Fire Service Features of Buildings: Phase By Phase
By Mat Chibbaro, P.E., CSP | Fire Protection Engineering
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
3. An egress stair inappropriately blocked by ladders and materials for
ongoing construction in a partially occupied speculative building.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
The Society of Fire Protection Engineers (SFPE) is a professional society for fire protection engineering established in 1950 and incorporated as an independent organization in 1971. It is the professional society representing those practicing the field of fire protection engineering. The Society has over 5,000 members and 100+ chapters, including many student chapters worldwide.