Investment in Prevention can Save Damages

Raymond O’Brocki

December 14, 2022

I spent a good portion of 2022 traveling around the country, presenting to code and fire officials, developers and designers on best practices for reducing fire risk, fire testing of engineered wood products and the new building codes for tall mass timber construction.

One of my takeaways from many of these engagements is how few people know or understand  key code provisions for fire safety during construction.

For example, how many developers know that the International Fire Code (IFC) and NFPA 241 makes the building owner responsible for the development and implementation of an onsite fire prevention plan throughout all phases of construction?

How many code officials and fire service leaders know the code requires an on-site fire prevention superintendent, appointed by the developer or building owner, to notify of any changes in the fire prevention plan?

From my experience and interaction with professionals in this space, the reality is that these and other key code provisions are ignored. Others are simply surprised the code includes requirements to reduce fire risk.

What’s important to consider is that provisions in Chapter 33 of the IFC and NFPA 241 are intended to benefit all parties engaged in a construction project, from the developers and laborers to the local fire service, insurers and neighboring building owners and inhabitants. Chapter 33 in the IFC and Chapter 16 in NFPA 1 is about fire safety and prevention, limiting the spread of fire and establishing a culture of fire safety across the job site.

With that in mind, let’s focus on one of the most critical requirements of the chapter. Section 3308 of the IFC focuses on the creation of a fire prevention program at the construction site and appointing a supervisor to execute that plan.

  • According to 3308.1, the owner or owner’s authorized agent is responsible for developing and implementing a written fire prevention plan for the duration of construction. The plan should also address the full requirements of Chapter 33, duties of staff and training requirements. And here’s some key language for fire service officials: “The plan shall be made available for review by the fire code official upon request.”
  • The next point, found in 3308.2 is the designation of a fire prevention program superintendent. The person in this role is responsible for ensuring the fire prevention program is carried out from start to finish.

Under 3308.3, it’s up to the fire prevention program superintendent to develop and maintain a “prefire plan” and to notify local fire code officials of any changes to the plan.

So, what kind of information should be included in a prefire plan? The IFC provides a clear blueprint for how to proceed. Such plans should include communication and pre-planning with the local fire department and procedures for reporting emergencies to the fire service.

The plan should include rules of the road for hot work operations, managing hazardous materials and combustible debris. Plans should spell out security measures designed to prevent unauthorized people from accessing the job site, the installation of fire protection systems where applicable and training personnel in the use of fire equipment. The section also requires daily inspections by the fire prevention program superintendent.

The purpose of Chapter 33 is to mitigate the risk of a fire starting on a construction or demolition project, the kind of fire that can threaten human life or cause millions of dollars in damage and loss. We’ve seen these fires before, blazes that create a total loss but upon investigation could have been easily prevented by a culture of safety and prevention.

But the other takeaway from Chapter 33 is found between the bullet points and provisions. And to me, the chapter serves as a road map for creating a culture of safety on construction sites. It’s about creating accountability for fire prevention among the building owners and on-site safety leaders and opening lines of communication between code and fire service officials whose job it is so ensure safety and respond effectively and efficiently in case of emergency.

NFPA 241 has similar requirements found in Chapter 33 of the IFC.

Ultimately, the lesson for the industry is that a small investment in prevention can save tens of millions of dollars in damages.