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“South Alex” Fire Provides a Lesson in the Risks of Smoking

Raymond O’Brocki

October 4, 2021

It’s been 18 months since I had the opportunity to tour the scene of the fire that ravaged the “South Alex” project in Alexandria, Virginia. Despite the passage of time, there is value in revisiting that fire and reflecting on how the construction industry can avoid a repeat this kind of catastrophe.

For those unfamiliar, a fire that originated in a combustible garbage shoot spread rapidly – thanks to strong winds – through the five multi-family and commercial project in February 2020. In the aftermath, the fire caused $48 million in damage to five buildings and 14 townhomes that were under construction. This fire occurred despite the provision in NFPA 241 requiring a recessed sprinkler head at the top of any combustible garbage chute.

The cause? Investigators determined the blaze was ignited by a lit cigarette that had been tossed into a combustible garbage chute that was clogged with construction debris. It didn’t take long for the fire to intensify and spread, and the project to suffer consequences that were easily avoidable.

More than anything, the “South Alex” fire serves as the latest poster child for developers, contractors, and their appointed Site Safety Directors to take seriously where and when crews can smoke cigarettes.

Smoking has always posed a serious fire risk to any construction site – big or small. In keeping with Chapter 14 of the International Fire Code, we believe the best and safest option is implementing a “Zero Tolerance” policy for smoking and the use of any smoking materials on the work site – all the time. We urge Fire Safety Managers to adopt a policy that includes instant disciplinary action for violations or the rules.

But the real challenge for safety managers is in their commitment to communicating and enforcing no-smoking rules. This includes posting signage that clearly spells out that employees cannot smoke while on the job and that smoking is allowed only in certain designated areas far from combustible materials.

Fire Safety Managers should make it a priority to routinely remind employees about the rules on smoking. We encourage making the rules on smoking part of the project’s Fire Plan Checklist.

We know smokers are, and will continue to be, part of any construction crew. It’s unavoidable in this industry. But I’m talking about what is preventable, and there are clearly things that can be done to set the right tone and expectation for smoking.

What was evident to me, and to investigators at the “South Alex” fire is that the risks of cigarette smoking were clearly overlooked, as evidenced by the spent cigarette butts that were observed across the entire job site and the root cause of this costly fire.