• Saturday, July 13, 2024
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A balancing act – fulfilling fire safety risks requirements in a COVID-secure building

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With the world still gripped by the COVID-19 pandemic, commercial building owners are forced to consider how best to use their space to keep both employees and the public safe. But as you prepare a building to be COVID-secure for staff returning to the office, you could inadvertently affect its fire safety, swapping one hazard for another.
Whether a building is changing its use or layout, including temporary constructions, you must consider whether you need a new fire risk assessment. In the short and possibly medium or long term, offices will have to factor in social distancing. For many, this means a change in both the layout and how people move through the space.
The National Fire Safety Code states that the building owner is responsible for ensuring that the approval of the appropriate fire authority is obtained for any modification or alteration to all existing buildings. Even with temporary internal and external structures such as protective barriers and screens, you must bear in mind the fire detection and alarm, exit signage and emergency lighting layout.

Increased risk
There have been many high-profile cases of company owners or building managers facing large fines and in extreme cases even imprisonment for failures in meeting basic fire safety requirements or because of a lack of fire safety planning.

Escape routes
A lot of the measures put in place to protect us against COVID-19 will unfortunately affect fire safety. Take a look at retail and hospitality outlets for example. Most have organised one-way traffic through their premises either with arrows showing the direction of travel or in some cases by blocking off passages with barriers, rope or tape. This will have implications for emergency lighting and exit signage – some of which may now be in the wrong place for simple and safe evacuation. You should also check that there are fire extinguishers on each of these new escape routes.
If there is an emergency where the building needs evacuating this could lead to doubt and confusion and may even prevent people from easily making their way to emergency exits.

Warning segregated people
If you are constructing new rooms, partitioning off areas or changing the layout to segregate people, you need to check that there are fire detectors installed in each new space and that people can hear and /or see fire alarms when they are in them and that they are still compliant.
Some of these partitions will also cause a fire safety hazard whether it’s because they create a tunnel that funnels smoke or in many cases because they are plastic, which would create a lot of smoke if there was a fire. Such partitions may also alter the effectiveness of sprinkler systems.
Going back to our retail outlet example, many of the checkout areas are partitioned off with a temporary structure of wood and clear plastic or Perspex to keep people separated from one another, yet these checkouts are generally near the exits. If the worst were to happen and a fire broke out then you could potentially be blocking or inhibiting one route of evacuation, and if this structure were to catch fire it would create thick and toxic smoke.

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Risk assessment
While we need to implement many of these measures as we return to work, it is still our duty as building owners and employers to consider all the risks that employees and the public may face in the spaces that we are responsible for. It means that we may need to adapt or change our fire safety systems so that we can mitigate the risk from these new measures.
It may also lead us to consider some of the choices we make. So, for example, we might consider what materials we use for constructing partitions.
A well-designed fire safety system will have twenty percent extra capacity and allow some flexibility within its system, but sadly most do not and even those that do will not have considered the extent of change that we need to make to our buildings.

Planning fire safety for change of use
For new build and refurbishment projects, it is sensible to plan fire safety systems with flexibility in mind. It is increasingly likely that we will need to make buildings more flexible and regularly change their use and layout in the future. Even if we do not face another pandemic, the way that we work and spend our leisure is likely to change and adapt.
By specifying and installing fire safety systems with flexibility in mind, and considering adaptive evacuation technology, you are safeguarding the future of your building, yourself and most importantly the people inside. If we make buildings more adaptable and modular, we need to do the same with all the elements of a fire safety system.

Odunoku is a marketing manager, Eaton West Africa.