Here’s how to ensure fire safety for buildings in various stages of occupancy, from NFPA

by Brianna Crandall — August 10, 2020 — As businesses and organizations have begun reopening from the COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns, and continue to adjust to varying levels of occupancy and the necessities and realities of the “new normal,” the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has remained a step ahead, offering guidance and resources to its coronavirus landing page to help the public keep fire and life safety top of mind. The global nonprofit is devoted to eliminating death, injury, property and economic loss due to fire, electrical and related hazards.

Officials, owners and FMs are reminded that it is critical to ensure that fire protection and life safety systems be maintained and kept compliant in all commercial and multi-occupancy residential buildings throughout the pandemic — no matter what the current level of occupancy — in order to avoid exacerbating the current environment by compromising fire and life safety, and thereby adding additional burdens to first responders and healthcare workers as well as leaving buildings vulnerable to vandalism.

See NFPA’s Guidance for Maintaining Fire Protection and Life Safety Systems Regardless of Occupancy Status.

Highlighted below are some of the group’s recent initiatives and resources.

Fire and Life Safety Checklist for Reopening a Building

NFPA developed a checklist to help building owners and facilities managers (FMs) prepare for reopening their facilities, to ensure that fire protection and life safety systems in commercial and multi-occupancy residential buildings are properly checked and functioning.

Val Ziavras, technical services engineer at NFPA, pointed out:

During the lockdown policies in place over the past couple of months, many of the ongoing inspection, testing, and maintenance (ITM) activities typically required by locally enforced codes and standards may not have been completed for a variety of reasons. Regardless of the level of ITM performed during this time, it is imperative that building owners and facility managers verify the performance of all building fire protection and life safety systems prior to reoccupation.

The new NFPA resource addresses the factors that should be confirmed by a qualified person before reopening a building to ensure the safety of all its occupants. Based on the assumption that the building was in compliance prior to being closed, the checklist provides some initial steps to help make sure the occupancy is safe enough to reopen until a qualified professional can complete the regularly scheduled ITM of all fire protection and life safety systems. Ziavras notes that this process should be completed as quickly as possible.

Ziavras continued:

Any alterations to the building that adhere to public health guidelines, such as the installation of physical barriers or automatic door openers, will need to be evaluated to ensure that they are properly designed and installed and do not negatively impact the fire protection and life safety systems currently in place.

Readers can view or download the Fire and Life Safety Checklist for Reopening a Building from the NFPA website.

Ensuring Safety as Buildings Return to a New Normal

Building owners and FMs of offices, restaurants, and retail stores face unique challenges as they enter the “new normal.” Working to adhere to public health requirements and guidelines in response to COVID-19, businesses of all sizes are adjusting their physical configurations and operational usage to help minimize employee and customer exposure to the virus.

To help facilities maintain adequate levels of fire and life safety in the midst of these changes, NFPA developed a new fact sheet, Ensuring Safety as Buildings Return to a New Normal, which works to help businesses meet states’ public health requirements while ensuring adequate levels of occupant safety.

Jonathan Hart, a technical lead at NFPA, remarked:

As businesses vigorously work to keep occupants safe from COVID-19, there is significant potential for modifications to be made that negatively impact fire and life safety levels, which could prove tragic in the event of a fire or other emergency. While we completely understand and support efforts to minimize the virus’s spread, it’s critical that adequate safety is maintained in all capacities.

The new fact sheet addresses guidelines and considerations in the following areas:

  • Egress management
  • Queuing lines
  • Occupant flow
  • Partition placement
  • Hand sanitizer storage and placement
  • Automatic and power-operated doors
  • Seating arrangements
  • Storage management

Building and Life Safety for Tents

As states continue working to find ways to safely reopen, many jurisdictions have allowed the use of tents among restaurants and other businesses. In response, NFPA recently released a new fact sheet, Building and Life Safety for Tents, which provides guidance to code officials, business owners and FMs to help ensure that tents are being used properly and safely.

When erecting even a temporary tent or membrane structure, multiple safety precautions must be followed. NFPA says that any restaurant, business, or other group planning to use a tent must contact the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) and that all applicable fire safety requirements should be followed; all plans for tent usage should be reviewed by a qualified person.

NFPA 101, Life Safety Code, and NFPA 1, Fire Code, contain requirements that address the use of tents and membrane structures, including a provision stating that tents can only be used on a temporary basis and should not be erected for more than 180 days. In addition, the means of egress must comply with the requirements for the occupancy of the tent. Additional egress features should include exit markings and emergency lighting within the tent, along with measures to ensure that exits from the tent cannot be blocked.

NFPA points to the deadly Hartford Circus fire in 1944 to demonstrate the concerns of using tents — primarily the flammability of the tent fabric and the need to properly maintain sufficient points of egress. The new tent fact sheet addresses these and other associated requirements and considerations.

Remote Video Inspection (RVI) programs

With social distancing guidelines limiting travel and contact, NFPA created a fact sheet and infographic that provide guidance on how to conduct a remote video inspection (RVI), enabling one or more parties to remotely perform an inspection of a building or building component.

Until recently, the use of remote video inspections was limited and sporadic, and NFPA notes that no formal standard governs their use. Jurisdictions that use them often utilize everyday smartphone technologies to facilitate the inspection.

Just like traditional on-site or in person inspections, an RVI is typically associated within a jurisdiction’s permitting process, the project, or contract schedule, and needs to be approved by the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ). Remote inspection may be able to accomplish critical and emergency permit work that is still underway. It is not intended to be less complete than an on-site inspection and can be employed to achieve the same (or enhanced) results as an on-site inspection.

The new Guidance For Remote Video Inspection (RVI) factsheet provides guidance on how to effectively conduct a remote inspection. Considerations addressed in the document include setting clear expectations, selecting technology, location verification and signoffs/follow-up.

NFPA fire safety infographic for reopening

NFPA created a fact sheet and infographic (see links below) that provide guidance on how to conduct a remote video inspection (RVI). Image courtesy NFPA

With facilities reopening and creating even more of an inspection backlog, NFPA more recently released a new infographic emphasizing five key considerations for RVI programs: procedures, communication, technology, verification and completion.

The new graphic reinforces RVI program elements and points stakeholders to relevant RVI resources so that AHJs can efficiently address inspections during the pandemic, prepare buildings for post-government shutdowns, and manage unrealistic workloads in the long run.

NFPA LiNK digital fire safety content

NFPA just introduced NFPA LiNK, a new digital content on demand platform that will allow the 124-year old organization to provide the up-to-date code information and situational context that fire safety professionals and practitioners need to do their jobs successfully. NFPA LiNK is designed to deliver intuitive, seamless, code-based information to those responsible for building, electrical and life safety via mobile devices, tablets, laptops, or your preferred device, on a real-time basis, which the group expects to translate to more property protected and more lives saved.

Available beginning in September 2020, the first iteration of NFPA LiNK will feature the National Electrical Code and electrical content, followed by building and life safety and fire protection codes. The goal is to have all 300-plus NFPA codes and standards in NFPA LiNK by the end of 2021. Additional resources will then be added, and new features will be unveiled on a regular basis

Live Virtual Training courses

To enable workers to skill up while classrooms remained closed, NFPA launched three Live Virtual Training courses that incorporate dynamic interactive online components with real-world setting scenarios to help practitioners stay up to speed on electrical and life safety requirements. The new training trio is designed to deliver high-level insights about the most recent editions of NFPA 70, National Electrical Code (NEC); NFPA 70E, Standard for Electrical Safety in the Workplace; and NFPA 101, Life Safety Code.

The NFPA 70 and NFPA 70E virtual courses are suited for electrical system designers, electrical engineers, electrical contractors, safety engineers, installation and maintenance professionals, manufacturers, electrical inspectors, and those charged with facility maintenance. After successfully passing an online exam, participants will receive a Certificate of Completion and CEUs (Continuing Education Units).

Coronavirus landing page

For information on NFPA’s ongoing response to the coronavirus, along with links to the resources above and additional COVID-19 related information, guidelines, and resources, visit the NFPA Responds to the Coronavirus landing page.