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Energy and Smart Building Industry Blog

What Facility Managers Need to Know About Fire Risks Posed by COVID

Monday September 21, 2020
By: Phoenix Energy Technologies

covid_facility_fire_risks

The pandemic has posed several left-field side effects, including a national coin shortage, businesses finding productivity spikes despite employees working from home, and unique challenges in maintaining fire safety in buildings–even though fewer people are in them!


When it comes to fire safety, there are many things facility managers should keep in mind: 

  • Are you still compliant with all maintenance checks?
  • Have you considered the risks skeleton staff pose?
  • Are you controlling the increase in combustible risks COVID mitigation plans present?
  • Are buildings set to reopen following all the best practices and considerations? 

Managing Building Air Quality in a COVID Environment 

Maintenance Checks   

Depending on the facility's location, facility type, and facility ownership, there are multiple authorities an FM may answer to. Generally, these authorities include:

  • Local authorities (fire department, building department)

  • State authorities (fire marshal, health department)

  • The federal government (OSHA)   

  • Private sector (insurance companies, certification/accreditation entities) 

LEARN HOW: Optimizing buildings for COVID to Increase Comfort & Safety

Fire Protection Systems 

Whether buildings are in use or not, all fire maintenance checks must be up to date. Failure to do so can result in fines and potential litigation. Systems need to be maintained, inspected, and tested regularly. 

An excellent list to consult is the National Fire Protection Association's standards and codes. The most common applicable regulations to FMs are: 

  • NFPA 72, The National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code - outlining the minimum performance levels for alarms systems, including installation, location, inspection, testing, etc.

  • NFPA 25, The Standard for the Inspection, Testing, and Maintenance of Water-Based Fire Protection Systems - covering the maintenance and inspection of sprinkler systems, standpipe systems, etc.
  • NFPA 10, The Standard for Portable Fire Extinguishers - covering everything relevant to ensure extinguishers work as intended as the first line of defense  
  • NFPA 96, Ventilation Control and Fire Protection of Commercial Cooking Operations - listing how to prevent fires in public and private commercial cooking areas 

Skeleton Staff

While many buildings are empty due to pandemic shutdowns, it can be easy to ignore posted fire safety warnings. People can become lapse in thinking, "no one is here," and prop open fire safety doors, block fire exits, and fail to take precautions in disposing of large amounts of combustible trash. Some occupants might even pose more direct risks by smoking inside buildings or near flammables since "no one is around." 

The best way to handle safety lapses is to conduct frequent sweeps of the property (inside and out) and educate occupants when issues are identified.      

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Energy Efficiency AND Customer Comfort CAN Co-exist  

Combustible Risks

Although hand sanitizer is very much a part of our lives right now, it is crucial to keep in mind how flammable it is. According to the CDC, effective hand sanitizer has an alcohol content above 60-70%, making it a Class 1 flammable liquid easily ignitable at room temperature. 

FMs should ensure that only small sanitizer quantities are stored together, free of surrounding fuel or igniting agents. Additionally, if you need to store more than five gallons, proper storage is subject to NFPA 30 standard, which requires storage in a Flammable Liquids Cabinet. 

Other combustible risks FMs should monitor include:

  • Build up of empty containers that contained flammable liquid
  • Dried out office plants that are easily ignitable
  • Blocked egress areas 

NOTE: You should post warnings of hand sanitizer vapors' danger near an open flame for those locations with nominated smoking areas.  

Reopening Considerations

As employees and customers return to your buildings, many COVID safety protocols will have been established and set up that can pose fire safety risks. 

Here are things you should check for:

  • Are temporary partitions composed of safe material and hung as not to pose a fire risk? 

  • Are plexiglass or fabric partitions blocking emergency exit paths, smoke exhausts, air pathways, fire sprinklers, and detectors?

  • Are additional on-site fire wardens needed due to staggered workforce hours?

  • Has the emergency evacuation plan changed in light of social distancing measures?

    • Are assembly areas appropriate, or should multiple or larger areas be selected?

    • Where elevators were allowed as part of an evacuation plan, should this be changed?

Your fire safety plans and drills will need to be re-evaluated and updated as locations reopen. Remember, the best way for you to keep occupants safe is through thorough planning and educating (and re-educating) occupants. Post all new emergency plans in plain sight and hold regular fire and evacuation drills. 

Tips on Occupant Comfort 

Need tips on how to keep employees comfortable and safe while wearing their PPE?

Please join us in our upcoming webinar Balancing Cost and Comfort: The Case for Always Occupied Setpoints. We will be joined by PetSmart's Energy & Sustainability Manager Rachael Ruelas discussing how she managed comfort and safety across her 1,600 stores and what the impact was on their energy budget. Don't miss out - Register for the webinar below.
PhoenixET September Webinar-1

Additional COVID Resources for Facility Managers:

Retail Tips for Dealing with COVID Recommendations
How to Manage Building Air Quality in a COVID Environment
Energy Efficiency AND Customer Comfort CAN Co-exist  
How To Get Buildings Ready To Reopen Following COVID Closures  
Managing Associate and Customer Comfort in Retail's New Normal  
Challenges Facing Facility Managers As Social Distancing Is Relaxed And Doors Reopen  

Posted in: Facilities Management, Building Management, COVID-19, Retail