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NFPA Impact: September 2014


August 28, 2014
By Shayne Mintz


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There’s a trend for buildings made of wood to be built higher and higher. Communities and entire economies in Canada and the United States are built on the lumber industry, and with the decline of the North American pulp and paper market, the wood industry has suffered.

There’s a trend for buildings made of wood to be built higher and higher. Communities and entire economies in Canada and the United States are built on the lumber industry, and with the decline of the North American pulp and paper market, the wood industry has suffered.

And that’s why wood-frame construction is good: the increased use of wood in mid-rise building construction makes good economic sense; it keeps people working; its supply is sustainable and renewable; it’s atmospherically and environmentally friendly; it’s an affordable building material; it’s broadly available, and easy to work with.

In 2009, British Columbia approved six-storey wood construction and in April 2013, Quebec did likewise. In March, the Ontario Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing announced plans to consider the same for residential and office buildings. Mid-rise and tall wood buildings are being built in Austria, Germany, Sweden and the United Kingdom, and when the soon-to-be released 2015 National Model Building Code hits the streets, most of these considerations will be identified or adopted in Canada as well.

During the comment stage of the code-change request process, fire services and other stakeholders submitted several calls for mid-rise wood buildings to be fully tested under three credible fire scenarios – one with a fully functioning fire-protection system and two with partially or fully-impaired systems. It was thought that these tests would help fire services and engineers better understand the dynamics of a mid-rise wood-building fire and what needs to be done to ensure the safety of occupants and first responders from toxic emissions and thermal heat hazards that may arise from a runaway fire.

As vital members of communities’ safety profiles, fire departments should be aware of the various planning and zoning activities going on in their communities. As with all types of construction – wood or otherwise – when a developer approaches the planning department with a proposal for a mid-rise building, someone needs to draw that to the attention of the fire chief or fire-prevention division and ask whether the community has the adequate response capability needed to properly respond to a fire or other emergency, both during and after construction.

Particularly in smaller communities, fire departments must ensure at a minimum that there is competent and capable staff to thoroughly review plans for fire- and life-safety protection measures and that plans submitted by the architect, contractor, owner or building representative meet jurisdictional requirements.

There should be verification of compliance with adopted building codes and local standards as well as compliance with adopted policies, utilization of forms and documents related to the permitting process.

Plans also need review to ensure a proper site risk assessment is done. Also, during the construction phase, fire services should ensure, at least, that the NFPA 241: Standard for Safeguarding Construction, Alteration and Demolition Operations is followed.

Plans need review to ensure the proper building occupancy classification is applied, the proper determination of required fire-protection and life-safety systems takes place, and that interior finishes, fire-resistance ratings, means of egress, special hazards and other fire-related requirements as determined by the community are addressed.

Very importantly, a review needs to be done in any case in which there may be an approval of alternate means of compliance.

With regard to fire and life-safety systems, reviews should include but not be limited to adequate smoke control systems, stairwell pressurization, elevator recall, emergency voice/alarm communications, fire alarms, automatic fire sprinklers, fire pumps, standpipe systems, special extinguishing systems, first-responder radio coverage and the presence of any commercial cooking hoods.

Prior to occupancy, the fire-safety plan needs to be reviewed and approved to ensure there is a proper and accurate human and building audit, adequate fire-control measures, appropriate emergency procedures and the posting of them, and defined roles of supervisory staff, if there are any.

Mid-rise wood construction is coming. Fire departments need to know what is being built in their communities. Being prepared for potential emergencies arising from these types of occupancies is vital for public and first-responder safety.


Shayne Mintz has more than 35 years of experience in the fire service, having completed his career as chief of the Burlington Fire Department in Ontario. He is now the Canadian Regional Director for the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). Contact Shayne at smintz@nfpa.org, and follow him on Twitter at @ShayneMintz


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