Martin M. King, State Coordinator, National Fire Sprinkler Association – Wisconsin Chapter
(Appeared in the May 2019 issue of The Dispatcher)

The recent fire at the historic Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris reveals the importance of safeguarding a building while it is under construction.  The National Fire Academy teaches that a building is most vulnerable during construction and demolition. Generally, this is due to the reduction in active fire protection systems and passive systems such as fire doors and fire walls.  It is also due to an increased use of hot work such as cutting torches, cutting with saws, soldering and welding.

In all of my years of working in fire prevention I have never seen a fire prevention plan implemented. That is the primary requirement of NFPA 1, Chapter 16, and NFPA 241, the Standard for Safeguarding Construction, Alteration, and Demolition Operations. Often, if a plan was established, there was no verification that all parties were informed of the plan or understood their responsibilities. When asked, most point to fire extinguishers.  But the plan must include much more: egress of occupants; access for firefighters; and access for firefighting vehicles and equipment.

A fire safety program should include good housekeeping; fire protection systems maintained or installed; organization and training of an on-site fire brigade; development of a pre-fire plan with the fire department; consideration of special hazards; and protection of existing structures and equipment from fire. The owner or contractor must appoint a fire prevention program manager to assure that the plan is being implemented and followed by all people on the site. This would be similar to the requirement often seen at job sites for hard hats, eye and ear protection, and proper footwear. While I have witnessed sites where safety requirements such as eye and ear protection is clearly marked with signage at the project entrance, I have not seen signage to assure fire prevention practices are in place.

I have seen practices at sites where the area was swept and all trash from the floor was piled out of the pathway, but metal was being cut with sparks spraying all over the trash pile containing sawdust and other combustibles.

Last year, Milwaukee almost lost an historic church after a fire started in the roof area while work was being performed. The property loss was $20 million, in addition to irreplaceable stained glass, the wooden structure, and valuable religious items. If a fire watch had been in place, it was obvious that the prevention plan failed. This is a similar issue with the Notre Dame fire where centuries of artifacts were lost but, thankfully, many items remained or were saved.

People talk about a fire watch but do not understand that the person performing the fire watch needs to stay and check areas where hot work was performed until it is confirmed that there are no hot spots. They must not be assigned other duties that may prevent them from properly supervising and checking that area. They must not shortcut the process because of other appointments or possible additional costs to perform those duties.

Renovations at the Washington National Cathedral; Smithsonian Museums; Statue of Liberty; Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston; and Christ Church in Philadelphia have been protected by fire sprinkler systems. Unfortunately, many learn too late that so much can be lost when the building is not protected. While some may argue that it changes the historical relevance, we must evaluate the cost of protection versus the benefits of protecting these structures and their contents. Once something is burned it cannot be “unburnt”; it is much easier to mitigate water damage.

Fire sprinklers save lives, property, water, money, jobs, the environment, and more. For more information on how fire sprinklers save lives and property, please contact Marty King at [email protected]. Or, visit the Wisconsin Chapter of the National Fire Sprinkler Association at www.nfsawi.org; the National Fire Sprinkler Association at www.nfsa.org; or the Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition at www.homefiresprinkler.org.