COVID-19, Construction Best Practices and ITM of Fire Protection Systems
NFSA shares current strategies for maintaining fire protection systems in response to the COVID-19 pandemic
NFSA has reached out to our members and compiled the summary below of current practices being implemented in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. As with most national emergencies, we are seeing various actions and reactions across the country. We have areas of the country with offices and construction sites that remain open with additional precautions. At the same time, we have areas that have shut down offices, construction sites, and manufacturing facilities.
All of these different situations are impacting our industry. And we are observing that measures taken in one area are likely to be taken in another, primarily fueled by government action.
The importance of ITM of fire protection systems during COVID-19
The NFSA mission to protect lives and property from fire remains a priority even in the face of the current COVID-19 pandemic. Building, fire, and life safety codes allow tradeoffs for some fire protection measures, such as fire-rated walls, door closers, and smoke dampers in buildings having automatic fire sprinkler systems installed throughout. Buildings having complete sprinkler protection are permitted to have increased height and area versus comparable non-sprinklered buildings. The occupants in some buildings (residential, institutional, healthcare, etc.) with fire sprinkler systems are dependent upon functioning and operating systems as part of egress or defend-in-place life safety objectives.
The same building, fire, and life safety codes that call for installing fire sprinkler systems in structures require the same systems to be inspected, tested, and maintained (ITM) per NFPA 25: Standard for the Inspection, Testing, and Maintenance of Water-Based Fire Protection Systems.
Model building, fire, and life safety codes are adopted by federal, state, and local jurisdictions. The requirement for ITM in all buildings with sprinkler systems through NFPA 25 are found in the following code sections:
- International Building Code (IBC): 903.5
- International Fire Code (IFC): 903.5
- International Property Maintenance Code (IPMC): 704.1.3
- NFPA 1, Fire Code: 22.214.171.124
- NFPA 101, Life Safety Code: 9.11.1
To ensure the NFSA mission of gaining widespread acceptance of the sprinkler concept, we support continued inspection, testing, and maintenance of fire protection systems. NFSA’s position is that fire protection systems must remain in working order to protect lives and property as part of a comprehensive community risk reduction program, which requires ITM activities to continue. NFSA believes ITM work can be accomplished during the COVID-19 pandemic with proper scheduling, planning, and precautions.
Continue scheduling ITM during COVID-19 to ensure fire protection systems function
The minimum required frequency scheduling of ITM should not be compromised. For example, NFPA 25 sets the minimum frequency schedule for fire sprinkler systems. NFSA’s position is the minimum code-required scheduling of ITM shall remain in effect. Owners should work with members to ensure the minimum code-required schedules are maintained. Impairments must be addressed immediately, as outlined in the Impairments Chapter 15 of NFPA 25.
Plan ITM inspection collaboratively with building owners
NFSA recommends owners and members work collaboratively to prioritize and plan ITM activities with other building operations, including the challenges associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. ITM for some occupancies, including hospitals, is heightened as changes are made to facilitate increased usage or infection control practices. Some health system surge capacity plans may seek to convert existing occupancies into temporary critical care facilities. Occupancies with currently reduced activities, including schools, dormitories, and offices, present opportunities to accelerate ITM activities. With some coordination, ITM inspections may be accomplished shortly after a facility has been cleaned and prior to it being reoccupied.
Take extra precautions during ITM to ensure health safety
Members should work with owners to identify potential infectious-disease risks on each site during ITM activities and develop a safety plan for their employees. Implementing imposed social distancing requirements, washing hands, and following other COVID-19 recommendations and directives is essential to ensure success. Members should also review and enhance their infection control plans, including awareness, training, and use of personal protective equipment in addition to the standard personal protection equipment (PPE).
Below are some of the practices and precautions being used and implemented across job sites throughout the U.S. While most of these practices are not directly related to ITM, they impact NFSA members:
- Review and adjust project schedules to allow for social distancing, including staggered work scheduling and extra shifts to physically separate employees working on site.
- Develop a written virus response policy with provisions to inform employees and for enforcement.
- Require anyone entering a work site to complete a health survey prior to entry.
- Conduct job site safety briefings remotely, and do not report to construction trailers.
- Provide facilities and procedures for proper disposal and removal of used cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment.
- Eliminate the use of coffee trucks, lunch trucks, and centralized gathering or eating areas.
- Advise employees to bring their own food, drink, and utensils.
- Encourage employees to change and wash clothes when they get home or to use onsite facilities, if available.
- Prepare additional contingency plans for a potential reduction in workforce, limited materials/supplies, or the need to suspend a job site for cleaning.
- Develop a plan for maintaining job sites safely and security during any shutdown periods. Such plans include fire safety and exposure safeguarding elements.
- Work with owners and facility managers to ensure essential ITM work is continued, systems remain in service, and impairments continue to be addressed immediately.
- Work with building and fire officials to schedule plan reviews, permitting, and field inspections.
- Review and comply with OSHA requirements for employers to prevent employee exposure to the virus, including PPE standards requiring gloves, goggles or safety glasses, face protection, and respiratory protection.
The CDC has not made specific recommendations for the construction industry regarding COVID exposures. However, the published best practices include:
- Monitor and follow WHO/CDC/OSHA recommendations.
- Monitor federal, state, and local government recommendations.
- Practice social distancing as recommended by the CDC by maintaining a six-foot distance, not shaking hands, restricting gatherings to ten people or less, covering the mouth and nose when sneezing or coughing, and avoiding touching your face.
- Stay home if you are sick.
- Provide a process to recognize and remove sick employees.
- Provide facilities for and encourage frequent hand washing and sanitizing.
- Encourage employees to work from home where possible.
- Provide additional resources and technology to assist remote employees.
- Cancel in-person meetings and shift meetings online.
- Only allow essential employees in the office and on job sites.
- Eliminate visitors.
- Eliminate unnecessary travel.
- Make provisions for additional cleaning, including restrooms, equipment, tools, and commonly touched areas.
Sprinklers save lives and property—keep them working during COVID-19
NFSA believes that proper scheduling, planning, and precautions can ensure ITM and fire protection installation activities to continue as required by code. This effort is vital to ensuring that fire protection systems save lives and property during the COVID-19 pandemic as they have for the past century.
From the FM Global article “Neglecting idle facilities amid COVID-19 will cost companies dearly, warns commercial property insurer FM Global:”
FM Global believes losses at idle properties are preventable and recommends companies ensure the following needs are addressed, while prioritizing employee health and safety, to help protect their facilities as the crisis unfolds …
Fire protection – It’s important to keep fire protection in place. Have maintenance staff check daily to ensure sprinkler valves are locked open. Remove debris and ignitable liquids, and closely monitor any welding or other “hot work” taking place on the property. Alert the local fire department of the building’s change in use.
For more information about the fire protection industry’s response to COVID-19, visit https://nfsa.org/covid-19/. You can also read NFSA’s two-part series for contractors returning to work during COVID-19.
If you have questions, NFSA members can reach out via our website or call 443-863-4464 for answers and support from our experts. Not an NFSA member yet? Join today!
For over a century, the National Fire Sprinkler Association (NFSA) has served as the voice of the fire sprinkler industry. Our mission: advocating to protect lives and property through the widespread acceptance of the fire sprinkler concept. To join NFSA or learn more about the ways membership can benefit your organization, visit nfsa.org/join.