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New Fire Codes Aim to Prevent Construction Site Fires


January 4, 2021

The 2021 edition of the International Fire Code (IFC) will include some new provisions intended to reduce the number of fires that flare up at construction sites across the country.

Generally speaking, the changes attempt to put more emphasis and accountability on the importance of identifying potential fire hazards at job sites. On a more granular level, the changes involve making fire watch mandatory for buildings taller than 40 feet and for multistory buildings with an aggregate area of 50,000 square feet per floor and requiring developers to file a "site safety plan" as part of their building permitting process.

To me, however, the most significant change in the new code provision will require construction "site safety directors" to conduct daily fire inspections at the project site. This change in the code – intended to protect public safety and firefighters and to prevent property destruction and economic loss – is not a high bar for builders and developers to clear.

Every job site already has a superintendent or someone responsible for overall on-site safety. New code requirements could be met by assigning this person to conduct a daily walk-through of the job site, making sure best-practice housekeeping standards are being followed in the exterior and interior of buildings.

This inspection must also include examination of hot work areas, temporary heating equipment, places where crews cook meals, flammable liquids/hazardous materials, as well as keeping clear access for fire equipment and hydrants.

Daily inspections must be documented, and records must be made available immediately upon request of the local fire official.

The changes also include enforcement mechanisms. Failure to conduct or document daily inspections can result in a violation. A third offense gives local officials authority to issue a stop order for the project until fire code officials obtain assurances of future compliance from the builder and developer.

Ultimately, these code changes appropriately put the onus for safety on the developer or general contractor of a project, rather than a local fire marshal's office that may already be overburdened. That said, it's up to fire departments to actively enforce these new changes in hopes of preventing fires at construction sites.

Ideally, these code changes will close a safety gap at construction sites across the country. Too often, the responsibility of identifying and reducing the risk fire hazards at building sites has fallen by the roadside, creating the kind of unsafe practices and fires that account for hundreds of millions of dollars in losses every year.