Why Closing the “Responsibility Gap” Can Reduce Construction Site Fires

Raymond O’Brocki

June 23, 2022

When I travel around the country and interact with colleagues from the fire service or friends from the code enforcement side, it’s never surprising when the conversation turns to the gap between enforcement and inspection on construction sites.

This gap – between code enforcement and onsite fire risk mitigation – too often is the epicenter of some of the most destructive and costly construction site fires.

For example, take the February 2020 fire in Alexandria, Virginia, which I also reference in my October blog post about the risks of cigarette smoking on construction sites. The fire that caused $48 million in damage to the “South Alex” project is a classic example of failing to fill what I like to call the “responsibility gap.”

The fire originated in a combustible garbage shoot clogged with debris. The cause of the fire was a smoldering cigarette, and it didn’t take long for the fire to grow and spread.

My point here is this disaster fell squarely within the responsibility gap between those enforcing building codes and those with the expertise to minimize fire risk.

I don’t believe that fires that originate in this space are the result of laziness, neglect, or incompetence. Code enforcers and fire service alike are comfortable in their traditional roles and what they believe their jobs and authority to be.

Building inspectors are focused on framing and other code provisions, and less so identifying fire risks and violations of the fire code. Too often, fire service officials don’t begin their inspection process during construction, but once the building is finished and approval for occupancy is foremost on their minds.

This is also not a case of lacking the appropriate tools. There are ample code provisions on the books, and I’m not advocating here to add more.

But as someone who professionally has straddled the code enforcement world and the fire service space, it’s easy to identify fires that fall within the responsibility gap.

So, what is the solution? How do we close this gap? One suggestion is to get code officials and fire inspectors to get out of their traditional lanes, to rethink what can be done to improve the overall safety of construction sites – big and small.

What about encouraging code and fire officials to work side-by-side? This doesn’t need to happen daily. But consider how productive a pre-construction meeting could be for coordinating, planning and crafting an inspection schedule. During these meetings, fire officials can help manage expectations of the developer and help build a fire safety plan.

This is already happening in some communities. Consider Montgomery County, Maryland, for example, and the work being done to build awareness about construction site safety. County officials have created a checklist that is included with each approved building plan as a reminder to inspectors there are code requirements that must be considered during construction.

In most cases, destructive and costly fires are not due to lack of code provisions, it’s a lack of enforcement.