Changes in the NFPA 241: Q&A with a Fire Safety Expert

The following is an interview conducted by Fraley Construction Marketing with our Director of Business Development, Jim Mongeau.

Fires on construction sites are showing a steady increase. For Massachusetts-based safety expert Jim Mongeau, vice president and director of business development for Space Age Electronics, that fact is a catalyst for change. The technology that his company develops and supplies to contractors must keep up with the increasing demand for modern, adaptable solutions. Another change in which he’s deeply vested is the codes and committees that govern fire and life safety.

Mongeau sits on the board of several organizations including the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), the Automatic Fire Alarm Association (AFAA), and the Society of Fire Protection Engineers (SFPE). His technical knowledge of all aspects of fire protection, management, and safety coupled with finely tuned inspection and risk assessment skills position him as a highly regarded leader in the life safety industry. For more than 30 years he has been involved in the design and manufacture of products for critical industries such as fire alarm, security, and emergency communications.

Recent and ongoing adjustments to the NFPA 241: Standard for Safeguarding Construction, Alteration, and Demolition Operations are particularly considering the increase in construction site fires in recent years. Mongeau spoke with us recently about ratifications to the NFPA 241 for the 2019 edition and why he believes that the WES3 Wireless Emergency and Evacuation System from Ramtech is the most efficient and cost-effective way to comply with the rapidly evolving code.

Jim, can you tell us a little bit about NFPA 241 and why it’s important?

Jim Mongeau: “The standard has been around since 1933 but is often not followed appropriately, because code is seen as somewhat vague and open to interpretation. What NFPA 241 is doing in the industry is clarifying and giving more direction on how to comply and make sites safer in every aspect. You need to have a pre-construction safety plan. If you have a site with hundreds of workers and something happens, it’s going to take extra time to notify and evacuate them because there’s no adequate alarm system, the elevators aren’t working, and sprinklers and firewalls aren’t in place yet.

You also have to consider the first responders showing up to the construction site. If you don’t follow 241, there’s nothing in place to tell them where the hazard is. Because a lot of the buildings are so large, just being able to pull up to the right entrance will save them time. You need to be able to tell them, “It’s on the fourth floor, stairwell B,” for example. Otherwise, you’re subjecting everyone to a lot of unnecessary danger. WES3 effectively achieves this objective because each unit can be numbered and named so that all alerts give a precise location.”

To whom does the code apply?

JM: “The building owner holds the primary responsibility, and then it falls on the contractor to carry it out daily. They first become aware of the code when they’re pulling permits, and then again on the architectural design drawings. There are specific companies responsible for doing the pre-construction planning documents and narratives on what needs to be done and worked out with the fire department to clearly define the owner’s responsibilities during the construction phase. Many people don’t think that this applies to small construction sites, but it does apply to all sites, regardless of size. It’s important to think not only in terms of your own building and site, but of the surrounding properties to which a fire could potentially spread. The standard is in place to protect the entire community.

Insurance companies are starting to get involved now, too. In terms of loss prevention and meeting schedules, it’s going to save money in the long run for both the owner and the insurance company if the code is followed. The insurance companies are going to start requiring the building owner to be aware of and follow NFPA. If a building burns down they’ll ask the owner, “Did you follow NFPA 241? If not, we’re not going to pay for your building.” Not to mention if someone gets killed and you’re out of code of law, then negligence comes into play. That’s a lot of liability.”

What are the major changes that we’re seeing in the 2019 edition of the NFPA 241 standard?

JM: “One of the big changes is appointing a Fire Prevention Program Manager or FPPM; we’ve now identified the FPPM as the first step during the construction process. It needs to be apparent to the fire chief, or any service person responding, exactly who the FPPM is and that all permits are up to date and visible. NFPA 241 states:

7.2.1 The owner shall designate a person who shall be responsible for the fire prevention program and who shall ensure that it is carried out to completion.

7.2.1.1 The fire prevention program manager shall have the authority to enforce the provisions of this and other applicable fire protection standards.

7.2.1.2 The fire prevention program manager shall have knowledge of the applicable fire protection standards, available fire protection systems, and fire inspection procedures.

The FPPM is required to ensure that the construction site has good access to the building for the first responders. The FPPM should be walking around the building to make sure the staircases are lit, the exits are clearly marked, and all walkways are free of debris so that people can get out of the building if there is an event. They’re also continually looking for hazards and placing detection devices where necessary. This is an area where WES3 units are especially suited, since they’re wireless and can be attached to drywall, wooden or metal framing, posts, or anywhere they’re needed. The strong, long-range signal and several years of battery life make them a great value.”

What other changes are included?

JM: “Another big change is in the area of hot work. In welding and roofing especially, building fires can start easily with a single spark that goes unnoticed. If everyone leaves at five o’clock and two hours later it ignites, that’s something you need to monitor. The standard recommends a guard on site 24/7, even when no work is taking place. With WES3, you have that around-the-clock protection without having to pay someone to sit there all night. The units can differentiate between smoke, heat, and dust, which eliminates false alarms. Also, when the WES3 units are connected via REACT, notifications will be instantly delivered to the people that need it in real-time, and the REACT dashboard will show detailed incident logs and reports.

7.2.5.1 Guard service shall be provided where required by the authority having jurisdiction. Where required, buildings with combustible construction exposed during construction more than 40 ft (12.19 m) above-grade plane shall be provided with guard service when there are no crews on-site.”

What’s the advantage of a system like the WES3 Wireless compared to the traditional set up?

JM: “The potential for the air horn to be out of air when it’s needed most is very real. In addition, no one on the 30th floor is going to hear it from the 5th floor, so you can’t quickly and effectively communicate to everyone on site when there’s an event. The WES3 system is clearly audible across even large sites, and to adjoining properties as well. Whether it’s a fire hazard, weather hazard, an active shooter, or some other emergency, it gives you the ability to identify the risk and get everyone out as quickly as possible. Every minute counts in situations like these. Also, the code makes it clear that the alarm and detection system must adapt to the building under construction. In 1933 when the standard was first devised it was much more difficult to follow because technology like this wasn’t available. Today, it’s available and cost-effective to put in a system like WES3.

The NFPA 241 standard is about protecting people and property during all phases of construction. With millions of dollars in damage each year and increasing injury and death, it’s obvious that we need to implement better solutions. When the safeguards of the standard are followed, fatalities, injuries, and property damage can be prevented. There’s no easier way to do that then to set up WES3 on every site. For more information, please visit http://www.lifeguardnetworks.com.”

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