AUTHOR: Angelo Verzoni

Conspiracy Theory Brewing Over Chicken Farm Fires Is False, Experts Say

First it was fires in food processing facilities. Now, a seemingly growing number of people are claiming there’s something suspicious about fires occurring at chicken farms across the United States.   “Good morning to everyone except the evil demons purposely screwing with the food supply,” an influential Twitter user who goes by the name Catturd tweeted on January 31. The tweet received more than 22,000 likes and more than 2,000 retweets.   Good morning to everyone except the evil demons purposely screwing with the food supply. — Catturd ™ (@catturd2) January 31, 2023   In an attempt to provide proof that something nefarious is afoot, people like Catturd—who has 1.3 million followers on the popular social media website—have pointed to incidents like a fire that killed 100,000 chickens at a farm in Connecticut on January 28 and a fire in December that killed 250,000 chickens at a farm in Pennsylvania. The fires, these people allege, are most likely a government attempt at disrupting the food supply, leading to situations like the soaring egg prices that have gouged consumers’ wallets in recent months.   Similar claims were made last spring, as many people, including Fox News host Tucker Carlson, purported that a string of fires that had occurred in food processing facilities was suspicious. That conspiracy theory was debunked by NFPA® and others.   Experts say the high egg prices American consumers are seeing today are in reality a result of many factors, such as widespread avian flu and inflation. In other words, they have nothing to do with fires at chicken farms. Furthermore, experts say that, in general, these types of fires should not be seen as anything out of the ordinary. Fires at livestock and poultry production and storage properties are quite common and have been for years. NFPA also offers solutions to the problem.   The numbers don’t lie   According to data included in a recent Fire Protection Research Foundation (FPRF) report on fires in animal housing facilities, an estimated average of 930 fires occurred annually in livestock or poultry storage properties—which include spaces like barns, stockyards, and animal pens—in the US from 2014 to 2018. An additional average of 750 fires occurred annually in livestock production properties. Combined, that’s more than four fires on average each day.   And these blazes can be exceptionally deadly for the animals housed there. The Animal Welfare Institute (AWI), an American nonprofit that supports animal rights, tracks barn fires in particular, and from 2013 to 2017, the AWI reports that more than 325 barn fires occurred in the US, killing nearly 2.8 million animals. Ninety-five percent of the animals killed were chickens.   “When we see fires occurring at poultry storage facilities or at barns, we’re not really seeing anything out of the ordinary,” said Birgitte Messerschmidt, director of the NFPA Research division. “It’s just the opposite, actually. It’s simply the continuation of what we in the world of fire safety and fire statistics have been seeing play out for years.”   “A lot of hazards can exist at livestock and poultry storage and production facilities, so it’s not unusual to see fires occur in these properties,” added Jacqueline Wilmot, a project manager with the FPRF, the research affiliate of NFPA.   Risks & resources     According to the FPRF report, heating equipment is the number one cause of fires in animal housing facilities, with malfunctioning electrical systems coming in at a close second. The lack of smoke alarms and fire sprinklers as well as an abundance of fuel such as hay or straw at many of these locations all work to heighten the fire risk.   One important resource that exists to help limit the number of these fires is NFPA 150, Fire and Life Safety in Animal Housing Facilities Code. Although NFPA 150 has existed in some form since 1979, it wasn’t until 2006 that the scope of the code was expanded beyond racehorse stables. (Read more about NFPA 150 and its origins in “Critter Life Safety Code,” the cover story of the November/December 2018 issue of NFPA Journal.)   Even today, widespread awareness and use of NFPA 150 is lacking. The recent foundation report found that in a survey of 71 individuals who in some way represent the animal housing industry, roughly 60 percent of them had no familiarity with the code. According to NFPA’s CodeFinder® tool, only two states in the US reference NFPA 150, Delaware and Nevada.   An opportunity exists “to create training outreach programs and other fire protection training to better educate animal housing facility owners and staff,” the report says.   In addition to NFPA 150, NFPA also offers a number of barn fire safety tips aimed at consumers, which can be found for free online at nfpa.org/farms. Amid reports that people are rushing to buy their own chickens in the face of high egg prices, stay tuned for another NFPA blog next week that will provide safety tips for anyone looking to build a chicken coop in their backyard.

Twitter HQ Investigation Highlights Importance of Catching Changes of Occupancy

Elon Musk has found himself in hot water with the city of San Francisco after reports surfaced that the newly minted Twitter owner had arranged for sleeping quarters to be added to the social media company’s San Francisco headquarters.   The San Francisco Department of Buildings Inspection said on December 7 that it would launch an investigation into the reported renovations. In a tweet, Musk called the investigation an “attack” and questioned the city’s priorities. Coming to his aid, some Twitter users then urged the billionaire entrepreneur, who also owns Tesla and SpaceX, to move Twitter’s main offices out of California.   So city of SF attacks companies providing beds for tired employees instead of making sure kids are safe from fentanyl. Where are your priorities @LondonBreed!?https://t.co/M7QJWP7u0N — Elon Musk (@elonmusk) December 6, 2022 But experts say the reality is that, in essentially any jurisdiction, if a change of occupancy occurs, codes and standards are in place to ensure that the fire and life safety features of a building also change to appropriately protect the new occupancy. And for good reason—deviating from a building’s intended occupancy classification has resulted in deadly consequences in past instances.   What is ‘change of occupancy’?   A change of occupancy is defined by NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code®, as a “change in the occupancy classification of a structure or portion of a structure.” It’s important to note that change of occupancy differs from change of use.  “ The reality is if a change of occupancy occurs, codes and standards are in place to ensure that the fire and life safety features of a building also change to appropriately protect the new occupancy   In a blog published in September, Robin Zevotek, a principal fire protection engineer at NFPA, explained it by saying, “If the work being done creates a change to the occupancy classification it is a change of occupancy, if not, it is a change of use.” In other words, adding flammable liquids to an area of a storage warehouse not intended to store flammable liquids would be change of use; turning that warehouse into an Airbnb would be change of occupancy. RELATED  Read more about occupancy classifications in codes   When either a change of occupancy or a change of use occurs, a review must take place to determine the fire protection systems or other life safety features that might now be required. An assembly occupancy like a nightclub, for instance, will have different code requirements than a hotel.   In the case of Twitter’s offices, a change from an office building to something more akin to a lodging or rooming house occupancy classification could require additional smoke and carbon monoxide alarms that an office space might not. “When the building, fire, and life safety systems were designed and installed, it was under the assumption that people would use this building as a normal office building and that people wouldn’t sleep there,” said Brian O’Connor, a fire protection engineer at NFPA.   Codes and standards even account for the way people behave in different occupancy types. “In a business occupancy, for instance, we expect a certain level of awareness and responsiveness from occupants since they are alert and awake,” said Valeria Ziavras, a fire protection engineer at NFPA. “Additionally, we would expect them to have some familiarity with the building and how to get out in the event of an emergency. Compare that to an occupancy like a lodging and rooming house, where we expect occupants to be sleeping, at least part of the time, which drastically affects the level of awareness and how quickly they can respond to an emergency situation. They may or may not be familiar with the building and how to get out.”   A spokesman for the San Francisco Department of Buildings Inspection echoed these points in a statement sent to CBS News. “We need to make sure the building is being used as intended,” said Patrick Hannan, the department’s communications director. “There are different building code requirements for residential buildings, including those being used for short-term stays. These codes make sure people are using spaces safely.”   Unregulated changes of occupancy can have potentially devastating consequences. Perhaps no example illustrates this better than the Ghost Ship warehouse fire that killed 36 people in Oakland in December 2016. Dozens of people had been illegally living and working in the abandoned warehouse prior to the fire. At the time, the warehouse hadn’t been inspected in three decades, city records showed, and few seemed to know what was actually going on inside.     “If changes in occupancy or use occur with disregard to the code implications, this could put people’s lives at risk, result in the loss of the property, and have a negative impact on either the local or global economy,” said O’Connor. “Sometimes, we take it for granted when we assume that the lives of the occupants were taken into consideration when changes to the building are made. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case, so if you see a change in occupancy or a major change in use occur, be sure to notify your local fire department.” Top photograph: MatthewKeys via Wikipedia

Experts Warn of Electric Vehicle Fires After Hurricane Ian Damages Lithium-Ion Batteries

As millions of Americans recover from Hurricane Ian, which made landfall near Fort Myers, Florida, on September 28, officials are warning of a new hazard: electric vehicles (EVs) that were damaged in the storm and now pose a fire risk.  “Our first responders are being put in harm’s way,” Florida State Fire Marshal Jimmy Patronis said in a video posted on social media earlier this month. “Homes that may have survived the storm are now being burned down.” According to the Florida Phoenix, firefighters in Naples have responded to at least six fires involving EVs that had been damaged in the storm. Experts say vehicles that may have been submerged in saltwater for extended periods of time are of particular concern—and with storm surge from the powerful Category 4 hurricane having reached as high as 15 feet in parts of coastal Florida, thousands of vehicles could now fall into this category. “Electric vehicles that have been submerged in water, especially saltwater, have a potential risk of experiencing a high-voltage electrical battery fire,” said Victoria Hutchison, a project manager at the Fire Protection Research Foundation, the research affiliate of NFPA. “First responders should be prepared to respond to a potential fire and should handle EVs that may have been submerged with greater caution.”  What is thermal runaway and stranded energy?  Most electric vehicles in use today are powered by lithium-ion batteries. When damaged by something like saltwater, heat, or force, a chemical reaction known as thermal runaway can start inside the cells of these energy-dense batteries. In this state, the batteries heat up uncontrollably and can be prone to fires and off-gassing, which can also result in explosions in confined spaces.  “ First responders should be prepared to respond to a potential fire and should handle EVs with greater caution. When EVs batteries are submerged in saltwater, specifically, “salt bridges can form within the battery pack and provide a path for short-circuit and self-heating,” the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said in a statement sent to Patronis.  Hutchison echoed that point. “Saltwater can accelerate corrosion,” she said. “So, in a saltwater storm surge scenario, the salt deposits that can remain on the EV batteries after the water recedes can cause rapid corrosion and increase the risk of thermal runaway. Furthermore, there’s no set period in which this potential thermal reaction will occur—it can be hours, days, or even weeks later.” Last week I witnessed an EV fire during Hurricane Ian operations. Firefighters put out the fire, then it would reignite. The teams said it was a result of salt water affecting compromised batteries, so we asked for additional information from @NHTSAgov. They responded. (1/5) pic.twitter.com/YDi7H26ykd — Jimmy Patronis (@JimmyPatronis) October 14, 2022 Compounding the risk of thermal runaway is the fact that there’s no easy way of draining the energy out of damaged batteries—a separate concept known as stranded energy. This is true even after a fire has occurred and been initially extinguished. In 2018, for instance, after a fatal crash and fire involving an electric vehicle in California, the car’s batteries reignited at a junkyard six days later.  RELATED: Read more about stranded energy and thermal runaway in an NFPA Journal feature story published in 2020 Because of these risks, Hutchison and other experts have recommended that Florida first responders and the public “remain on high alert” for fires involving damaged EVs in the wake of Ian. If you own an EV that may have been damaged during Hurricane Ian, “please get it towed away from your home but … make sure the towing operator knows how to safely and properly tow EV vehicles,” the North Collier Fire Control and Rescue District Administration wrote in a Facebook post.  In statements released publicly last week and also sent directly to EV manufacturers and federal officials, Florida Senator Rick Scott urged action from manufacturers to provide more fire safety guidance for both consumers and the fire service.  “The current guidelines from EV manufacturers on the impacts of saltwater submersion on the operability of the vehicles do not adequately address the issue,” Scott wrote. “As a result, most consumers are under the potentially life-threatening misimpression that their EVs will continue functioning properly after saltwater submersion.”   NFPA already offers guidance for the fire service on how to best respond to incidents involving electric vehicles. As EVs have grown in popularity over the past several years, NFPA has helped educate more than 300,000 first responders on this emerging hazard. Visit nfpa.org/ev to learn more about the EV responder training opportunities from NFPA. Top photograph: Ivan Radic via Flickr

NFPA offers tips to stay safe in short-term rentals, hotels, and elsewhere

  Over the past several years, companies like Airbnb and VRBO have grown in popularity, promising travelers unique stays in properties like this, which are known collectively as short-term rental properties. But unlike hotels, short-term rentals often don’t have the same code requirements and enforcement as hotels. Fire and life safety protection measures as basic as smoke alarms can be missing.  That’s why experts say it’s critical for guests to be mindful of the spaces they’re in, checking for things like working smoke alarms, two ways out of a building, and more. “Safe travel and lodging needs to be a component of your overall travel plans,” says Andrea Vastis, director of the Public Education division at NFPA. “Choosing places with smoke and carbon monoxide alarms, bringing travel alarms with you, and making sure everyone knows how to safely escape with an agreed-upon meeting place at your destination is critical.” An injury ‘every 44 seconds’ It’s unclear exactly how many people get injured—or worse—in hotels or motels each year, but it does happen with some regularity. The internet is littered with websites for injury lawyers who specialize in cases involving injuries that occurred at hotels. In January, comedian Bob Saget died after reportedly falling and hitting his head in a Florida hotel room.  But according to Justin Ford, guests in short-term rental properties get injured at a higher rate than guests in hotels. Ford has been involved in the short-term rental industry for decades and has advised companies like Airbnb on creating safer environments in short-term rentals.  “We know the home is the most dangerous place. More than 50 percent of our accidents happen in the home. Now we’re taking people who aren’t familiar with that home, and we’re putting them in that home, and that amplifies and makes the accidents even more common,” Ford says on a recent episode of The NFPA Podcast. “I’ve come up with a number that I believe is accurate: Every 44 seconds someone is injured in a short-term rental.” While some communities have made strides to enforce fire and life safety codes and standards in short-term rental properties—Palm Springs, California, is one example, Ford says, where even pools being rented within properties must pass electrical inspections—many short-term rentals never get inspected by a safety professional.  “I’ve stayed in a lot of rentals, and I’ve seen more than most people,” Ford says on the podcast. “I’ve looked up and realized, hey, that smoke alarm up there doesn’t have a flashing light, and I pull it down and it doesn’t have any batteries in it, and it’s because the last renters burned some popcorn and pulled the batteries and no one checked.” To stay safe, Ford advises renters to be proactive about taking safety into their own hands. “You’ve got to do your due diligence if you are a renter to look around and take a minute and ask, is this a safe place for me to stay?” he says. Check that smoke alarms and carbon monoxide alarms are present and working; make sure fire hazards like matches and lighters aren’t accessible, especially to children; ensure there are two ways out of the building in case of a fire or other emergency; take note of where fire extinguishers are located; if you can, eliminate any trip or fall hazards on the property. NFPA offers similar recommendations for short-term rental guests and a number of additional ones in two tip sheets, “Fire Safety at Your Home Away from Home” and “Take Safety with You!” Ideally, Ford envisions a future where guests don’t need to take as many steps to ensure their safety. Owners of properties would be more dedicated to investing in and maintaining fire and life safety protection equipment in the first place. “We can make these short-term rentals as safe as possible with very little financial impact on the owner,” Ford says. “We’re not talking about a lot of money to put in these safety features. So we’re not saying to get rid of them—they’re great—but let’s put a little effort into making sure they’re a safer experience for the guest.” NFPA resources for short-term rentals and beyond  In addition to its tip sheets on short-term rental safety, NFPA also offers tip sheets for staying safe in traditional hotels and even recreational vehicles.   At hotels, for instance, NFPA recommends guests take steps similar to what’s advised for short-term renters. If fire or smoke prevents you from safely evacuating the hotel, though, there are steps you can take to stay safe, including shutting off your room’s fans and air conditioning, stuffing wet towels in any cracks around the door, calling the fire department, and staying by the window. Read more in the “Hotel & Motel Safety” tip sheet from NFPA.  Recreational vehicles, or RVs, can also present risks to occupants. A report released by the Fire Protection Research Foundation in 2020 found that on average, 24 people die and 64 people are injured in nearly 2,000 RV fires in the United States each year. “Most fatal fires occur in older models of RVs, as they have fewer and less advanced fire safety measures,” the report reads. “They also have older engines and equipment that are more likely to fail, which is a common cause of fires.”  RELATED: Read an NFPA Journal article and listen to an NFPA Podcast on RV fire safety   To stay safe, NFPA advises RV renters and owners, among other steps, to make sure vehicle maintenance is up-to-date and performed by a qualified mechanic and that propane tanks and tubing are code compliant. Read more in the “Motor home, camper, and recreational vehicle safety” tip sheet from NFPA.
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PODCAST: New NFPA Podcast episode details sprinkler retrofit project and home fire sprinkler incentives

In a popular scene from the 1993 Halloween comedy flick Hocus Pocus, one of the characters holds a lighter up to a sprinkler head, causing several of them to go off at once. Fire sprinkler experts will be quick to tell you that's not the way it works; sprinklers go off individually in response to fire in a specific area, not as a group. It's a common misconception that's been used by Hollywood for years. Countless movies and TV shows including Frasier and The Office have aired scenes like the one in Hocus Pocus.  But sprinkler myths exist away from the big and small screens, too—even in professional industry circles. Some homebuilders have, for instance, been guilty of inflating the cost estimates associated with installing residential fire sprinkler systems. The latest episode of The NFPA Podcast, Debunking Home Fire Sprinkler Myths, aims to set the record straight. It paints the true picture of how home sprinkler systems can not only be affordable to home owners, but also how they are increasingly offering incentives for builders, such as allowing them to build higher-density neighborhoods.  The episode is anchored by NFPA staffer Robby Dawson's interview with a retired fire chief who decided to retrofit his home with sprinklers. Based on widely broadcast sprinkler myths, it's a project some people might think would be wildly and prohibitively expensive for the average Joe. Retired chief Keith Brower's experience says otherwise.  "Our cost per square foot ended up being $3.52 [for 1,800 square feet], so a little bit more than double the cost of what our national average is for during construction, but clearly it's not in the $15,000 to $30,000 range we've seen builders quote for systems whether they're new or retrofits," Brower says in the episode. He goes on to discuss some of the safety benefits of sprinklers in general, not only for the public but also for first responders.  The issue of first responder safety hits close to home for Brower. In 2008, when he was fire chief in Loudon County, Virginia, one of Brower's firefighters was severely injured in a house fire. He spoke about the incident for a 2010 Faces of Fire campaign video for NFPA, which you can watch here. Listen to the new episode and past NFPA podcasts at nfpa.org/podcasts. New episodes are released the second and fourth Tuesday of every month.
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Video: NFPA's Guy Colonna discusses ammonium nitrate safety after Beirut explosion

Yesterday's explosion in Beirut, Lebanon, has left at least 100 people dead and thousands more injured. Multiple news sources are now saying the blast, which could be heard from 150 miles away, was due to large quantities of ammonium nitrate being stored in a warehouse in the city's port. The update has left many wondering what ammonium nitrate is and how it could have caused such a powerful explosion. NFPA addresses the hazards the material poses in NFPA 400, Hazardous Materials Code. An oxidizer, not an explosive Ammonium nitrate is commonly used as in fertilizer. Although news sources like the New York Times and CNN have described it as a "highly explosive chemical," ammonium nitrate isn't technically classified as an explosive, or even flammable, material. Instead, it's what's known as an oxidizer—an oxygen-rich compound that can accelerate fires or explosions, but one that needs another element to destabilize it in the first place for such a reaction to begin. In the case of Beirut, the reported 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate being stored in the warehouse could have become destabilized from heat or flames from the fire that was burning before the massive blast, Guy Colonna, an engineering director at NFPA, explains in a recent video about the incident. "Ammonium nitrate does not burn, it's not flammable, it's not combustible," Colonna says. "It doesn't become explosive ... until it becomes destabilized. Exposure to flames, fires, and things like that can start that process of heating it and destabilizing it. It becomes self-reactive through thermal sources like a fire, and it will give off gases that are flammable and they will ignite. They will involve all of the oxygen that is in that chemical formula of the ammonium nitrate." While some individuals on social media cast doubt over whether ammonium nitrate can produce such a powerful blast, history has shown it can. In the video, Colonna points to two past deadly incidents in Texas alone. In 2013, ammonium nitrate was involved in an explosion that killed 15 people at a fertilizer storage and distribution facility in the town of West, just north of Waco. And in 1947, a fire aboard a ship carrying ammonium nitrate in the Port of Texas City triggered an explosion that killed over 500 people. The ship was carrying 2,300 tons of ammonium nitrate—less than what's being reported in Beirut. Mitigating the hazard Requirements for safely storing ammonium nitrate can be found in NFPA 400—specifically, in Chapter 11. They include, for example, outlining measures to ensure quantities are stored away from substances that can cause ammonium nitrate to destabilize and in facilities separated a safe distance from other structures and people. "Chapter 11 imposes additional safeguards when you exceed 1,000 pounds," Colonna says. "From what I've read in the reports, they're talking something like 2,750 tons [in Beirut]. Clearly there should have been increased safeguards in the storage of that confiscated ammonium nitrate. You would have certain kinds of construction requirements, and you wouldn't have incompatible materials like oils and greases ... there would be separation distances, separation distances from the warehouse to an adjacent structure but also to populated areas." The West, Texas, explosion in 2013 led to a number of updates to NFPA 400, which were highlighted in a May 2015 feature article in NFPA Journal. As the incident's five-year anniversary approached, however, some experts questioned whether enough had been done from a government regulation standpoint to prevent future similar incidents in the United States. Another helpful tool for preventing fires or explosions involving not only ammonium nitrate, but also any hazardous material, is the NFPA Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem, which emphasizes the many moving parts and individuals involved in creating safe environments. "All of this comes down to the Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem," Colonna says. "It starts with the government having requirements and then making sure those requirements are understood by everybody in the operational setting, whether it's the port managers or the warehouse managers, the people who are bringing the chemicals in and out of the area, or the public and first responders." Watch the full interview with Colonna above, and learn more about NFPA 400 at nfpa.org/400.
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