High-Profile Construction Blazes Spark Safety Debate

Not only is the prevention and management of fires a top industry priority, but the scope of these incidents has drawn the attention of code officials, fire safety advocates and the media alike.

combustion culpritsReports of massive fires in apartment projects have triggered a national conversation on fire safety. Not only is the prevention and management of fires a top industry priority, but the scope of these incidents has drawn the attention of code officials, fire safety advocates and the media alike.

The consequences of these fires have been severe, resulting in the loss of much-needed new housing, millions of dollars in damage and strained fire-fighting resources. For example, a fire in a suburban Boston apartment project this summer resulted in $110 million in damage. The response to another apartment fire in Maryland required 200 firefighters and 650 gallons of water per minute for five hours to get the blaze under control, reported The Baltimore Sun.

The magnitude of these fires is also raising new questions about typical multifamily design and wood-framing construction techniques. These concerns could seriously threaten multifamily developers’ and builders’ ability to produce more units going forward.

Cooling flames

This is a multi-faceted issue, and it helps to understand the nature of the problem. These fires are occurring in multifamily projects still under construction. Already occupied apartment buildings have a positive history of fire safety.

Data provided by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) shows a downward trend in the number of fires and casualties in apartment fires from a high of 143,500 apartment fires and 1,025 deaths in 1980 to 95,000 fires and 405 casualties in 2015. NFPA research also cites improvements in residential fire detection and protection—noting, for instance, that fires in high-rise apartments tend to be well-contained and only progress beyond the room of origin in 4 percent of cases. That number rises to 10 percent in low-rise apartment buildings.

Moreover, construction and renovation fires are less prevalent than recent media attention would suggest, comprising just 1.3 percent of all structural fires, according to a recent report from NFPA.

However, fires do occur and can cause devastating losses. So it is paramount to reduce the incidence of fire and mitigate the danger to workers, firefighters and the surrounding community.  

Wood under fire

At the same time, the multifamily industry has been defending itself against accusations that fire risk is exacerbated by the design and the materials used in the majority of new apartment construction.

These fires have generated calls to abandon or seriously limit wood-framed apartment construction, and some jurisdictions—including in New Jersey and Maryland—have already considered legislation to that effect. Multifamily owners, developers and design professionals suggest tremendous disruption in the ability to build new projects should wood-limiting proposals gain broad approval.

These efforts are particularly distracting given that NFPA has reported that it’s the state of being under construction itself that raises a structure’s fire risk. Buildings under construction are inherently vulnerable and pose unique fire safety challenges for apartment firms.

While under construction, fire detection and protection systems may not be installed or fully operational. Unoccupied sites are also susceptible to trespass and security risks that create a fire danger. And finally, building sites house considerable combustible materials, and construction often requires the use of open flames and other heat sources that require dedicated fire safety efforts.

This is reflected in NFPA research indicating that the leading cause of construction fires has been cooking equipment, followed by intentionally set fires and those caused by heating equipment.

Protective measures

Addressing these divergent causes of construction fires requires a combination of initiatives. Job-site training and personnel policies that restrict hazardous behavior like smoking, use of unauthorized heat sources and poor site housekeeping are important steps. Broader education and adherence to existing fire safety codes and best practices should also be an ongoing effort.

Builders and developers also must consider the risks of arson, which has been cited as the cause of several recent, major apartment fires. Authorities have pointed to arson as the cause of the suburban Boston fire, for instance. Another apartment fire, in Oakland, Calif., was initally investigated as arson because of striking similarities to three other area arsons, although the cause has not yet been confirmed. As a result, apartment firms should evaluate greater site security efforts both to prevent criminal activity and to improve timeliness of detection should an accidental fire occur.

Finally, property owners and local jurisdictions have a shared interest in better collaboration and communication on safety, code enforcement and project planning efforts. Early and ongoing discussion regarding fire prevention plans can reduce the risk of construction site fires.

Multifamily firms, fire safety officials and local jurisdictions all face complicated challenges in preventing fires. Yet, a combination of education, site security and partnership can help manage and improve fire safety in apartment communities.    

Paula Cino
Paula Cino

Paula Cino is the vice president of construction, development and land-use policy at the National Multifamily Housing Council in Washington, D.C. She can be reached at pcino@nmhc.org.

Originally appearing in the December 2017 issue of MHN.