occurs on the upper floors is an additional challenge. Egress components are based on a staged evacuation.

    Should the entire facility need to be evacuated at once, it will be critical to provide evacuees with continuous updates about the emergency and what actions they should take. Responders using the stairs may find them clogged with persons from the upper levels who struggle to make sense of information from PA systems, news sources and emergency responders. These systems should be able to clearly communicate and broadcast consistent messages.