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4 Posts authored by: ncomeau Employee

Los Angeles

Keeping communities safe from fire, electrical, and other related hazards isn’t something that just happens—it’s the result of having a fully functioning Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem.  When any one component fails, consequences can be catastrophic. 

 

In the case of the May 16, 2020 explosion at a downtown Los Angeles cannabis-related business (Smoke Tokes), 11 firefighters were injured—and the outcome could have been much, much worse.  What I have read about the event since it happened illustrates breakdowns in the Ecosystem, and in Los Angeles there is already movement afoot to close some of those gaps.  A recent article in the Los Angeles Times, “LAFD has no record of inspecting downtown building that exploded in May,” highlights the failure of the “Code Compliance” Ecosystem component and is tied to how having a trained workforce could have helped avoid this outcome.

 

Ecosystem Component: Code Compliance

 

Keeping buildings in compliance with codes is a two-way street.  Building owners, facility managers, and tenants share a responsibility for keeping buildings and businesses safe on a day-to-day basis.  Authorities Having Jurisdiction (AHJs) are responsible for ensuring that buildings are in compliance by performing inspections, often at prescribed intervals.  In the case of Smoke Tokes, the Los Angeles Fire Department had no record of ever inspecting the business, despite the fact that the property was listed in the department’s Fire Prevention Database.  According to Fire Chief Ralph M. Terrazas, the business required an annual inspection, and if it had been inspected, it is likely that the large quantities of hazardous materials (butane and nitrous oxide) would have been seized.  That said, if the building had been inspected before these chemicals were brought in or stored in dangerous quantities, an inspection wouldn’t have changed this outcome.  Because inspections are a snapshot in time, having a skilled workforce is an equally critical component in terms of helping drive safety on an ongoing basis.

 

Ecosystem Component: Skilled Workforce

 

As my colleague, Meghan Housewright, wrote in her June blog, "Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem: Skillsets are Incomplete Without Key Safety Component," “A skilled worker who overlooks safety is not a skilled worker.” Building owners and facility managers play a vital role in ensuring that the buildings they own and manage are safe.  Understanding fire and life safety requirements for maintaining safe buildings is a key (and often overlooked) piece of knowledge that people need to do their job. For example, they need to understand what type of activity tenants are engaged in and whether that activity is allowed based on the building’s occupancy classification and protection features to ensure the proper safety systems are in place.  Beyond that, tenants need to understand safety requirements around the storage and use of products that they sell or need as part of doing business, among many other things.  If people don’t know the requirements, it is unlikely that they are aware of risks, and even less likely that they actively work to mitigate them.  So many of these tragic events are preventable—but only if people are aware of and manage risk. 

 

Using the Ecosystem as a Framework

 

The Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem is a valuable tool to help you identify opportunities to work differently to improve community safety.  Finding and closing Ecosystem gaps proactively is a great way to reduce risk, and it’s equally important to learn from Ecosystem failures.  In Los Angeles, Chief Terrazas responded swiftly, ordering “a citywide audit of businesses that store and sell volatile materials. As of August 30, the department had conducted 328 investigations of such businesses and identified 108 that had not previously been in the city's fire prevention database, Terrazas said. The department also issued 64 fire violation notices and ordered 12 businesses shuttered for various safety violations, records provided by the department show.”

 

The cannabis market is expanding quickly as more and more states pass legislation to legalize its growth and use.  As new businesses enter the market, sometimes safety is overlooked and/or not well-understood.  NFPA has responded to the unique fire safety needs related to the growth and extraction of cannabis, adding an entire new chapter, Chapter 38, to the 2018 edition of NFPA 1, Fire Code Many jurisdictions use this chapter to amend their state or local fire code to increase safety related to these processes.  Additionally, we have a host of resources available online and invite you to share your experience about the safety issues you are facing on NFPA’s dedicated cannabis research webpage.

 

We at NFPA are working tirelessly to ensure that everyone involved in the cannabis industry, regardless of where they fit in the Ecosystem, understand the risks and respond responsibly.  Many people think that “it” can’t happen to them.  It can and it does.  A great first step to make sure it doesn’t is to understand the hazards and risks, and to work proactively and collaboratively to mitigate them. 

 

IT’S A BIG WORLD. LET’S PROTECT IT TOGETHER.

 

Up until last month, conversation around Remote Video Inspections (RVI) was limited and sporadic. Discussions were mainly about work on our developing standard or with AHJs looking to drive efficiency in their often resource-strapped departments.

 

The current pandemic, its associated push to remote work, and the requirement of social distancing have combined to thrust RVIs into the forefront of AHJ minds everywhere.

 

It’s rare for a day to go by without at least one story about a jurisdiction implementing RVIs showing up in my news alerts, and recently one of those stories was about a great partner of NFPA, Tim Mikloiche. Tim is the Building Official/Supervisor of Inspections in West Hartford, CT and the article is about his creation and implementation of an RVI program in these challenging times—and he did it in four days!

 

He was able to accomplish this using his professional network and several NFPA resources, including the NFPA white paper, Conducting Video Inspections, and the proposed NFPA 915, Standard on Remote Inspections. Tim, like many others I have heard from, had been skeptical about the idea of RVIs, believing that they “would reduce the quality of an inspection in an effort to move projects forward.” Current conditions are leaving AHJs no choice but to provide new solutions, like the RVI program in West Hartford. A few weeks into this new way of working, Tim is less concerned than he once was, because quality has not decreased. He said, “We have set good guidelines and are working on checklists that will help ensure the quality.” Some of these solutions may become permanent—in West Hartford they are collecting and using data to help inform decisions moving forward and to help them adjust how they are implementing the RVI service.

 

Here are the 12 key points that I have heard in talking with and listening to AHJs about the opportunity to utilize RVIs in their area:

 

  1. Make sure to stay on top of and follow all CDC guidance related to COVID-19.
  2. Focus on making people feel comfortable and safe. These are unprecedented times for everyone, and you never know what external factors people are dealing with. For your staff, this might mean allowing them to voice their concerns for consideration before any changes are put into effect. For your customers, it might mean thinking about them as people first and customers second.
  3. Every jurisdiction is different. Different sizes, different budgets, different technology. But there is a lot to be learned from one another right now. Small jurisdictions can learn from large jurisdictions on the opposite coast and vice versa.
  4. Be comfortable knowing that the choices you make now may be temporary as you bridge this unexpected gap in your processes. If you spend too much time on every detail, you might not get anything out the door. When you want to mobilize quickly, you need to simplify.
  5. Executing a process now doesn’t mean you’re committing to it long term. You’re creating a program to meet current conditions—it may or may not fit how you work typically or how you want to work in the future.
  6. Don’t start skipping steps in your processes; doing so will likely be detrimental in the long run. Make sure to document everything you’re doing and what the outcomes are. This will help you to adjust now and inform policies and processes well into the future.
  7. Many places allow inspections using multiple technologies/platforms. I have heard of people using FaceTime, Facebook Live, Google Duo, Microsoft Teams, Skype, WhatsApp, and Zoom.
  8. Make sure your employees and your customers are well trained in and understand the process you’ll be using.
  9. Remote Video Inspections do not mean easier inspections—the expectation is that the pass/fail rate of in-person inspections and RVIs should be the same.
  10. Take your time when doing the remote inspection. It’s ok to ask someone to slow down, to show a different angle, to measure again, to pan out, or anything else you need them to do to ensure you’re comfortable with what you’re seeing.
  11. RVIs tend to take longer than in-person inspections but are expected to deliver efficiency, primarily in a reduction in the time and associated costs of traveling to and from job sites. (This is a good one to track some data on, if you can.)
  12. Questions will come up, many of them relating to managing required physical artifacts when working remotely (e.g., raised seals on paperwork, stickers that need to be affixed, etc.), and that’s fine. You’ll need a temporary solution in these cases, such as verifying things by phone or video. Just make sure that everyone knows the process.

 

Things are changing, and we all need to adapt and be flexible. But that doesn’t mean trading on fire and life safety. To help, NFPA recently produced a fact sheet that provides guidance on how to conduct an RVI.

 

When it comes to RVIs, what are you doing? What questions do you have? How can NFPA help?

 

NFPA has relevant resources designed to keep you informed about important fire, building, and life safety guidance during this pandemic period. NFPA codes and standards are also available for free online access. The International Code Council (ICC) is offering information on health and safety considerations for code officials during COVID-19 too.

 

A lot of people know what referenced standards are but lack the detailed understanding of their impact on almost every job they do and the role they play in keeping buildings, occupants, and contents safe. Whether you’re an architect, a contractor, an AHJ, or a facility manager, referenced standards are very likely something you need to be aware of and comply with.

 

Once an NFPA or ICC code is adopted by an AHJ, the referenced standards within that code are a legally enforceable part of it, and complying with them is not optional. You must know what each reference is looking for, how it is to be applied, and who has the responsibility for ensuring compliance.


Many NFPA and ICC codes reference standards from other documents (even documents produced by other organizations). NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code®, NFPA 1, Fire Code, the International Building Code®, (IBC®), and the International Fire Code® (IFC®) all have a chapter dedicated to listing referenced standards by organization, document title, and edition year. The International Building Code® (IBC®) alone references 400 documents!


This new fact sheet describes referenced standards in detail and discusses the roles and responsibilities AHJs and others play in following and enforcing them. It's designed to provide the information you need to increase the chance that your work will be done in a code-compliant manner, the first time around. Additionally, we have a number of classes that provide detailed training on some of these referenced standards; many of them are conveniently offered online.

 

I encourage you to reach out to the NFPA with any questions, and to work with others in your community to ensure that everyone has a better understanding of how these referenced standards apply locally.


It’s a big world. Let’s protect it together.™

Occupancy.jpeg

 

Last week, presidential candidate Donald Trump criticized fire marshals in a few states for upholding occupancy requirements at campaign events. The story created a bit of a buzz but also an opportunity for a refresher on why these requirements, in not only political events but also things like concerts, sporting events and other gatherings, are important and what can happen when they are not followed.

 

Building, fire and life safety codes like NFPA 101, Life Safety Code® are intended to protect people attending events - a particularly challenging task where people are gathered in a more concentrated use area. This includes the speakers, performers, staff and audience members, as well as the first responders who potentially risk their lives when something goes wrong. The codes are developed through a time-tested voluntary consensus process that brings together a range of stakeholders to create the minimum level of safety. The codes are then adopted by jurisdictions. Fire marshals and other authorities having jurisdiction (AHJs) enforce these codes. It is often an overlooked but essential role in public safety.

 

Not metering or otherwise controlling the number of people who can go into an assembly occupancy can lead to overcrowding. In the event of an emergency, occupants can easily get caught up in a crowd crush and be unable to reach an exit in a safe and timely manner. One such tragic event was the E2 Nightclub on Chicago’s South Side in February 2003.

 

NFPA 101’s provisions are often fire-centric, but there are other triggering events such as a power failure, violence (the action that initiated the E2 crowd crush), or medical emergencies that can cause the occupants in a large assembly space to move towards an exit to escape a potential emergency. These provisions are part of the code requirements, are used to establish the number of occupants who might occupy the space, and are imposed to keep everyone safe in an emergency.

 

You typically see “maximum permitted occupancy” signs in ballrooms, meeting rooms and auditoriums where a large number of people might be anticipated for good reason.  When capacity is exceeded and the number of exits are not adequate for crowds – historic tragedies like The Station nightclub fire that killed 100 in Rhode Island can occur.

 

In some of these campaign events the venue worked to accommodate the event organizers by setting up video monitors and chairs in adjacent spaces to allow some of the overflow crowd to come inside, a reasonable action when the primary event space is over capacity.

 

The fire marshals in these situations are doing their jobs – and doing them well. Their enforcement of codes is something that the public and we expect, and rely on to keep us safe.

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