AUTHOR: Angelo Verzoni

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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As the USS Bonhomme Richard burns, revisit the NFPA Journal cover story, LSN video on marine vessel fires

Seventeen sailors and four civilians are being treated for injuries after a fire and explosion Sunday aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard, a US Navy warship that was docked in San Diego. While investigators are still working to determine the cause of the blaze, experts have already made note of the challenges firefighters faced in fighting the flames—a point that was emphasized in the September/October 2019 NFPA Journal cover story, "Close Quarters." Fires on large marine vessels "are not like a house fire," retired Navy commander Erik A. Dukat told the New York Times. "Imagine a fire inside of a ship, just imagine the inside of your oven," Dukat told the paper. "Where the problem really comes, where a ship is lost for good, is normally actually because of the water," added John Liddle, a lieutenant commander who retired from the Navy last year. "You're putting so much water into it in one place or another that all of a sudden it's not buoyant in the same way that it was designed to be." The incredible heat that can be generated from a fire raging within a ship's hull as well as the risk of pouring too much water on a ship fire were both discussed in the NFPA Journal piece. It's factors like these that make fires on large marine vessels one of the most universally feared calls for firefighters to receive.  "The way ships are constructed present huge challenges, the way it traps heat and affects fire growth," Forest Herndon, a 37-year veteran of the marine firefighting industry, says in the Journal article. "Firefighters could be ascending steep, slippery ladders or trying to walk on decks that heat up to the point where their feet are burning. Shipboard fires burn a lot hotter than fires in land-based structures, and you don't have the ability to ventilate these fires, so your methods of addressing them have to change." The challenges of shipboard firefighting and the prevention of fires on ships, in shipyards, and in marine terminals are the subject of several NFPA documents and NFPA training and certification programs: NFPA 306, Standard for the Control of Gas Hazards on Vessels, provides requirements for determining that an area is safe for entry or work activities such as hot work. NFPA 306 applies to vessels that use as fuel or carry flammable or combustible liquids, flammable compressed gases, flammable cryogenic liquids, chemicals in bulk, or other products capable of creating a hazardous condition. NFPA 312, Standard for Fire Protection of Vessels During Construction, Conversion, Repair, and Lay-Up, applies to vessels during construction, conversion, repairs, or while laid-up, and provides requirements necessary to prevent fires or limit a fire's spread. NFPA 307, Standard for Construction and Fire Protection of Marine Terminals, Piers, and Wharves, provides general principles for the construction and fire protection of marine terminals, piers, and wharves. The 2021 edition includes a new annex to inform municipal and industrial firefighters about marine firefighting requirements that vessel owners or operators must meet in their respective vessel response plans. NFPA 1005, Standard for Professional Qualifications for Marine Firefighting for Land-Based Firefighters, identifies the minimum job performance requirements for marine firefighting for land-based firefighters, while NFPA 1405, Guide for Land-Based Fire Departments That Respond to Marine Vessel Fires, identifies the elements of a comprehensive marine firefighting response program, such as vessel familiarization, training considerations, pre-fire planning, and special hazards that enable land-based fire fighters to extinguish vessel fires safely and efficiently. NFPA is also responsible for the administration of the Certificated Marine Chemist Program and the Maritime Confined Space Safe Practices Course. Historically, ship fires are also some of the most deadly incidents. Nearly one-fifth of the 21 deadliest fires or explosions in world history have occurred on boats. Watch the video below to learn more about the four deadliest ship fires or explosions in history. 
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