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Recent fires in apartment buildings under construction highlight the importance of developing a fire safety program and designating a fire prevention manager

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Three major fires this year have cast a spotlight on fires in apartments under construction and a need for the safety measures defined in codes and standards like NFPA 241: Standard for Safeguarding Construction, Alteration, and Demolition Operations which is referenced in both NFPA 1: Fire Code and the International Fire Code.

In early February, fire ripped through an upscale apartment complex under construction in Maplewood, New Jersey. Over 120 firefighters fought the blaze that destroyed roughly two-thirds of the 235-unit complex. Last week, Raleigh, North Carolina experienced their biggest fire in the downtown area in nearly a century, when fire quickly consumed a five-story apartment building and damaged nine buildings in total. Then yesterday, an eight alarm inferno, fueled by high winds and dry conditions, devastated a neighborhood in Overland Park, Kansas. The fast-moving fire destroyed one four-story apartment building, damaged another and sparked additional fires at 17 single-family residences nearby.

The common thread for these fires? Each took place in wood-framed apartment complexes that were under construction. Without passive fire protection measures like sheetrock and other finishes installed yet, flames quickly spread to exposed lumber and plywood causing extensive damage to the apartment buildings and abutting structures.

In Raleigh, news outlets reported that the 240-unit Metropolitan apartment complex had been inspected nearly 50 times, with the most recent visit occurring just three days before Thursday's fire. So what were inspectors using as a guidepost? The building plan? Or the building's overall fire safety program, as required in NFPA 241?

Organizations like the American Wood Council have proactively emphasized the importance of building and life safety codes during construction, as wood-clad design and sustainable products grow in popularity. NFPA 241, in particular, ensures that fire safety standards are maintained throughout the building process. It requires building owners to create an overall construction fire safety program and designate a fire prevention manager to oversee all fire-prevention efforts during construction. Key considerations of NFPA 241 include:

  • The development of a program that includes on-site security, fire protection systems, organization and training of a fire brigade, and the establishment of a pre-fire plan with the local fire department.
  • The owner is required to appoint a person who is responsible for the fire prevention program and ensure that it is carried out to completion. This individual will have knowledge of the applicable fire protection standards, available fire protection systems, and fire inspection procedures. Where guard service is provided, the fire prevention program manager will be responsible for that guard service. The role entails many other responsibilities including weekly self-inspections and records management, adequate provision of fire protection devices and maintenance of such equipment, proper training in the use of fire protection equipment and the supervision of the permit system.

These recent incidents demonstrate that the threat of fire is real on construction sites and when jobs feature combustible construction. The current issue of NFPA Journal® looks at these two factors in the article, Burned Again about real estate developer Avalon Bay, owners of the New Jersey complex that burned earlier this year and two other communities that have experienced large fires since 2000.

An NFPA research report shows that U.S. fire departments responded to an estimated average of 830 fires in multi-unit residential properties under construction. These fires caused an estimated average of 12 civilian injuries, 70 firefighter injuries, and $56 million in direct property damage per year.

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Cathy Longley
Communications Manager, informing stakeholders about NFPA thought leadership, subject matter expertise, resources, initiatives & research.

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