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Ron Alalouff is a journalist specialising in the fire and security markets, and a former editor of websites and magazines in the same fields.
August 7, 2023


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Construction fire safety

NFPA 241: An introduction to construction site fire safety in the United States

Ron Alalouff provides an overview of the NFPA 241 code relating to construction site fire safety in the US, based on a talk and written presentation given by Ray O’Brocki, Manager of Fire Service Relations at the American Wood Council, at the High Rise Construction Fire Safety Conference in May.

The main code governing construction site fire safety in the US is NFPA 241. While it has many similarities to UK codes, it differs in some respects for specific circumstances in the US.

The American experience of construction site fire safety has many similarities to that in the UK, especially in terms of codes and guidance to enhance fire safety. Although there are around 6,420 fires a year at construction sites or at buildings undergoing major renovation, said O’Brocki, they only account for a fraction of fires compared to US house fires.


Credit: Jeffrey Isaac Greenberg/AlamyStock

But construction site fires tend to be big and do a disproportionate amount of damage.

Examples of such fires include a 174-unit apartment block in Bound Brook, New Jersey. The fire jumped across the street to another building under construction, and in total destroyed four surrounding buildings. Power in the downtown area was cut for a day, and a commuter rail line was shut down. Arson was the suspected cause.

Unsafe environment

It’s no surprise that construction sites can become an unsafe environment, said O’Brocki. Sources of fuel include combustible refuse and trash, building materials, flammable gases such as propane, flammable liquids and packaging materials. Sources of ignition include smoking materials, cooking, open flames, electrical equipment, light fixtures, heat and sparks from grinding and cutting, and of course arson.

While cooking equipment is the leading cause of construction fires, these fires are usually minor and account for only 2% of losses. But electrical fires and arson – while being the causes of just 27% of all construction fires – amount to almost 75% of losses.

One of the main codes on construction site fire safety is NFPA 241, originating as far back as the 1930s. In the US, the team overseeing fire safety consists of the:

  • Building Department, which provides enforcement and oversight of the building construction process, in accordance with state and local statutes
  • Fire Prevention Bureau, which enforces the adopted fire code provisions
  • Fire Suppression Division, which plans tactics and strategy for firefighting operations

Gaps in responsibility – Building Inspectors & Fire Inspectors

The traditional role of Building Inspectors is to review approved plans, ensure that the construction matches the plans, and apply building and trade codes. The Building Inspector views fire codes and fire safety as the responsibility of the Fire Inspector.

Fire Inspectors are rarely found on construction sites, said O’Brocki, although they do inspect finished buildings. But they view Building Inspectors as responsible for code enforcement on construction sites.

So there is a “responsibility gap” between Building Inspectors and Fire Inspectors. Both sides retreat into these traditional roles not out of bad motives, but due to the culture they were hired and trained into. Bad habits and unsafe practices exist, and staffing is also an issue.

BuildingSafety-20NFPA 241 states that a fire safety programme is required for all construction projects. The owner must designate a person to be responsible for the fire prevention programme. The programme manager is responsible for:

  • Proper training in the use of fire protection equipment
  • Development of a pre-fire plan with the local fire department
  • Adequate fire protection devices
  • Hot work permits
  • Weekly self-inspections
  • On-site security

O’Brocki’s presentation then went on to list the details that are required in a fire prevention plan. These include:

  • The organisational structure and responsibilities for fire safety
  • The recording of fire safety training given to workers and visitors
  • Risk assessments requiring specific fire safety measures
  • Fire safety requirements to comply with fire and building codes
  • Procedures for emergency notification and evacuation of everyone in the building under construction, aligned to the site emergency notification plan
  • Fire prevention measures such as security requirements and control of ignition sources
  • Procedures for hot work permits
  • Electrical supplies and equipment; plant and vehicles
  • Compliance with smoking policies
  • Prohibition of open fires
  • Control of combustible materials and flammable liquids and gases
  • Storage and disposal of waste materials
  • Fire department access, facilities and co-ordination

Fire protection provisions required in the fire prevention plan include: portable fire extinguishers; standpipes, hydrants, hose reels and water supplies; automatic fire detection and alarm systems; and temporary emergency lighting.

The plan also needs to include provisions for separation from adjacent buildings, special provisions if work is being carried out in occupied buildings, and urban wildland interface clearance, if appropriate.

Further reading: What’s new in construction site fire safety guidance for the UK?

Construction site security

O’Brocki’s presentation then went on to detail specific aspects of site security that need to be considered, such as video technology, patrol routes and notification procedures.

Guards need to be trained on notification procedures, the function and operation of fire protection equipment and familiarisation of fire hazards.

Maintaining good housekeeping procedures is also important. Housekeeping measures include: removing waste, scrap and debris on a daily basis; keeping the site free of accumulated packaging materials; providing appropriate metal bins for combustible waste and taking the contents off-site; allowing sufficient firefighter access and providing spaces around stored materials; and ensuring material stacks do not impede on any sprinkler system.

Measures that need to be taken for hot works include:

  • A written permit system specifying location, activity and time period
  • Reinforcement of accountability and constant fire mitigation measures
  • Distancing of combustible materials from a hot work area
  • Covering floor and wall openings within 35 feet of a hot work area, to prevent sparks from entering walls or falling to a lower level
  • Prohibition of hot works taking place in the presence of flammable gases, vapours, liquids or dust
  • Provision of appropriate portable fire extinguishers that are properly sized, fully charged and ready for operation
  • Keeping clear evacuation paths
  • Assigning a suitably trained and equipped person to fire watch during hot works
  • Inspection of hot work areas at day’s end
  • Provision of communicating an alarm in accordance with the emergency action plan

Other provisions

O’Brocki’s presentation also listed provisions for fire watches, electrical installations, smoking areas, designated cooking areas, best practice for heating equipment, passive fire protection, flammable liquids, and rubbish chutes.

New provisions of the code include a suitable location for a command post – with plans, emergency information, keys, communications and equipment as needed – the installation of an approved key box where necessary, the means to disconnect electrical service, and requirements for tall mass timber building construction.

Other topics covered in O’Brocki’s presentation include stairs for firefighting access, access to hydrants, standpipes and water supplies.

The full presentation can be viewed here.


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