You Can Cut Fire Hazards On Construction Sites
—Memphis Fire Department photos
Disregarding the contents, surveys indicate that once a fire gains headway in a building, the chances of it roaring into a large loss are greater during construction than at any other time, except possibly during demolition.
Heavy losses are likely to occur in fire-resistive structures because large amounts of plywood forms and wood for scaffolds, bracing and shoring are present. Canvas tarpaulins, including those waterproofed with flammable solutions, are often used on the job.
Welding and cutting torches, gasoline-powered tools and equipment, propane torches and heaters, salamanders, and temporary electric wiring all bring fire hazards to the construction site. In addition, soldering, spray painting, termite treating and the storage of flammable materials add to the fire protection problems.
It is no wonder that some construction fires cause hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of damage. The National Fire Prevention Association reviewed 35 large-loss building construction fires that occurred from 1950 to 1957 in which the total loss was $10,377,800—an average loss of $300,000. The losses in six of these fires ran over half a milllion dollars apiece, and the loss was over a quarter of a million in each of 15 other fires.
Any fire prevention program for the construction industry should cover these major areas: unsafe conditions on the job; unsafe acts of workers; early detection of fire; prompt notification of the fire department; and access to both the building site and a water supply.
Early start urged
Construction operations can be made reasonably safe if fire prevention planning starts in advance of the work at the building site. It is desirable that the fire department step into the picture at this point. Then it can not only assist in fire prevention measures but also gain knowledge of the construction job and its hazards. By cooperating at this point, the architect, general contractor and the fire department can do much to eliminate many of the contributing causes of fires as well as accidents.
The fire risk literally begins with the first shovelful of dirt. Most jobs require site preparation and possibly the demolition of buildings. In any event there is usually trash and rubbish to be removed.
Although the easiest way to get rid of this material is to burn it, open fires may be dangerous or even illegal. The hazard of flying brands to neighboring property may be excessive in some locations.
The fire risk is increased when buildings are being demolished. The removal of doors and windows makes a building highly vulnerable to fire spread. In fact, it almost assures destruction of the building once fire makes any headway. Fires in these buildings not only are a serious threat to adjacent property, but they also give the fire department an extremely hot, fast-spreading and dangerous fire to fight.
The trailers and temporary buildings—wood shacks and tin huts—found at construction sites are unsafe from a fire protection viewpoint. However, they are regarded as only “temporary.” As a matter of fact, just about everything about them, including the wiring, heating devices and combustible materials storage, is “temporary.”
Fire risk always present
The only thing about these temporary buildings that is permanent is the tremendous fire hazard they add to the building site. Even when these shacks are of noncombustible construction, there is still danger of severe fire damage. Unfortunately, they are often all herded in a small area so that if one catches fire, they are all likely to be damaged.
The fire loss in these temporary sheds can be reduced by using discretion in locating them. If they are put far enough apart, a fire can be more easily confined to one shed. Secondly, the use of noncombustible materials in their construction, while not a guarantee of fire safety, will at least help hold the fire to one shack.
Good housekeeping and approved installation of electrical and heating equipment will also help prevent fires. The use of automatic fire detection devices can insure the discovery of a fire while it is still in its incipient stage. There should be easily accessible fire extinguishers so that workmen have a chance to extinguish a blaze before it gets out of hand.
Construction sites should be protected against entry by unauthorized persons. There is always a considerable amount of combustible material present and protection is necessary not only for fire prevention, but also for the elimination of theft and vandalism.
Cooperation with contractor, workers can develop safety program
This protection can be provided by fencing, supervised watchman service, or by both. However, from the fire protection standpoint, both fencing and watchmen have disadvantages. High, combustible fencing, such as plywood, not only adds fuel to a fire but also prevents outsiders from seeing a fire in its early stages. Although it costs more and is harder to install, chain link fencing is more desirable because it is noncombustible and passersby can look into the area and spot incipient fires.
Any type of fence should have enough entrances of sufficient size so that fire apparatus can turn into the property easily and hose lines can be stretched without hinderanee.
Standards for watchmen
Watchmen who are untrained, physically or mentally handicapped or morally unreliable may be only a detriment as far as fire protection is concerned. If the watchman is unsupervised or has other jobs to do besides guarding the area, he does nothing more than create a false sense of security.
When a man is hired as a watchman, he should be employed in that capacity and no other. There are a number of watchman failure cases on record that were caused by giving the watchman other duties. The watchman can be of little value to his employer if he has to empty trash cans, run an elevator or do other odd jobs in addition to guarding the security of the construction site.
Watchmen should be trained in the procedures to follow in case of fire or other emergencies. They should be told of the day-to-day hazards within the construction area, not only for their own personal safety, but so they can give special attention to them.
Watchmen should make half-hourly rounds during the first two hours after the end of the working day and hourly rounds during the rest of the night. More frequent rounds at the end of the work day are urged so that any fire left as a result of the day’s work can be discovered sooner. Approved watchmen’s clocks and key stations also should be provided.
On large-area jobs or for multistoried buildings, it is advisable to supply watchmen with walkie-talkie radios for improved communication and to permit better supervision.
Any extensive or high-value building site should have an approved combination of fire alarm and central station watch system, covering all parts of the construction site and building.
Sufficient wafer necessary
An adequate water supply and accessible hydrants are primary requisites for fire protection on a construction site. It is sometimes assumed that water which is sufficient for construction work is also adequate for fire fighting. This is not true.
Water must be delivered in enough volume through underground mains to standard fire hydrants whenever possible. Hydrants on the construction site must be kept clear at all times. They should be well marked for visability.
At times it may be impossible to install water mains and hydrants. When this is the case, it may be possible to provide some type of static water storage set aside only for fire fighting. Possibly, the site will be near enough to a natural body of water so that pumpers can draft. When this is the case, a roadway and ramp should be provided so that a pumper can get to the source of water and start drafting with a minimum of lost time.
Keep standpipes serviceable
In multi-storied buildings, the installation of permanent stairways and usable standpipes should keep pace with the construction work as it progresses upward from floor to floor.
Standpipes will be of no value to the fire department unless they are provided with a Siamese connection at the ground and with valved hose connections on each floor. In addition, the standpipe must be capped off at its highest point, and the Siamese connection must be kept accessible. Unfinished cross connections must be valved off or blanked off so that the standpipe riser will be serviceable at all times except when work is actually being done on it.
Other ideas for a construction site fire prevention program may be found in pamphlets and other publications of the National Fire Prevention Association, Associated General Contractors and insurance organizations. These publications, however, give the reader only the mechanics of fire protection measures.
In the final analysis, it is up to the owner and the contractor to institute and maintain a successful fire prevention program. If top management does not work for fire prevention, then neither will the employees.