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Fire Service Features of Buildings: Phase By Phase
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Fire Service Features of Buildings: Phase By Phase

By Mat Chibbaro, P.E., CSP | Fire Protection Engineering

Have you wondered how the fire service will use the building features that you design, install, or approve? Ever felt that firefighters speak an unfamiliar language? How can "smarter” modern fire protection features be incorporated into buildings and explained to firefighters? These are the types of questions addressed in OSHA’s updated manual, "Fire Protection Features of Buildings and Fire Protection Systems.” By better understanding fire service needs, designers, code officials, and related stakeholders can work together to streamline emergency operations.

Fire service operations are almost universally conducted under unique circumstances but typically include physically challenging, mentally stressful, and time-sensitive activities. Effective and efficient operations can enhance the safety and health of building occupants and firefighters, reduce property damage, and limit related indirect losses. Stakeholders can help streamline emergency operations by incorporating the guidance in OSHA’s manual as a voluntary supplement to mandatory codes and standards.

Originally published in 2006, this manual cited specific criteria for many of the features discussed and used specific code references. The revised document avoids such specifics and instead provides a general discussion of each feature, followed by a series of questions to ask and a list of resources to help answer them. Two chapters, several sections, and many new photos have been added. Highlighted in the following paragraphs are concepts from the new chapter on building phases that focuses on understanding how the fire service may interact with the designer throughout the life cycle of the building (design, construction, occupancy, and building deterioration).

Figure 1. Emergency responders clearing the scene of a construction site incident.


Regular and effective communication during all building phases among all stakeholders achieves two general goals: The first is the integration, throughout all building phases, of appropriate features that facilitate fire service operations— as discussed throughout the OSHA manual; second, the increased safety of workers or occupants will reduce the frequency and/or severity of incidents requiring a fire service response (Figure 1).

Early and regular contact between designers and code authorities can foster communication that is vital to efficient incorporation of code requirements—both those that address construction hazards as well as those that apply to the finished building. The earlier the code officials’ interpretations and expectations are understood, the more efficiently the design and construction phases can proceed.

Designers and code officials should also obtain emergency responders’ views as early as possible. Fire service operations can occur any time from the beginning of site work until the building no longer exists. In some cases, code officials are able to speak for responders, but do not assume this is the case. Ascertain everyone’s responsibility and authority as early as possible to avoid surprises and to keep projects proceeding smoothly.

Communication will also facilitate advance planning. The construction and occupancy phases will likely proceed more efficiently if stakeholders consider work phasing in advance. This is of particular importance in buildings or complexes that are speculative or intended to be occupied in stages.


This phase provides the opportunity to plan for all the appropriate fire service features before construction begins. Changes made on paper are always less costly than those made after permits are issued and construction begins.

In some jurisdictions, emergency responders are a mandatory part of the permit process—in particular, for those features used by firefighters, such as fire hydrants, fire alarm annunciators, fire control rooms, fire hose connections, and fire department inlet connections.

Permit approval by code officials is often subject to the completion of changes or additions that are included in the plans or otherwise transmitted to the entity that applied for the permit. These conditional comments, which may include responder input, must be addressed during construction or installation if projects are to proceed efficiently.

Figure 2. A building under construction. Stairs and standpipes are rising as the building progresses. A temporary fire department connection is in the pedestrian barrier wall.


An on-site meeting including all stakeholders should be conducted as early as possible in the construction phase. Contractors can determine what will be expected of them by the code officials and responders as the construction proceeds. Applicable fire codes may also require an on-site fire prevention coordinator.

Buildings under construction or renovation likely contain a high concentration of combustible material, several hazardous processes, a wide variety of ignition sources, and an array of worker safety hazards. Furthermore, the risks to firefighters during construction are greater than those in a finished building due to incomplete fire protection features and constantly changing conditions. Prior to their introduction, some materials or processes may require a permit and/or notification of emergency responders.

During the construction phase, temporary protective features often compensate for the lack of permanent features or their incomplete nature. Provide access for fire apparatus and firefighters from the beginning of construction as illustrated in Figure 1. A permanent or temporary water supply is needed when the first combustible construction materials are on site.

Several features should progress as the building rises (Figure 2). For example, install a temporary or permanent standpipe in tall buildings as they approach a height beyond the reach of fire service ladders. Provide at least one clear and accessible stair as the building rises. When the building’s exterior walls are in place, smoke and heat from a fire will be confined; by this time, the stair must be enclosed to maintain its integrity.

As construction progresses, various inspections will occur to ensure compliance with the codes in effect and the various permits issued. Keep approved documents for all permits on site at all times. Appropriate contractors and subcontractors must be aware of each condition imposed by code officials and emergency responders, including any conditional comments on permits or approved plans.

Acceptance testing of systems is conducted toward the end of the construction phase. Continue to involve members of the fire service to educate them about the systems they will encounter. Provide them with opportunities to witness acceptance testing and/or to view systems demonstrations. Design documents should identify the need for these important interactions with emergency responders.

When construction is complete, as-built plans will help emergency responders prepare for emergencies. These plans should include construction documentation, fire protection system shop drawings, and site diagrams showing fire apparatus and firefighter access routes. Emergency responders may prefer schematic rather than detailed plans.

Code officials should share with emergency responders a summary of important building information gleaned from the permit process. Information could include details on the building, its construction, its occupancy, utilities serving it, protection features and systems, and hazardous materials and processes.

Figure 3. An egress stair inappropriately blocked by ladders and materials for ongoing construction in a partially occupied speculative building.


The occupancy phase begins when code officials determine that the building is either fully code-compliant or when a portion becomes safe enough to permit occupants to move in. In reality, occupancy is often allowed pending the completion of minor punch-list items. In the interim, additional features may be provided or restrictions imposed to ensure a sufficient level of safety.

Partial occupancy occurs frequently in building addition/ renovation projects. Speculative spaces are often initially occupied in stages and then partially occupied during periodic renovations of tenant spaces or common areas. Careful planning and attention is necessary in these situations to minimize hazards to occupants, workers, and emergency responders. Considerations include: fire barriers separating occupied and unoccupied areas, completeness of the fire suppression and fire alarm systems, and the full availability of all means of egress (Figure 3).

Most fire safety features installed in buildings for the protection of occupants also serve to protect firefighters, or are used by firefighters, during an emergency. Routine preventive maintenance of fire protection systems and building features will verify that systems remain in service and are capable of functioning properly; deficiencies in fire doors, fire barriers, fire alarms, and sprinkler/standpipe systems can be discovered and repaired before an emergency occurs.

Figure 4. A sign indicating a standpipe system is out-of-service.

Impairments of fire protection systems or features can occur during planned work or due to unforeseen circumstances. Inoperable equipment can cause delays in emergency operations; however, firefighters who are made aware in advance may be able to compensate for impairments by adjusting their response tactics. Notify emergency responders when systems or features are placed out of service and again when they are returned to service. Design documents should require this notification as well as coordination with code officials about any temporary protection during the time of impairment. Provide warning signage for systems or features that are inoperable or disabled (Figure 4) at a location visible to responders.

Rehabilitation work can include changes and/or hazards that emergency responders would need to factor into their decisions and strategy during emergencies. Code officials should notify responders when a permit is issued for rehabilitation work. Remember that modifications to a building or its layout may necessitate changes to fire alarm graphic displays and building information diagrams. Inaccurate information can lead to poor decisions, delays, and strategic errors during an emergency.

Building Deterioration

Emergency responders should be notified when buildings partially or wholly deteriorate to the point where they are unsafe to enter. Code officials can play an important part in the notification process.

Vacant or abandoned buildings can pose severe dangers to firefighters. Post condemned buildings with prominent signs that include a highly visible symbol (Figure 5) and any specific hazards such as holes in roofs or floors, missing stairs or steps, and unsafe fire escapes. Condemned buildings should be slated for demolition or repair as soon as possible. In the interim, secure them to preclude unwanted or unlawful entry.

Firefighters may still be called to minimize emergencies while buildings are undergoing demolition. This stage can be hazardous for firefighters, especially if the building has already begun to deteriorate. Considerations during demolition are similar to those during the construction phase, but generally in the reverse order. Maintain standpipes and stairs as the building is brought down. Keep fire protection systems and fire barriers in place and in service as long as possible. Unprotected openings in floors are a serious hazard for firefighters who may be working in darkness or smoky conditions. Temporary partitions or barriers can complicate firefighter access and egress. Gas and electric services should be terminated where possible, and labeled where they remain in service.

Pre-Incident Planning

Pre-incident planning is the process by which the fire service learns important information about facilities before an emergency. This allows firefighters to operate more efficiently and safely when an incident occurs. Pre-incident planning begins at the construction stage and continues throughout the life of a building. Related documentation must be updated as conditions change.

Knowledge of the site and building as construction proceeds will be helpful in emergency incidents during the construction phase. Observing how a building is built also provides the fire service with valuable knowledge about construction and protective features that can help when a fire or other emergency occurs in a building after completion.

Construction personnel should invite emergency responders to visit sites during various phases of construction and renovation. Remember to accommodate different shifts for career firefighters and convenient times for volunteer firefighters who often have other employment obligations.

Figure 5. A warning sign on a deteriorated building indicates that it is unsafe for firefighters to enter.

The fire service drafts incident action plans based on the information collected during pre-incident planning. As the fire service responds to incidents or alarms at a facility, both the pre-incident plan and the incident action plan should be reviewed and updated if appropriate. In this manner, all stakeholders should continue to work together to facilitate emergency responder and occupant safety for the lifetime of a facility.

For Additional Information

For detailed information on fire service features, see the OSHA manual at

Mat Chibbaro is with the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Gaithersburg City, MD, Fire Marshal’s Office.

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