Topic: Building & Life Safety

Lights on a Christmas tree

Christmas Tree Fire Safety Requirements

With the holiday season fast approaching, the presence of combustible decorations, festive lights, and Christmas trees has also arrived.  The presence of additional furnishings and contents, especially dry and unmaintained Christmas trees and other vegetation can contribute significantly to the fuel load of a space and how quickly a fire can develop and spread.   During this time, those responsible for enforcing fire and life safety codes face the challenge of ensuring businesses and residences are following the provisions for furnishings and decorations, as many consumers are unaware of the potential fire safety hazards they could be installing in their facilities and in their homes.  Here we will discuss the requirements for combustible vegetation and both natural and artificial Christmas trees.   Hazards of combustible vegetation and natural cut trees Combustible vegetation can include a variety of items, such as hay bales, limbs, leaves, and Christmas trees. These items, by their nature, are initially fire retardant. The problem arises when they have been cut and packaged, often early in the season, without access to water for extended periods of time. The fire danger of Christmas trees and similar vegetation increases when the tree is not freshly cut and immediately placed in water when purchased. And, the longer they are on display, the increase in potential for the tree to go unwatered and unmaintained.   The best preventive measures for avoiding a dried out tree include using a freshly harvested tree, cutting the butt or bottom end immediately before placing it in water, and checking the water level frequently to ensure that the tree water container is filled. To check the tree itself for dryness, it is best to check a branch near the trunk and allow it to slide between the thumb and forefinger. When needles shed easily, the tree should be removed or replaced, since trees dry from the inside out.  In 2016, students at Worcester Polytechnic Institute constructed a mock living room setup at the fire protection engineering lab at to demonstrate how rapid and intense a dry tree can burn, complete with furniture, rug, curtains, and a decorated Christmas tree. The dry tree was exposed to a flame and within 25 seconds, the branches were fully engulfed and within another 10 seconds, fire had spread to the ceiling and to nearby furnishings. The entire room was thick with fire and smoke, and flashover occurred within 63 seconds. The Fire Research Division at NIST conducted a series of fire experiments to demonstrate how a watered Christmas tree may be less of a fire hazard than a dry one. The Christmas tree that was maintained in a stand that was kept filled with water prior to testing did not ignite when exposed to the same ignition source as the Christmas tree that was not watered.  A slower growing fire can mean more time to react, escape, and notify the fire department and can also reduce the damage done by the fire.  Where are natural Christmas trees permitted? Natural Christmas trees are prohibited or limited in their placement in occupancies that pose special challenges due to the capabilities of occupants, occupant or management control, or the number of occupants. Some exceptions permit live, balled trees, if maintained, and trees in locations where automatic sprinkler systems are installed. Because a living tree needs moisture to stay alive, a balled, living tree should be placed in a container so that the root structure of the tree can be kept moist. (Note: artificial vegetation, including artificial Christmas trees are not limited in their location). Limitations for where natural Christmas trees can be located is as follows:     Limited quantities of other combustible vegetation is permitted in any occupancy if the AHJ determines that adequate safeguards are in place. Adequate safeguards might include sprinkler protection, limited quantities, moisture content, and placement. It is not the intent to consider a Christmas tree “limited quantity of combustible vegetation” where the display of Christmas trees is otherwise prohibited. For example, no natural Christmas tree, cut or balled, is permitted in assembly occupancies. It is not the intent to allow the presence of natural trees if enforced as being a “limited quantity of combustible vegetation”. The requirement for Christmas trees is more restrictive and should prevail.    Other considerations for natural cut trees No means of egress is permitted to be obstructed by any combustible vegetation item or Christmas tree. The preferred location for a Christmas tree from a property owner’s perspective is often in the lobby, the reception area, or a similar area. However, trees located in these areas often encroach on the means of egress and present an increased danger should a fire occur.  When determining where to place combustible vegetation items or Christmas trees, an important consideration is that they might fall over, especially if children or pets come in contact with the tree or vegetation. Placing a portable heater, other heat source, or heating vent near combustible vegetation is prohibited, because the vegetation might tip and also because the heater will likely prematurely dry the vegetation, increasing the risk of a fire.  To maximize the moisture retention of the tree, the bottom end of the trunk should be cut off with a straight cut at least 1⁄2 in. (13 mm) above the end prior to placing the tree in a stand to allow the tree to absorb water. The tree must then be placed in a suitable stand with water and the water level must be maintained above the fresh cut and checked at least once daily. When the tree shows evidence of drying it must be removed from the building immediately.  On the market today are treatments for natural cut Christmas trees that claim to improve the fire performance of the tree. However, the use of untested fire retardant treatments may actually increase the rate at which the tree dries out and can contribute to the rapid growth of a fire.  Where fire retardant treatments are applied to natural cut Christmas trees (the treatments are not required), the fire-retardant treatment (not the tree) is required to comply with both Test Method 1 and Test Method 2 of ASTM E3082, Standard Test Methods for Determining the Effectiveness of Fire Retardant Treatments for Natural Christmas Trees.  This standard provides a two-step testing process for determining the effectiveness of surface applied treatments for natural Christmas trees to improve fire test response. In order for a treatment to be considered compliant with ASTM E3082, the passing criteria of both Methods 1 and 2 as prescribed in the standard are to be met. Artificial vegetation including Christmas trees  There are no limitations on what occupancies permit the use of artificial Christmas trees so it’s important that their potential contribution to fire development and flammability be controlled.  Combustible artificial decorative vegetation and artificial Christmas trees must now meet the appropriate fire test criteria. This includes requirements for compliance with either the flame propagation performance criteria of Test Method 1 or Test Method 2, as appropriate, of NFPA 701 or a maximum heat release rate of 100 kW when tested to NFPA 289, using the 20 kW ignition source. NFPA 701, Standard Methods of Fire Tests for Flame Propagation of Textiles and Films, establishes test methods to assess the propagation of flame of various textiles and films under specified fire test conditions. NFPA 289, Standard Method of Fire Test for Individual Fuel Packages, describes a fire test method for determining the fire test response characteristics of individual fuel packages in a room when exposed to various ignition sources in a controlled environment.  Each individual artificial decorative vegetation item (Christmas tree) must be labeled, in an approved manner, to demonstrate compliance with one of the fire test options noted above. Additional requirements for Christmas trees Another hazard associated with Christmas trees is the decorative lighting. Electrical wiring and listed luminaires and lighting used on combustible artificial or natural Christmas trees must be listed for that particular application. The listing will also dictate whether the lights have been tested for indoor and/or outdoor use. In addition to the listing requirement, lighting should also be checked for wear and tear and damages. Worn or damaged wiring and loose bulbs may present unsafe conditions.  Electrical lights shall be prohibited on metal artificial trees. Candles and open flames cannot be not be used on or near combustible artificial or natural decorative vegetation and Christmas trees.   Looking for more information? Requirements for artificial and natural Christmas trees and other vegetation can be found in both NFPA 1, Fire Code, Chapter 12 as well as NFPA 101, Life Safety Code, Chapter 10.  The 2021 editions of both Codes were updates to include the specific fire test requirements as well as other clarifications for how to safely include Christmas trees in your business or residence.    NFPA also offers many additional resources on holiday safety, including a Christmas Tree Safety Tip Sheet and information on Christmas tree and decoration fires.  All holiday safety information can be found here. 
Concert crowd

Houston Concert Tragedy Casts Crowd Management into the Spotlight

Over the weekend, tragedy unfolded at NRG Park in Houston, Texas when eight young concert goers, between the ages of 14 and 27, were killed when reported crowd surges occurred during the Astroworld festival which attracted an estimated 50,000 attendees. In addition to the loss of young lives, more than 300 attendees sought assistance at an onsite medical tent. News reports indicate that 25 were transported to the hospital and 13 remain hospitalized. The mass casualty event, considered to be one of the deadliest concerts in US history, is now being criminally investigated to determine what prompted pandemonium as eight-time Grammy nominated rapper Travis Scott, a Houston native, took to the stage. The level of chaos that ensued on Friday night may seem rare, but we need only look back to April 30of this year when a celebration turned into tragedy as 45 people were killed and more than 150 were injured at a religious festival in Israel that attracted nearly 100,000 people. On the heels of that event, NFPA Building and Life Safety Tech Lead Kristin Bigda wrote a blog about crowd management safety. That piece serves as a great resource today as people search for answers in Houston and around the world. Bigda summarizes some of the code requirements from NFPA 101, Life Safety Code which are unique to assembly occupancies with large crowds. In part, Bigda explains: Occupant Load is determined by utilizing factors that are based on how the space is used or is determined by using the maximum probable population of the space under consideration, whichever is greater. In areas of assembly occupancies more than 10,000 ft2 (930 m2), the occupant load cannot exceed a density of one person in every 7ft2 (0.65 m2).This occupant load limit exists to avoid overcrowding. Life Safety Evaluations (LSEs) are required where the occupant load of an assembly occupancy exceeds 6,000. The LSE recognizes that fixed protection and suppression systems alone do not ensure safe egress where large numbers of people are present. Expected crowd behavior and techniques to manage any behavioral problems are also considered. The evaluation must include an assessment of all the following conditions and related appropriate safety measures: Nature of the events and the participants and attendees Access and egress movement, including crowd density problems Medical emergencies Fire hazards Permanent and temporary structural systems Severe weather conditions Earthquakes Civil or other disturbances Hazardous materials incidents within and near the facility Relationships among facility management, event participants, emergency response agencies, and others having a role in the events accommodated in the facility Main Entrances/Exits are required in every assembly occupancy, new or existing, to accommodate for occupants that are likely to egress the facility via the same door(s)/opening they used to enter. In some types of new assembly occupancies, the main entrance/exit must accommodate up to two-thirds of the total egress capacity, while in other assembly occupancies it can account for 50 percent. In assembly occupancies where there is no well-defined main entrance/exit, exits are permitted to be distributed around the perimeter of the building, provided that the total exit width is not less than 100 percent of the width needed to accommodate the permitted occupant load. Auditorium and Arena Floors need to be considered in new assembly occupancies where the floor area of auditoriums and arenas is used for assembly occupancy activities/events. Not less than 50 percent of the occupant load can have means of egress provided without passing through adjacent fixed seating areas. Emergency Action Plans (EAPs) must be provided in assembly occupancies and are a critical component of assuring life safety in buildings. Plans must include a minimum of 18 different considerations including: Building details Designated building staff responsible for emergency duties Identification of events that are considered life safety hazards and the specific procedures for each type of emergency Staff training Documentations Inspection, testing, and maintenance of building facilities that provide for the safety of occupants Conducting drills Evacuation procedures Crowd Managers are required for assembly occupancies. Where the occupant load exceeds 250, additional trained crowd managers or crowd manager supervisors are to be provided at a ratio of one crowd manager or crowd manager supervisor for every 250 occupants in most facilities. Bigda also penned an In Compliance column for NFPA Journal this fall, reinforcing the fact that when safety protocols and crowd management features are neglected, it can have a drastic impact on the efficiency of egress response during large events like the one in Houston. In that same issue, NFPA Journal also ran an Op-ed called In My Tribe by Steve Adelman, principal author of the authoritative crowd-management standard in the United States (ANSI ES1.9-2020) and vice president of the Event Safety Alliance, an industry group that was established after seven people were killed at the Indiana State Fair in 2011. Adelman writes, “In the context of events where participants are passionately engaged, a risk identity of situational invulnerability causes them to either downplay of not even perceive otherwise apparent hazards.” While it is too early to know definitively what transpired in Houston, the incident reminds us just how important it is for citizens to have a keen level of situational awareness and for venue security and safety personnel to understand and apply the guidance found within NFPA 101.

How are NFPA Standards Keeping Pace with Innovation?

As we begin to wind down National Cybersecurity Awareness Month, I’m going to cover some of the ways that NFPA codes and standards are addressing digital transformation and the byproduct of these solutions – the data that is being captured and generated. These days, more and more fire protection systems are networked to Building Control Systems - the Internet of Things (IoT). These and many other platforms are, by design or sometimes by oversight, being exposed to the Internet. This connectivity can lead to cyber vulnerabilities and attacks on fire protection systems. Codes and standards play a critical role in protecting people and property, and that role is rapidly changing because of the digital transformation that is occurring around us. Understanding and integrating digital solutions and smart technologies into building management systems is important. There are at least 16 NFPA standards that have cybersecurity references including NFPA 72, National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code which features guidance and requirements to address cybersecurity for equipment, software, firmware, tools, and installation methods, as well as the physical security and access to equipment, data pathways, testing, and maintenance. Remote testing is also addressed in NFPA 72. During the most recent development cycle, the technical committee for NFPA 72 added provisions for remote access to fire alarm and signaling systems. Remote access is permitted for testing and maintenance activities, including resetting, silencing, or operation of emergency control functions. NFPA 72 will also permit remote access for the purposes of performing remote diagnostics and updating software. In fact, NFPA 72 includes an entirely new annex called Guidelines for Cybersecurity. The 2022 edition of NFPA 13, Standard for the Installation of Sprinkler Systems will likely contain language about the use of electronically activated sprinklers for the first time. These days, some sprinklers are designed to address fires in higher hazard storage protection, including exposed expanded plastics. Local heat detectors are “wired” to the sprinkler actuator and constantly sample the air temperature to identify a fire event early on. When a fire event occurs, the system will electronically activate sprinklers in a specific pattern around the fire based on the algorithms programmed into the releasing panel. The new technology ensures that only sprinklers that will be effective in suppressing the fire will activate to limit both fire and water damage. NFPA 72 also comes into play here as well since there are electronic components and heat detectors in sprinklers. These systems are connected to a releasing panel that looks a lot like a releasing panel for a pre-action system. Consider a fire alarm control panel or sub-panel, but it fits into NFPA 13 in the same way that specialty releasing panels do. On the water-based side, automated testing is heavy in NFPA 25, Standard for the Inspection, Testing, and Maintenance of Water-Based Fire Protection Systems but installation system standards such as NFPA 13, NFPA 14, Standard for the Installation of Standpipe and Hose Systems, NFPA 15, Standard for Water Spray Fixed Systems for Fire Protection  and NFPA 16, Standard for the Installation of Foam-Water Sprinkler and Foam-Water Spray Systems are catching up and adding allowances for the installation of automated testing systems and components. Both NFPA 25 and NFPA 20, Standard for the Installation of Stationary Pumps for Fire Protection now recognize smart technology by featuring language in their most recent editions about remote automated testing of systems or components. Remote testing eliminates the need for a person to be physically present in a facility and is attractive for building owners who are trying to reduce their operating budget or limit the number of outside service-providers accessing their buildings. Then there’s automated flow switch arrangement and other automated testing equipment which include motorized valves capable of opening and closing, cameras for observation, and auxiliary pumps for circulating water to ensure that automated testing equipment or components do not compromise the integrity of the system. This equipment may cost more upfront, but in just a few short years, operations savings are realized and the investment in capital improvements is validated.   Code Making Panels (CMPs) working on the 2023 National Electrical Code® (NEC®) or NFPA 70 are also looking hard at digital solutions. Packet Energy Transfer – the system that converts the typical 60 cycle power circuit into a digital signal and reconverts at utilization - is being deployed, but it does not fit well into existing NEC rules, so the standard needs to evolve. Why is this important? Because this technology is being used to power up the 5G equipment that is revolutionizing how we communicate with digital devices. CMP-13 is also looking at Emergency Lighting Using Power over Ethernet (PoE) and Limited Energy Circuits. LED lighting technology has become such a mainstay in the commercial lighting segment, that the use of low-voltage circuits for power and control is becoming increasingly popular.  In commercial buildings, luminaires that provide normal lighting can be used as part of the emergency lighting system, rather than use conduit, tubing and metal-clad cables. Low-voltage (CAT 5 and CAT 6) cables are now used to control and power emergency lighting, so the NEC task group has provided recommendations to employ this new technology. Several NEC CMPs are vetting new requirements surrounding localized power microgrid too. Smart buildings want to have localized microgrids that allow for safe interconnection of multiple distributed energy resources with or without a connection to an electric utility system. Digital technology provides the pathway for the interoperability of these systems. The analytics from these systems will also go a long way in making businesses more efficient and to reduce risk.  These analytics become important information for our technical committees so that they can better understand what other changes need to be made to the standard. These IoT electrical technologies and smart equipment allow for the collection of real-time data, which can then be used to preempt failures, schedule maintenance, and provide safety for workers – the latter benefit is of interest to the NFPA 70B, Recommended Practice for Electrical Equipment Maintenance and NFPA 70E®, Standard for Electrical Safety in the Workplace® committees. These are just some of the ways that NFPA standards are morphing in digital times and looking to safeguard data. The Association has covered cyber security extensively over the last year beginning with a digital transformation keynote that NFPA President and CEO Jim Pauley delivered last August to building and life safety and fire protection professionals. In the year since, NFPA or its research affiliate, the Fire Protection Research Foundation have released research related to fire protection systems, an NFPA Journal® podcast and articles, external articles related to health care systems, and a webinar panel discussion that covered, in part, proceedings from a workshop earlier in the year. All this content and context is designed to inform stakeholders about innovation and potential issues that may arise with progress. As one might expect, things will continue to evolve with codes and cyber security trends. The good news is that NFPA staff and volunteers from 42 countries who fill more than 9000 technical committee seats will continue considering innovation and potential challenges because it is critical that safety and progress move forward in lockstep. 

NFPA debuts free online drone training and knowledge base for fire service administrators and operators

In as much as it is cool to utilize drones during fire prevention and emergency response efforts, it is not advisable to do so without proper understanding of best practices, protocols, and an understanding of the guidance found within NFPA 2400, Standard for Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (sUAS) Used for Public Safety Operations. To help first responders effectively deploy drones during structural fires, wildfires, natural disasters, rescue efforts, and large public gatherings that may require additional visibility, NFPA has developed new free online drone training so that fire service administrators and operators can create, manage, and maintain small, unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS) programs. The NFPA drone online learning is comprised of approximately four, hour-long, self-paced modules with interactive videos, immersive virtual reality tools, and other elements that help first responders grasp and remember important drone safety information. NFPA applied for and received a FEMA Fire Prevention and Safety Grant so that the training and the knowledge base could be developed for the nation’s more than 1.1 million firefighters. The two FEMA-funded resources can be found at along with a short video, NFPA 2400, related research, and relevant NFPA content. Given that most fire departments conduct training in-house, on a regular basis, NFPA has worked to provide progressive online solutions that will help municipalities. In addition to the new drone training program, NFPA offers fire departments online learning programs centered around energy storage systems (ESS), alternative/electric vehicles (AFV/EV), flammable refrigerants, and NFPA 1700, Guide for Structural Fire Fighting. Fire service training officers and company leaders are encouraged to factor these five online solutions into their annual learning objectives.
A green building

Fire Safety Challenges and Attributes of ‘Green’ Buildings

In recent years, there have been several major fire events, which have involved ‘green’ materials, systems, and features in buildings, including the tragic Grenfell Tower fire in London involving combustible insulation; the Dietz & Watson cold storage warehouse in Delanco, New Jersey involving photovoltaic panels and combustible insulation; and the 2019 energy storage system (ESS) explosion and fire in Surprise, Arizona. While each of these incidents can be categorized in many ways, they (and many others) include materials, systems, and features that are considered ‘green’ or sustainable. These events have prompted major advances (related to fire challenges) in ‘green’ and/or sustainable building materials, systems, and features in areas such as: research, regulatory requirements, engineering approaches, risk mitigation strategies, and firefighting tactics. Given the increased interest, the Fire Protection Research Foundation, the research affiliate of NFPA, conducted a fundamental review of the aforementioned considerations to better understand the extent to which the unintended fire hazards and risks associated with ‘green’ attributes of buildings have been addressed, considered, or are being monitored as new incidents emerge. The study found that while fire hazards and risks have been addressed in many regards, fire safety is still considered relatively late in the design process and when considered, efforts don’t always carry through to the operational phase of a building.  Further, the design of ‘green’ buildings is fundamentally rooted in sustainability -  environmental, economic, and social – not necessarily focused on fire resiliency. The Foundation’s review suggests there is a need to broaden our understanding of societal objectives and include resiliency into the context of ‘Sustainable and Fire Resilient’ (SAFR) buildings and communities.  The idea is to include risk and performance considerations into overall assessments of whether structures meet design criteria across all societal dimensions so that ‘safer’ solutions for buildings, fire service personnel, and the community are ultimately achieved. The study developed a set of recommendations for future work to address gaps and to advance the concept of SAFR buildings and communities. They include: Integrating ‘green’/sustainable attributes of buildings into fire incident reporting systems Developing more robust and appropriate test methods, which yield engineering data, for assessment of material, component, and systems performance Incorporating fire performance considerations into sustainable materials, technologies, research, and development features Creating robust risk and performance assessment methods and tools, which are founded on broad expert stakeholder knowledge and experience, available data, and expert judgment where data are lacking Designing better tools for holistic design and performance assessment, taking advantage of building informational modelling (BIM) and other technologies that are defining the future of the construction market Transitioning to more holistic, socio-technical systems approaches for building regulatory systems, which consider the diversity of societal and market objectives for building design, construction, and lifetime operation Furthering SAFR building concept development and articulation, as well as its societal and economic benefits You can read more about this topic in two reports from the Foundation, the original 2012 report and the 2020 update.  As noted above, there is certainly a lot of work to be done to advance fire safety considerations in ‘green’ buildings, so be sure to attend the Global Trends and Research one-day conference on November 2, 2021 to hear more about this study, its findings, and the SAFR concept.  The session on green buildings is just one of eight forward-thinking discussions being offered that day as part of the NFPA 125th Anniversary Conference Series (sessions are available for one year after the live date, via on-demand).
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