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Copyright International Fire Protection 2016
Detector: Choosing and siting the right type of detector is critical for both early detection of real fires and false alarm rejection

Intelligent and innovative: the new approach to fire safety in construction

All sectors face a range of unique challenges when it comes to maintaining fire safety. For the construction industry, these are particularly difficult – construction sites are a dangerous mix of temporary structures, potentially hazardous machinery, heavy materials and working situations which, if improperly handled, could lead to a costly disaster. Even something as apparently innocuous as flying dust can be a flashpoint – one loose spark in a cloud of fine sawdust can cause a major explosion.

The risk for the construction industry is two-fold – a fire on an active build project can cost constructors millions, or even the loss of the entire project, but far more importantly, there is a high risk to workers lives. It’s already a high-risk environment – almost 65,000 construction workers in the UK sustained an injury at work in 2014/15. A thorough and intelligent fire monitoring and prevention system is essential to ensure that number is continually brought down.

To increase the difficulty of this process, site managers must ensure that a fire risk assessment has been carried out and a fire safety strategy put in place for both the contractors’ village, made up of portakabin offices and facilities, and the building under construction. These measures must cover several important considerations. First of all, a temporary and dynamic means of sounding an alarm within the building under construction depending on contractors’ location within the build, ideally through manual call point and sounder combinations which can be moved as required. Then, a more static and complex FDA system must be implemented for the village. On top of this, support including emergency lighting, extinguishers, evacuation assembly points, staff training and a fire warden programme must be put in place.

There are technological solutions to many of these problems. For example, radio-enabled fire safety devices, which can transmit alerts across a large site. Given the evolving nature of a construction site, a connected capability is essential to increase the efficiency and accuracy of fire safety programmes, and such systems can be easily removed and re-installed multiple times. In sites which have the capacity to carry IP cables, it’s also worth considering the benefit of intelligent connected fire detection and alarm systems which can collect and analyse data to better determine the true state of a fire incident, reject false and unwanted alarms and help site managers improve accuracy and overall safety without a large hike in outlay.

The minimisation of false and unwanted alarms is also a key issue to consider when it comes to fire safety. Construction companies have a responsibility to protect not only their own employees, but also the lives and interests of the communities around them, and it’s essential to avoid any unnecessary risk or disruption to either group. Repeated false alarms could result in a genuine alert being missed. False alarms can also cause unneeded fire brigade callouts, which will only damage corporate reputations and relations with the local community, as well as putting victims of real fires at risk.

Avoiding false alarms and conserving resources

Clearly, whatever the project, any site installed with a fire detection system must ensure it reduces false or unwanted alarms. Should a construction site be evacuated, crucial deadlines could be missed. If a project using costly hired plant experiences a false alarm, highly pressurised decisions will have to be made about whether to extend the rental period. Even worse, should a large number of false alarms occur, it could result in the unfortunate consequence of those onsite becoming complacent to the sound of an alarm and failing to respond to the warning of a real fire.

More broadly, false alarms are an incredible drain on public resources. According to the London Fire Brigade (LFB), around a third of all calls attended to are false alarms, leading to many fire brigades reviewing their policies – repeat offences increase the risk that the response to a genuine incident will be delayed. Some site managers could be unaware that the local fire brigade might not respond to an alarm activated by an automatic fire detector due to their policy of not answering false alarms.

Automatic alarms are hard to verify. As such, site management needs to ensure either that fire wardens are well-trained in correct reporting procedure, or that fire detection equipment is capable of discerning between, say, dust and smoke. Furthermore, since January 2014, the LFB charges companies if it has to attend more than ten false alarms in a 12-month period. This is to ensure fire-fighters are available to attend in a real emergency rather than held up at the scene of a false alarm.

Using modern technology for a better service

For construction companies looking to improve safety and reduce false and unwanted alarms, it is clearly advisable to implement a well thought-out fire safety strategy that takes into account the necessary risk assessments across each of these possible triggers and situations. This is crucial in order to identify and wherever possible eliminate the potential scenarios in which false and unwanted alarms could occur.

If an existing system has been prone to false alarms, it is advisable to look at incorporating intelligent fire alarm detection devices. By using interactively-adjusted algorithms these can establish if the detected properties of carbon monoxide, heat, smoke or particles correspond to those held in memory for real fire events. By utilising this type of detection technology, dust from an angle-grinder will not trigger an alarm, for instance.

It can also be incredibly beneficial to have a wireless radio-enabled system in place to ensure that detectors across the site are integrated, to aid the early detection and verification of fires. Once a fire detection and alarm system is in place, although it might sound very basic, site teams must ensure that absolutely all staff tasked with using the fire controls are trained to do so – a mis-chosen fire extinguisher or ill-advised escape route could mean the difference between life and death.

Always on and always alert

With an appropriate fire detection and alarm system installed, there must be a programme of planned, preventative maintenance in place to support it. In England and Wales this is a legal requirement under Article 17 of the Fire Safety Order (FSO), and its equivalent in Scotland and Northern Ireland. The advisory engineering best practices as to how maintenance should be carried out can be found in British Standard, BS 5839-1:2013.

Site managers should ensure that their fire detection and alarm system is maintained by a competent servicing organisation. Where the construction period is too short to merit a regular testing programme, those responsible for installation of battery-operated temporary units should nevertheless ensure the compliance of their devices at the point of installation.

The number of maintenance visits required is determined by the fire risk assessment and should take into account the level of risk (to life, property and construction continuity), complexity and size of the system. Such maintenance visits will allow the servicing engineer to work with the site team to identify any persistent causes of false alarms.

All construction sites must be protected by a well-designed, installed and regularly maintained fire detection and alarm system. Throughout this process, reducing false and unwanted alarms has to be high on the agenda as not only will this help to ensure the highest levels of safety, but it will help to reduce the amount of resources teams have to dedicate in order to manage the time-consuming and potentially costly repercussions.

Technology is the key to a resilient and compliant fire detection and suppression system. With innovative connected devices and detectors, site managers can automate many of the most crucial parts of the fire alarm system, increasing accuracy and helping save lives. These risks are not going to go away: the construction industry must ensure its fire prevention systems are fully functional and up to the challenge.

For more information, go to www.tycoifs.co.uk

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Lee Jasper has been at Tyco for over eight years. He is an expert in fire and safety systems, including the technology of alarms, IP cameras, video analytics and access control.

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