Fire & Life Safety (Focus on Preparation and Prevention)

Assessing Construction Risks

Over the course of 2017 I attended six conferences that covered fire and life safety issues. Half of those conferences had speakers that covered the 3E’s: educational, engineering and enforcement options for fire and life safety. The other meetings were focused on engineering; primarily, the role of facilities operations to maintain and inspect the fire and life safety components found in buildings. All of the meetings had formal and informal discussions about what facilities staff and inspections have uncovered during periods of construction or what contractors have tried to say was acceptable or an equivalent level of fire protection.

What You Need to Know

If there was ever a need to convince your administration why increased inspection of facilities under construction are required or why you need to contract with outside firms to conduct inspections for compliance it comes from the examples shared at these meetings. Here are a few examples of what went wrong. I share them so you can think about projects in your facilities where activities compromised life safety. These can become your speaking points for additional resources to conduct risk assessments and inspections during periods of construction:

  • A contractor installed hollow-core doors on a seven-story stairwell and sprayed the doors with a fire-retardant paint. This is not permitted!
  • Another project had a contractor install a sidewall fire sprinkler head in the ceiling “to create a wall of water” to eliminate the need for a rated wall and door to a stairway.
  • A contractor eliminated a third of the exiting from the building because it was near but not in the construction zone. The justification was that two of six classrooms were converted into construction offices, eliminating the need for the third exit. In reality, 90 percent of the occupancy load of the building was still present.
  • Fire stopping was completed between floors using newspaper in place of mineral fiber. When asked why, the contractor explained is was just the caulking material that mattered. Again, this is not permitted!

There are many more similar examples. The point I want to make is that we are responsible for not only managing “facilities renewal” projects in our buildings but also ensuring these projects are completed properly. These examples were from programs that have really good inspection teams. After the sessions where these examples were shared other individuals came up to me and shared stories indicating that they don’t have the time or expertise to find even these most blatant examples of improper construction or impacts to life safety.

Ask for the Resources You Need

We are all understaffed (another common theme) and expected to juggle many projects, hoping we don’t miss a crucial project detail. What I am suggesting is that we have the hard conversations with leaders in our organizations that clearly point to the risks and liabilities the organization inherits when construction projects take place in our buildings. We are all here to see that projects are completed as designed and paid for. Think about the stairwell door example—the project paid for a rated door, not a hollow-core door. If we are truly doing our jobs we will lay out a plan that includes budget to hire staff with the knowledge needed to reduce risk exposure during periods of construction in our facilities. To build your argument, simply think about examples you have seen during your career and couple them with fire code requirements during periods of construction.

Asking for resources to adequately conduct a risk assessment prior to construction as well as adequate resources for inspections will greatly reduce risk in your facility during construction. For assistance, talk with your risk and insurance management team. They will be able to give you data to support your request. Insurance mangers are a great resource for converting risk and mitigation efforts into dollars. They will be able to talk from a financial point as to why investing in risk assessments and inspections can save funding for the organization. One risk manager indicated that they were able to hire an individual for a series of buildings for 7.5 cents per square foot and on another multi-building project found a contractor to do the same work for just over 5 cents per square foot. In both cases the risk manager indicated that they had no delays due to failed inspections and no life safety violations or incidents during the span of the project.

This article originally appeared in the December 2017 issue of College Planning & Management.

About the Author

Mike Halligan is the President of Higher Education Safety, a consulting group specializing in fire prevention program audits, strategic planning, training and education programs and third party plan review and occupancy inspections. He retired after twenty six years as the Associate Director of Environmental Health and Safety and Emergency Management at the University of Utah. He frequently speaks and is a recognized expert on residence hall/student housing fire safety and large scale special event planning. He also works with corporate clients to integrate products into the campus environment that promote safety and security.

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