The Beat Goes On With Building Under Construction Fires
Photo: Harris County Emergency Services District No. 48
In my five years of writing blogs and other content at NFPA, there have been some themes and issues that have persistently bubbled up. One of them is building under construction fires like the incident that occurred earlier this week in Katy, Texas.
News outlets report that a multi-alarm fire destroyed two four-story apartment buildings with a total of 400 apartments right off a major artery. The project, which is a total loss, was about six months into development when the early morning blaze broke out, producing heavy thick smoke that was reportedly visible for up to 20 miles.
In this latest incident, a firefighter was injured, propane tanks exploded, garages nearby were engulfed, and a neighboring field was burned. In other words, havoc ensued because as we have seen and stated time and again – buildings under construction are very hard to battle because most of the passive fire protection features, such as gypsum board, are not fully in place, allowing the fire to travel undisturbed throughout the building. In this case, sprinklers were not in service, the water system was maxed out early on, and hot spots persisted throughout the day.
When it comes to building under construction fires, the fire service is often already playing catch up upon their arrival. Local news station KHOU reported that Martin Acosta, a construction worker who helped build the apartments said, “It's a miracle no one was hurt because there are usually at least six people on the site by 6 a.m.”
Earlier this year, NFPA Applied Research issued a report on Fires in Structures Under Construction or Renovation. In part, the research shows that from 2013-2017 fire departments responded to an estimated average of 3,840 fires in structures under construction and 2,580 fires in structures under major renovation per year. Other noteworthy findings include:
- Three of every four fires in structures under construction involved residential properties.
- Cooking equipment is the leading cause of fires on construction sites, while electrical distribution and lighting equipment was the leading cause of fires in structures under major renovation.
- The fires in structures under construction caused an average of four civilian deaths, 49 civilian injuries, and $304 million in direct property damage annually, while those in structures under major renovation caused averages of eight civilian deaths, 52 civilian injuries, and $104 million in direct property damage annually.
Given the unfortunate and unnecessary trend of building under construction fires, NFPA has developed a wide array of resources so that the building community, code enforcers, the fire service, and policy makers can be better informed about statistics, incidents, hazards and best practices. For example:
- The next edition of NFPA 241 Standard for Safeguarding Construction, Alteration, and Demolition Operations will be out next summer. The Second Draft meeting is at the end of October and the report from that meeting will be posted in late January.
- NFPA has created three fact sheets on this topic - Preventing Construction Site Fires, Construction Safety During Emergencies, and a fact sheet related to the statistics noted above. These pieces can be found at
- The NFPA Fire & Life Safety Policy institute has also provided guidance via blogs and a policy brief designed to help communities prevent these incidents.
- NFPA Journal has covered this topic broadly and specifically written about repeat offenders.
- NFPA also offers online training, and those that take the training can now earn a digital badge upon successful completion that can be shared across social media.
- Next month, a new Construction Site Fire Safety Fundamentals online training will launch and in 2021 a Fire Prevention Program Manager Online series will be introduced.
Designating a fire prevention program manager with the right skills and expertise to do the job effectively is a key component to keeping buildings under construction free from fire. That dedicated individual not only needs to know what NFPA 241 says, but also should be familiar with 19 additional codes and standards referenced within the document.
It's time to stop the dangerous, destructive trend of buildings under construction fires.