May 15, 2023
Four weeks after a deliberately set fire caused more than $50 million in damage to a pair of five-story apartment buildings in Bound Brook, New Jersey, city leaders drafted a new ordinance requiring tighter security around future construction projects.
I’m not here to make a case for or against the logic of Bound Brook leaders crafting policy to reduce the risk of future intentionally set construction site fires. Instead, the point here is that there is plenty of evidence, incentive and existing best practices for developers and contractors to beef up security and lessen the risk and exposure to intentionally-set fires.
Each year, direct property losses from the more than 4,300 fires in buildings under construction or renovation costs close to $400 million in the U.S. Arson continues to be a factor, with data showing that fires intentionally set caused 11 percent of fires between 2016-2020, and account for nearly 50 percent of the direct property damage.
In late December, a three-story apartment project in Charleston County, South Carolina, was intentionally set, according to investigators. The fire destroyed the apartment and spread to two other neighboring structures.
As the nation’s fire service recognizes Arson Awareness Week this month, it’s opportune to point out that so much of the risk to property and human life from arson can be mitigated by minimal investments in security and on site at construction sites.
For example, fencing is a cheap and effective step for protecting the jobsite, whether it’s a simple chain link system or a more sophisticated electric fence.
Other options include installing lights, alarms or cameras to act as a deterrent. Developers can also invest in temporary wireless alert systems that can identify smoke or rapid changes in temperature, speeding the process of alerting the fire service and potentially saving lives and significant damage to property.
There are also steps construction crews can follow at the end of the workday to reduce risk, including:
- Storing solvents, fuels and tools in a locked container, or removing them from the jobsite altogether.
- Request additional patrols from local law enforcement.
- Remove trash and debris from the site.
- Avoid storing excess materials.
- Secure doors and windows on structures when crews are not actively working on the property.
- Report odd or suspicious activity to authorities (Investigators in Bound Brook said security cameras had captured footage of a man walking several times near the construction site before the fire).
The tougher ordinance proposed in Bound Brook after the fire drew criticism from developers concerned about the overall increase in costs to bolster security around their projects. For those of us in the fire service and working to reduce arson-caused fires, a minimal investment in tighter security outweighs the potential of tens of millions of dollars in losses from a deliberately set fire.