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Fire Safety on Construction Sites: No Time for Neglect

23 April 2020

IN THESE rather challenging and somewhat surreal times for us all, Andy Hicks examines precisely why now is most definitely not the time to neglect fire safety on construction sites and temporary Coronavirus-related facilities.

The Coronavirus pandemic is one of the biggest challenges to face humanity for over 100 years. It's non-political, non-discriminatory and its impact on global health and the state of our economy is unfathomable at this stage. Many people in the UK hoped it would stay in ‘other countries’ and become the infection that we managed to escape but, if we were being honest, we knew, given the impact of international travel, that this would never really be the case.

The pandemic first hit our industry with the cancellation of major trade exhibitions. Large organisations then started to cancel meetings of more than a handful of people and all of the face-to-face interaction was swiftly transferred to video conferencing platforms.

Despite this, the UK construction industry has demonstrated its importance in recent times. Whether its building temporary hospital wards, changing the use of existing buildings to food storage warehouses or installing life-saving oxygen equipment, the construction sector is certainly delivering for our nation during this difficult time.

As a business, our own efforts have involved supplying wireless fire alarm systems to the new Nightingale Hospital at London's ExCeL. The temporary field hospital, which was constructed in under a week, was constructed with a view to treating anything up to 4,000 individuals who could be struck down by COVID-19. Our WES3 wireless alarm system is now providing fire, security and emergency response across this vast facility. It uses Category 1 Euro-harmonised radio, meaning that it isn't interfering with other technologies used at ExCeL.

Far-reaching implications

Few of us could have predicted that we would have arrived at this point. The implications of COVID-19, and not just for the UK's economy, are far-reaching. For instance, construction sites in built-up areas will now find they're surrounded by a greater density of people living and working in adjacent buildings as they self-isolate at home. The ability of fire to spread quickly from an unattended site means these people may be at greater risk unless adequate mitigation steps are taken.

It’s one of the reasons why fire risk on construction sites needs to be a key focus during the lockdown period. Indeed, several industry leaders have already identified that fact. Graham Watts, CEO at the Construction Industry Council, has published a list of construction work that he believes is essential for public safety. His blog lists several key focus areas including fire safety inspections, the requirement for maintenance of fire protection systems and equipment to meet fire safety legislation (ven if buildings are not occupied), the ongoing need for fire risk assessments (both to meet legislation and new circumstances in buildings) and the remedial work required to remove unsafe Aluminium Composite Material (ACM) cladding.

Further, Watts goes on to identify the conundrum facing us all, stating that it would be “incredibly dangerous for all construction sites to close; but it's also incredibly dangerous for all construction sites to remain open.”

Even though construction sites may place workers on temporary leave, electrical faults can still develop and cause fires to rage undetected and potentially spread to adjoining occupied buildings. All this at a time when fire crews are being deployed to help the Coronavirus response, such as supporting ambulance teams. Criminal activity, too, on sites where workers have been furloughed can result in fires, either due to a stray cigarette, arson or, again, tampering with electrical circuits, which isn’t helped by the presence of flammable materials found on all sites.

Critical construction work

Set against this backdrop is the need for some construction work to continue. A good example of this is the replacement of the aforementioned unsafe ACM cladding panels on high-rise buildings, which remain “critical to public safety”. These projects can continue during the Coronavirus outbreak, according to Government guidance, duly highlighting the need - with Fire and Rescue Services deployed elsewhere - for scrupulous regard to fire safety on these projects.

There's what you might call ‘wriggle’ room in other areas, too, in terms of what the Government references as critical projects such as ‘Data Centres and pharmaceutical factories under construction and the like’ which can continue to work.

Away from the construction industry, changing the use of buildings to support the crisis effort can require the need for a quick and effective way of deploying a fire alarm system in order to protect critical workers. This includes the creation of temporary hospitals or food distribution warehouses, where completing the work in the shortest possible time – including fully-functioning fire alarm systems - is essential.

Wireless technology

In these unprecedented times, fire safety is essential. Not only are the systems required to comply with statutory safety legislation, but their implementation is critical in protecting workers and those living nearby. Protecting clients’ assets is vital, too. After this crisis has passed, they and their insurers will expect that adequate measures were taken at the right time.

When it comes to fire alarm systems there are two choices: wired or wireless (although the latter is gaining favour because it doesn’t require specialist trades to set up, with Call Points deployed in minutes). Any number of Call Points can be added to the system and linked wirelessly to cover large and small sites.

Available to rent or buy, wireless fire alarm systems should be compliant with EN54. Incorporating dust-resistant smoke and heat detectors to reduce false alarms, they can be linked to off-site monitors so are highly suited to locked down sites and 24/7 operation.

Advances in technology also mean that wireless systems are capable of being much more than a fire alarm. Incorporating wireless technology with cloud-based data capture goes a step further by enabling construction sites to implement a fully-integrated fire, flood, security and medical response system. Essential if, for instance, a locked-down site has basic security team coverage. This is supported by cloud storage and apps that can interpret and respond to the data received, converting it into valuable management information that can be instantaneously sent to anyone with a smart phone.

Data capture in real-time

Importantly, these end-to-end solutions enable site management teams to capture data in real-time regarding emergencies and send customised alerts to all relevant personnel.

The practical benefits of these wireless technologies include an ability to alert emergency response teams when a fire is detected, or the ability to interface with security systems so that, when an intruder is detected opening a security door, an alarm is raised. This is especially important when construction sites are vacated during the shutdown.

These systems can also detect flooding caused by a burst pipe (which can adversely impact electrical circuits). Security patrols or lone workers complying with self-isolation requirements can raise a medical alert via Call Points from remote areas of the building or construction site, or alternatively, a ‘welfare check-in’ functionality can be set up that requires personnel to send a signal every ten minutes verifying that they're OK.

Being able to deploy a wireless fire alarm system in minutes means that they provide a practical and easy-to-implement solution for change of use buildings looking for a way of protecting critical workers in the food, pharmaceuticals and logistics sectors.

The way forward

Construction sites have suddenly become more dangerous as they undergo temporary closure. Buildings that are re-purposed to help support the Coronavirus effort are also looking for effective fire alarm systems. Fire, flood and criminal activity is an ever-present danger in all of these situations. The risks from fire and its ability to spread rapidly are exacerbated by self-isolation, meaning that there's a greater density of people living adjacent to construction sites. As a direct result, more developers are taking steps to deploy wireless technology that protects their assets.

Setting a benchmark on construction sites and demonstrating that the safety of those living and working nearby - or critical workers within the facility - is every bit as important as the assets located on site is now being made far easier thanks to advances in wireless fire alarm systems.

Andy Hicks is Managing Director of Ramtech Electronics