My family and I are here at home finishing up week 2 of our new routine of working at home together and parenting at home together. We are navigating the challenges of balancing work calls and online meetings with children’s activities and education. It is a new adventure for all of us.
Just like the new routine many families are now facing day to day, the rapid onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States and across the world has forced many fire safety professionals into a new routine, balancing a unique crisis many if not all of us have never faced. Fire inspectors are facing a new way of enforcing code requirements and prioritizing what to enforce and what can be modified. The purpose of the Fire Code is to prescribe minimum requirements necessary to establish a reasonable level of fire and life safety and property protection from the hazards created by fire, explosion, and dangerous conditions. That being said, balancing a global pandemic is not a condition model codes were written to address. As an industry of fire safety professionals, with our day to day lives focusing on saving lives and protecting buildings from fire, we are now faced with a situation where fire safety requirements may in fact be overwritten by those provisions necessary to save lives from the infection of a virus.
So, how is the coronavirus pandemic impacting fire safety and enforcing the Fire Code? As society responds, reacts, and adapts, many unique inspection challenges have arisen, with impacts on healthcare facilities and beyond:
Storage and use of alcohol-based hand-rub (ABHR) sanitizers and other storage issue: The use of ABHR products is regulated by fire and life safety codes. A unique fire safety requirement, the Code recognizes the need for almost all occupancies to provide ABHR dispensers to prevent the spread of infectious diseases without compromising life safety. To balance this need, requirements for the safe use of ABHR address location of the dispensers and places limits on how much of the solution can be in use and in storage so that the overall hazard of this potentially flammable solution remains low. The hazard arises when the aggregate quantity of the solution exceeds the maximum quantities permitted by the Code. There is much greater chance that during this time and especially once businesses start to reopen and welcome back employees and the public into their buildings that they could likely be using or storing excess quantities of alcohol-based hand sanitizers in areas without proper protection.
Other storage issues may arise when facilities, likely hospitals, use areas in the building to store extra supplies (masks,
linens, PPE) that were not designed or protected for a storage use. The Code requires areas of buildings with a level of hazard greater than what would normally be found in that occupancy to be protected either with fire rated separation or sprinklers, or sometimes even combination of both. Where the building wasn’t designed for storage in certain areas, changing its use to storage could result in an unprotected space.
Access to buildings to conduct routine inspection, testing and maintenance procedures. Due to the plethora of federal, state and local restrictions on business operations, many facilities have either closed down or limited their businesses to very few essential personnel. Security has been put in place to limit building occupants. Where routine inspection, testing and maintenance is required by the Code to be performed on building’s fire protection systems, along with deferring the critical services, inspectors and contractors are also facing challenges with accessing buildings to do their jobs if they are hired to do so. NFPA urges officials to ensure that fire protection and life safety systems be maintained in all commercial and residential buildings with multiple occupancies throughout this global pandemic in order to avoid exacerbating the current environment by compromising fire and life safety, and leaving buildings vulnerable to vandalism. Following are some recommendations to help do this:
Maintain safe egress facilities. As facilities seek to control who enters their buildings and how many people entire their building so that the crowds remain safe, the risk increases for blocked, locked, or obstructed egress from the building. We were made aware of a situation in which a grocery store manager was locking exterior exit doors (other than the main entrance/exit) from their facility in order to reduce theft, as shoppers were attempting to overstock on grocery items and other supplies. There are provisions in place in the Code to balance security and life safety issues in mercantile occupancies that were developed for this situation. Facilities should not compromise the fundamental need to provide multiple egress routes that are under the occupants control when businesses are open.
Enforce residential fire safety requirements. Quarantining, social distancing, remote work, students at home from school and college… many people have found themselves spending more, if not all of their time in their residences. The more time at home, the greater the risk of fires in the home. The Code addresses many basic fire prevention issues that impact us in our homes such as the use of candles, space heaters, location of grills, electric safety (that new home office setup might have overcrowded electrical outlets or daisy chained power strips), and the installation and maintenance of required smoke alarms. The person responsible for the property is responsible for complying with this Code. The AHJ should work with property owners, operators, and occupants in residential facilities such as apartment complexes and condos, to educate them on the requirements of this Code. Understanding that fire department resources are extremely tight at this time, if management takes a proactive approach to fire safety, others in the organization will likely do the same, thus increasing the fire safety of the property.
NFPA is continuing to address these and other issues as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to evolve, so make sure to regularly check our website and online platforms, including Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter, for new information, resources and updates.
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IT’S A BIG WORLD. LET’S PROTECT IT TOGETHER.