Fire safety on construction sites: What firefighters need to know

Sprinkler systems, smoke detection and fire alarms may not yet be installed and operational


It’s unusual when a week goes by that we don’t see or hear about a significant fire in a building under construction, renovation or demolition. That’s because such incidents take place more often than most of us realize. In recent months, there have been fires in commercial buildings being renovated in Idaho, in a former Sony building in New Jersey that was being demolished, and in multiple apartment buildings under construction across the U.S., including high-profile incidents in Las Vegas and Texas.

The NFPA report “Fires in Structures under Construction or Renovation” brings to light several significant points regarding these types of fires:

  • From 2013-2017, local fire departments responded to an annual average of 3,840 fires in structures under construction and 2,580 fires in structures under major renovation.
  • Fires in residential structures under construction (e.g., apartments, condominiums) accounted for 75% of the fires in that period.
  • The leading cause of fires on construction sites is cooking equipment.
  • Electrical distribution and lighting equipment are two of the leading causes of fires in structures undergoing a major renovation.
  • Fires in structures under construction are responsible for an average of four civilian deaths, 49 civilian injuries and $304 million in direct property damage annually. For fires in structures undergoing a major renovation, there were an average of eight civilian deaths, 52 civilian injuries and $104 million in direct property damage annually.
Fire departments and contractors should be informed and educated about NFPA 241 requirements so both parties can manage and mitigate the risks that can lead to catastrophic and costly fires at construction, renovation and demolitions sites.
Fire departments and contractors should be informed and educated about NFPA 241 requirements so both parties can manage and mitigate the risks that can lead to catastrophic and costly fires at construction, renovation and demolitions sites. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)

Much, if not all, of these losses could have been eliminated with the use of proper safeguards. NFPA 241: Standard for Safeguarding Construction, Alteration, and Demolition Operations provides the applicable measures for preventing or minimizing fire damage to structures during construction, alteration and demolition.

What puts construction sites at risk?

Fire departments and contractors should be informed and educated about NFPA 241 requirements so both parties can manage and mitigate the risks that can lead to catastrophic and costly fires at construction, renovation and demolitions sites. No matter whether a fire is started by a carelessly disposed of cigarette or the failure to properly store or dispose of combustible materials, these fires are almost always preventable.

According to NFPA, some of the common risk factors for these buildings, which are in a state of incompleteness, include the following:

  • Buildings under construction may not have all the fire protection systems they will have once the building is completed. Sprinkler systems, smoke detection and fire alarms may not yet be installed and operational.
  • Construction sites are often unsecured and are vulnerable to trespassing, which can lead to vandalism, theft and intentionally set fires.
  • Common ignition sources on construction sites, including equipment (e.g., heaters) and hot work (e.g., welding, cutting, grinding, soldering, hot-tar roofing).
  • Failure of fire departments and building contractors to comply with the safety procedures contained in NFPA 241 can result in damage to the site itself as well as to adjacent buildings and can put site workers, civilians and firefighters at risk of injury and death.

What fire personnel can do

Any department with active construction sites in their first due should develop a comprehensive pre-fire plan that addresses the following:

  • The number of personnel that would be needed to respond to a fire;
  • The number and types of fire apparatus that would be needed; and
  • How those resources (personnel and equipment) would be acquired (e.g, personnel call-back, mutual aid).

Further, many fire departments have initiated community risk reduction (CRR) programs within their communities. To be truly successful, these programs must involve multiple local agencies working together. In this case, that might include the building and permitting department, the local risk manager, the local emergency management director, and trade unions (if union workers are being used for the project).

I encourage you to learn more about CRR opportunities in NFPA 1300: Standard on Community Risk Assessment and Community Risk Reduction Plan Development, which describes CRR as a process to identify and prioritize local risks, followed by the integrated and strategic investment of resources to reduce their occurrence and impact. With that description in mind, it’s easy to understand how a construction site poses a threat to a community.

A large-scale construction project, particularly one using significant amounts of wood in the construction (e.g., multi-family dwellings, multi-occupancy business structures) poses a significant potential risk to the community in the case a fire starts and progresses beyond the incipient stage. Firefighters know this, but the general contractor and sub-contractors likely do not, and that’s one of the key tenets of CRR: Help identify a risk, and work with the project “owner” of the risk to help them mitigate the risk. This is an important first step in developing a strategic investment of resources to reduce the potential impact of a fire at a construction site.

Meeting with a general contractor

When it comes to preplanning, it is essential to learn what construction, renovation or demolition sites are active in your community. Then meet with the general contractor to ensure they, too, are educated about the requirements of NFPA 241 and what they need to do to comply.

First things first, make an appointment. You want to ensure that you have their time and full attention, and you’re not likely to get either if you drop in while they’re handling a problem with a sub-contractor or delivery of materials.

Begin by informing and educating them that in the most recent five-year period, as well as historically, the most common causes of fires for new construction and renovation construction sites have been identified as those involving electrical distribution and lighting equipment, heating equipment, cooking equipment, “hot work” or arson.

Then share key safety protocols to reduce the risk of fire, including the following from the NFPA:

  • Ensure that temporary electrical service lighting follows installation requirements set forth in the National Electrical Code, that electrical equipment is maintained and regularly inspected, that use of extension wiring is kept to a minimum, and that machinery and equipment do not overload available circuits.
  • Prohibit the use of temporary cooking equipment (such as hot plates or grills) or the use of improvised heating devices for warming food at the construction site.
  • Ensure that unauthorized temporary heaters are restricted from the worksite, that heaters permitted on the worksite are placed at safe distances from combustible and flammable materials and used in conformity with manufacture instructions, and that heaters are regularly checked to ensure that they are being safely operated and do not constitute a hazard (such as being overturned).
  • Require a permit system for “hot work” and enforcing a 30-minute (or longer) cool-down interval following use of torches, burners or soldering irons.
  • Reduce the risk of arson by safeguarding construction sites with fencing or other controls, such as lighting or after-hours security personnel, as needed.

Depending on the size and complexity of the project, and the number of access points that might be under “lock and key” security, suggest the installation of a Knox Box where they can place applicable keys, entry codes and 24/7 contact information (e.g., names, mobile phone numbers) for the general contractor and their supervisors. Note: Regardless of whether they install a Know Box, all fire units that could potentially respond to a fire at the site must have that 24/7 contact information.

Construction site tactics

When responding to a reported fire at a construction or renovation site, responding personnel should be prepared to engage a fire that’s rapidly developing and traveling in any number of directions, both horizontally and vertically.

Here are some key tactical considerations for responding units:

  • Don’t be surprised. Think and prepare for an exterior fire attack (until proven otherwise by a good size-up and risk assessment).
  • Request additional resources as soon as you confirm you have a fire. If you don’t, you’ll risk having the fire develop too rapidly and your additional resources arriving too late.
  • Implement your personnel accountability system and begin building your ICS structure and fill the Incident Safety Officer position ASAP.
  • Instruct tactical leaders (e.g., crew leaders, division/group supervisors) to be unyielding in maintaining crew integrity and communicating key information to their overhead ICS position (e.g., conditions, progress with their assignment, and resources needs).
  • Commit the minimum number of fire apparatus necessary to conduct the exterior fire attach. These construction sites can have parked vehicles and construction equipment anywhere and everywhere on the site, thus limiting fire apparatus access to the scene. Just as importantly, you want to be able to quickly get fire apparatus out of the site should the fire overwhelm your fire attack capabilities.
  • Anticipate the fire progressing to adjacent structures via radiant heat, so ensure that your available water supply has protected those exposures before committing water to the fire building.
  • Big fires require big water, starting with water supplies using large diameter hose from multiple water sources, and progressing to the “business end” where firefighters should use large-caliber handlines, master stream devices, and elevated master streams.
  • Establish a collapse zone for the involved structure early.

Key takeaways

Beyond potential personal injury, death and direct dollar loss, the impacts of construction site fires can have far-reaching, long-term economic and other community impacts. It’s incumbent upon fire department personnel and contractors to become informed and educated about NFPA 241.

As Benjamin Franklin, writing under his pseudonym, Poor Richard, wrote many years ago, “An ounce of prevention is worth more than a pound of cure.”

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