PREPLANNING CONSTRUCTION SITE HAZARDS

BY TED PISCIOTTA, CFPS

Preplanning is as vital for the safe and efficient response to an emergency at a construction site as it is at completed structures. In many ways, preplanning a construction site is like preplanning a finished facility. Information is collected, evaluated, and documented and is stored in a retrieval format so it can be used for future reference. Ideally, the information is periodically reviewed and updated. The major differences between a construction project and a finished structure, however, are that there are inherent hazards associated with a construction site, and conditions on a construction site are ever-changing and must be frequently reevaluated.


You must preplan for the ever-changing and numerous hazards that you may encounter at a construction site during a fire or other emergency. Among them are elevator shafts, which may warrant fall protection during firefighting operations

A construction site may involve the renovation, remodeling, alteration, or expansion of an existing facility; building a structure or a piece of equipment; an industrial process; or some unique project. All these situations present inherent and changing hazards that make the site vulnerable to a fire.

At a construction site, hazardous operations, special hazards, and uncontrolled combustible loading are typically present without the presence of serviceable fire protection systems and with critical structural building components exposed. Emergency access may be impaired or limited, water supplies may be minimal or nonexistent, and responding personnel may be completely unaware of the hidden dangers.


Other openings and areas that may have temporary restraints but are still safety threats to firefighters

With minimal effort, you can recognize most basic hazards common to construction projects. The key to evaluating and managing intelligence information for response to a specific site is to always be in step with the changing conditions and hazards associated with the various phases of construction. Only by continually reevaluating changes and hazardous operations can you determine response capabilities and resource limitations.

BE AN ACTIVE PARTICIPANT


Staged materials, which can affect access and egress. (Photos by author.)

The best time to begin preplanning is during the design stage. It is your initial opportunity for educating key individuals-architects, design engineers, project managers, contractors, insurance representatives, code officials, owners, and perhaps the end user or occupant-about the things that will concern you as an emergency responder for the life of the project. Even when experienced and well-seasoned professionals are involved, don’t assume that they fully understand the fire service’s concerns and operational considerations associated with emergency response. That’s why the fire service needs to be an active participant in this group’s activities.

Many of the individuals first encountered may not appreciate or completely understand the fire service’s intentions with regard to preincident planning. Often, as is the case with “typical” prefire planning, the fire department is confused with the code compliance official. Work to eliminate any apprehension these individuals might have so that the lines of communication may remain open. Make it clear that the fire service will be there to help should anything go wrong. Unfortunately, even the most experienced construction professionals may not truly believe that a serious event will ever take place.


Other construction site hazards include exposed steel connectors that support concrete curtain walls

The fact is, however, that numerous inherent hazards and operations are conducted concurrently throughout the construction phase and that the potential for a fire or other disaster is very real. Prevention efforts go a long way, but the bottom line is that when something goes very wrong, the fire service will be called. Regardless of whether the fire department was involved in preincident planning, it will be expected to respond promptly. Before a contractor arrives at a job site, the following has already been determined: the scope of work to be done, the materials and number of personnel needed, the utilities required, and any obstacles or unfavorable conditions that may impede completion of the job. The fire service should be just as prepared if it has to respond.

SCENARIO DEVELOPMENT

As the project progresses, try to envision various fire scenarios that you may encounter during each phase of construction. This is not always easy to do; construction sites change continually. Devising scenarios can help you to identify specific hazards, determine resources that may be needed, and highlight the abilities and limitations of a response. This information will help the incident commander to avoid making erroneous assumptions and recognize critical considerations. Understanding the associated hazards will help you to develop plausible, likely fire scenarios.

COMMON KEY HAZARDS


Temporary electrical cables, drain pipes, and other objects that may be suspended with temporary ties and could easily fail and drop under fire conditions

When looking for potential hazards, beware of anything referred to as “temporary,” whether it be temporary construction, fuel supplies, heating systems, hot work operations, storage/staging, platforms/scaffolding, roadways, or water supply. Temporary conditions or operations often make the site vulnerable to an emergency. Too often, however, the tendency is to dismiss a temporary condition because it is of limited duration. This rationalization might cause you to overlook the potential for a fire, hazardous materials release, or collapse.

A tremendous amount of combustible material is often staged on-site during various phases of a project. Lumber and wooden forms are obvious, but consider other materials such as those containing plastics. Expanded (“foam”) plastics might include insulation boards or the insulating core material of metal-faced sandwich-type panels. Rigid plastic might be present in interior finishing panels, ducts, or piping. Be alert to product labeling that may state that flame spread and smoke development ratings derived may not necessarily reflect hazards under actual fire conditions. This may be especially true when materials are staged together prior to being assembled into a final arrangement.


Fuel sources, such as these propane tanks on the roof, and temporary heaters and equipment operated within the facility and possibly belowgrade during cold weather.

Also, keep in mind that noncombustible building materials and equipment are often packaged with corrugated paper, wood crates, and expanded/foamed plastic. Such material often arrives on-site before the sprinkler protection system is in service. Flammable/combustible liquids, including gasoline, diesel fuel, solvents, paints, asphalt, and adhesives, are as common to construction projects as are flammable gases, such as propane and acetylene.

Think about the operations and equipment used and how they are conducted or powered. Electric-powered equipment may require a generator, which will have a fuel supply. Liquids or gases may be found in small containers or in cylinders or large tanks or vessels. Many of the safeguards and containment features common to fixed or permanent installations will likely be absent. Anticipate that these conditions may cause an incident or be a hidden danger if there is exposure to fire.


You must also continually evaluate temporary roadways that will provide egress for apparatus and other vehicles during an emergency.

Temporary or “in-process” construction conditions can further augment the threat of fire presented by combustible materials. The heat of a fire involving staged materials, for example, might cause the early collapse of exposed structural steel members or steel connectors such as those used to support curtain or panel walls. Also, temporary electrical conductors suspended overhead could drop. Open floor or wall penetrations not yet sealed or firestopped can permit fire and significant quantities of smoke to spread throughout the site.

SPECIFIC CONCERNS AND CONSIDERATIONS

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Hazards to Responding Personnel

Roof, floor, and wall openings may be left for the installation of skylights, windows, and equipment/material access or debris removal. Before stairwells and floors are provided with walls, “temporary” railings or cables may be in place for the safety of construction workers. However, consider the fall potential these conditions can represent for firefighters crawling low when visibility is poor. Consider the collapse potential that fire or use of large-caliber hose streams may have on temporarily braced or partially erected structures, unprotected exposed steel, scaffolding, cranes, hoists, and the like. Curtain or panel walls may be secured with unprotected exposed steel connectors that might fail if exposed to excessive heat, allowing these large and heavy objects to drop or fall.

Search and Rescue

Floor plans can change frequently, as temporary wall partitions may be erected, removed, or relocated. Staging of materials may also result in a change in floor plan and further complicate search efforts. Consider frequent familiarization tours, on-site preparedness training exercises, and resources to support challenging search operations.

Access

Verify how access will be obtained during operating and off-hours. For security purposes, unusual methods may be used to secure the site. Large equipment or barricades may be in place, impairing access. Responding apparatus should have complete access to all areas that may be involved in a potential scenario for each phase of construction. Be sure that access, as perceived by project management, is consistent with that of responding apparatus. Will apparatus need to be positioned in a particular manner? Consider the potential for mud, soft earth, holes, ditches, trenches, snow/ice, and drainage. Excavation may be ongoing, resulting in continually changing conditions. Often what might be considered good points of access may become obstructed with material staging, cranes, delivery vehicles, office trailers, and other obstacles. Ensuring access will require caeful planning and a clear understanding of the fire responders’ needs by project managers and other members of the construction crews. Often, fire prevention codes will dictate the necessity of having “all-weather” pavement in place during construction.

Water Supply/Hydrants

Emphasize that any on-site or nearby hydrants must be installed and in service as soon as possible-fire prevention codes often require this as well. Determine when water supply will be available, and develop a plan to ensure clear access. Check the threads of new hydrants to ensure that they are compatible with those of the responding apparatus. There is no guarantee that the threads specified are what actually exist. Conduct a measured flow test(s) to help determine the available water supply; ensure that all belowgrade valves are fully open; and ensure that no obstructions are caught within the pipes, fittings, or hydrants. Belowgrade hydrant valves or other water supply isolation valves may never have been opened or may have only been partly opened. Stones, pieces of wood, and other debris often enter buried mains during installation.

Sprinkler and Standpipe Systems

If response planning involves the use of a standpipe, make sure the standpipe is fully installed. Try to get the standpipe installed early in the project and extended as construction progresses. If the building is large or multistory and is to be sprinklered, advocate that the main riser with hose connections (properly sized and threaded) be installed as soon as possible. This will make a standpipe available for the duration of the project, until the sprinklers are complete and in service. Regardless of what was specified or what is shown on drawings, conduct a thorough walk-through examination of the standpipe system. Determine the locations of control valves or pressure-reducing valves. The best way to check out a system is to actually flow water through it as you would during a fire. During a fire is not the time to discover that a valve is shut, the fitting is secured poorly, the pressure-reducing valve is incorrectly adjusted, or the hose threads differ. Make sure that normally open valves are in fact fully open, and determine if there are any manual valves that need to be opened.

Recommend strongly that sprinkler protection be installed and put in service as soon as possible. If you plan to use the fire department connection to supply the system, be sure to check threads. Verify that a water supply is available for both sprinklers and hose streams that might be used. Determine the location of control valves and the fire/booster pump, if provided. Mark any equipment that is impaired or not yet in service. Once a sprinkler system is installed, it is likely that shutdowns (impairments) will be made during the final stages of construction. Have someone connected with the project make responders aware of the times when protection is impaired. Plan accordingly based on anticipated scenarios.

Communication

Recommend that an on-site emergency coordinator be appointed and act as a liaison for responding units and the incident commander. Preferably, this individual should have worked with the fire service and is aware of response plans and concerns.

EVOLUTION OF THE PREFIRE PLAN

Keep in mind that major changes can occur daily or rapidly throughout a construction site on a given day. In some cases, weeks or months may pass with little change; then, in just one day, numerous changes may occur or hazards may be introduced. Responding personnel must be up-to-date on existing conditions. Frequent familiarization visits are essential. It is usually best if all responding personnel routinely visit together, or at least when changes are reported. Perhaps one individual could be appointed to closely follow project changes to determine when a refamiliarization tour is needed. This project follow-up could include site visits, attendance at project meetings, and corresponding with key construction personnel by telephone or e-mail. In any case, plan the frequency of site visits based on what responding personnel-not a contractor or project manager-consider a change. There will likely be a planned timetable for the anticipated start and completion of various phases of the project. Try to predict or foresee problems within each of these phases. Project managers are more apt to make changes or modifications requested by the fire service early in the planning process instead of when construction activities are in full swing.

This planning process not only will be a benefit during the construction phases but will result in a more complete and sophisticated final plan than one assembled after the project has been completed.

TED PISCIOTTA, CFPS, has been a consultant with a commercial/industrial property insurance company for the past 10 years. Previously a fire protection specialist at a large industrial manufacturing facility, he also has more than 15 years of fire service experience, having served in several volunteer fire departments, beginning with the Port Jefferson (NY) Fire Department and now with the Shelton (CT) Fire Department. He has a bachelor’s degree in arson investigation and a master’s degree in fire science technology from the University of New Haven, where he is a member of the Fire Science Advisory Committee.

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