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Out of the Ashes: Safeguarding the Future of High-Rise NYC Multifamily Projects

Despite the potential financial burdens associated with insurance premiums and fire prevention measures, prioritizing fire safety in New York City multifamily high-rise construction is non-negotiable. Every possible precaution must be taken to prevent fires and systematically mitigate risks, and failing to fulfill this responsibility can lead to catastrophic consequences. It is imperative for those engaged in these projects to learn from the mistakes of the past and find new ways to safeguard construction sites from fire risks in the future.

For example, the 130 Liberty St. Fire of 2007 in New York City tragically claimed the lives of two firefighters, causing numerous injuries and underscoring the urgent need for increased NYFD onsite inspections and the implementation of maintenance mandates for pressurized Fire Standpipe systems. Similarly, the South Park Tower Fire in December 1998 resulted in the loss of four lives, prompting the establishment of new building codes and compliance regulations for all future residential projects. These incidents are just a few of many that serve as poignant reminders of the critical importance of fire prevention for developers, property owners and construction site managers.

Safety Takes Precedence
Approaches to fire prevention vary by market. In New York City, apartment buildings pose unique challenges for fire safety, both during construction and upon completion. With families living in close quarters, the risks associated with fires are heightened, as the safety of one unit can impact the others. While the likelihood of a fire starting in an apartment is similar to that in a private residence, apartment fires have a greater potential to spread throughout multifamily structures, endangering all residents, according to the FDNY.

Many high-rise buildings in New York City use open flame connections, temporary heating systems, combustible fuels and finish materials, making them highly susceptible to fire risks. Prioritizing fire safety and prevention is crucial from the outset of high-rise construction projects.

High-rise construction has specialized requirements mandated by the NYC Fire Department and Building Department, which include considerations such as the proper handling and storage of portable fueled space heaters, smoking prohibitions and signage, waste disposal procedures, correct storage and handling of flammable and combustible liquids, ventilation considerations and more.

The Administrative Code of the City of New York §28-301.1 also mandates that property owners maintain their properties in a safe condition, minimizing the risk of accidents and fires. Stalled construction sites and poorly maintained properties are particularly vulnerable, and high-rise buildings under construction must have a licensed fire safety manager when they reach a height of 20 stories, a height of 250 feet or a lot coverage of 200,000 square feet or greater.

In 2021, the New York City Department of Buildings introduced significant legislation to update the city’s Construction Codes and aid in fire safety prevention. Notably, the code update mandated that whenever exits discharge directly outside without passing through a protected area of vestibule, NYFD access must be provided to the exit stairway either from the protected area or within a minimum distance of it.

Fire Causes, Prevention Methods, and Technologies
There are a multitude of fire prevention methods and technologies that property owners and construction site managers must be aware of. Below are just a few key considerations.

Fire Watch Procedures. According to the Section FC 1408 of the fire code, when a site safety manager or coordinator is mandated by the Building Code, the owner must appoint a licensed fire safety manager who will be on-site to fire watch. This entails surveilling the project to prevent fires from happening, alerting emergency services in the case of a fire and protecting the public and workers from danger.

While fire watch is a crucial aspect of fire prevention, it is inherently flawed as a standalone protection measure. Although most projects employ security guards for fire watch duties, the effectiveness of this approach, especially in stick-frame buildings, is compromised by the potential for rapid fire spread. By the time fire watch personnel detect a fire, it may be too late to prevent significant damage. To address this issue, it is essential to incorporate remote heat sensors and wireless alert systems into construction projects.

These systems can promptly notify fire watch personnel of increased temperatures in specific sectors of the building, allowing for faster response times and potentially mitigating the extent of damage. Relying solely on traditional fire watch measures without supplementary technology increases the risk of catastrophic outcomes.

Approved Portable Fire Extinguishers. Must be available on all floors, especially where combustible materials or liquids are stored.

Pressurized Temp Dry Standpipe Systems. Due to building heights beyond the reach of FDNY trucks at street level, NFPA Chapter 14 requires a dry or wet standpipe system to be installed during construction or demolition. This system must be pressurized, tested regularly, and include an alarm.

First Responder Box. The FDNY also requires a first responder box on every construction site, which contains all keys required to obtain access to the construction site and operate the hoist, the pre-fire plan, permits, logbooks and such other documents required by this code or the rules to be maintained on the premises. The box needs to be in an approved location and be openable by use of a citywide standard key.

Avoiding Arson. Arson, often arising from individuals either smoking or seeking shelter or warmth, is one of the leading causes of fires on construction sites. This happens primarily in situations where inadequate security measures are in place, such as an absence of barricades and/or fencing due to budget constraints. To effectively address this risk, prioritizing perimeter protection and adding security with badge systems is essential, because it can help clearly define points of entry and exit. Additionally, installing perimeter cameras equipped with motion sensors and 24/7 monitoring capabilities is key, as these types of technologies can promptly alert the project team to any unauthorized entry.

Extreme Housekeeping. Extreme Housekeeping is another vital aspect of fire prevention. Debris acts as fuel for fires and wood framing debris is highly combustible, making the removal of loose debris containing wood, paper or other flammable materials essential. Implementing a formal, measurable housekeeping program to maintain cleanliness and remove debris is imperative to minimizing fire risks, and maintaining a diligent labor force to uphold cleanliness standards is essential in preventing the spread of fires.

Obtaining Hot Works Permits. Prior to the start of any construction work, creating a pre-written task planning document and obtaining all hot works permits is required by both OSHA and the NYFD. These permits are necessary for any operation involving open flames or that produce heat or sparks — such as brazing, torch cutting, grinding, soldering and welding — and must be prepared by a competent person.

Eliminate Heat Sources Where Possible. Instead of relying on hot work activities or temporary heat sources like kerosene or electric heaters, which pose fire risks, developers, owners and construction site managers should consider implementing external heat sources positioned around the perimeter, such as flameless heaters with ducts leading into the building. This approach keeps the heat source outside the building, reducing the risk of ignition, especially during the interior finishing stages involving plaster and paint. Another option is using compression fittings instead of welding for pipe connections to eliminate the need for open flames and heat-related work.

Fireproofing. Fireproofing is of the utmost importance across project sites. Materials such as gasoline need to be stored within fireproof enclosures when not in use, situated in designated areas away from buildings. Additionally, there are spray fire retardants available for wood surfaces. Whether you’re dealing with an open frame situation or closing the walls, there are a variety of products certified by the EPA which prevent fire ignition without posing harm to people and can be applied directly to combustible wood framing and materials during construction.

Aligning with Developer Priorities
Developers and owners often prioritize the bottom line from a cost perspective, and some are willing to take risks on fire safety. However, insurance prices hinge on incident rates and reputation, underscoring the importance of taking preventative measures to mitigate fires and ensure project success.

Fire prevention stands as a key concern on any project site, and innovative fire watch and fireproofing approaches like heat sourcing and meticulous planning are instrumental in this. Investing in surveillance technology and deploying proactive measures to eliminate heat sources are vital components of site security. While traditional security guards may seem cost-effective, integrating additional technology and fire-retardant products offers broader coverage and facilitates real-time responses to potential threats.

By learning from the mistakes of the past, developers and owners can put a renewed focus on fire safety for future projects.