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Top 3 Life Safety Tips A professional engineer’s take on making major projects last

Life safety upgrades in building codes can help save lives, property and the possibility of prolonged, expensive litigation. Without life safety codes and upgrades, people could get trapped in stairwells during fires, warning systems could fail or businesses could face costly remediation. According to the National Fire Protection Association, nearly 38,000 fires impacted industrial or manufacturing properties alone from 2011 to 2015. The Life Safety Code® protects people based on building construction, protection from faulty equipment, and occupancy features such as emergency building exits and automatic sprinklers for buildings higher than 75 feet. While fires are usually due to electrical distribution and lighting equipment in structures under construction or renovation, according to nfpa.org, other causes can be due to anything from smoking to aging equipment. Recently, faulty ventilators in an overtaxed system may have started fires in a Russian hospital where patients were being treated for the COVID-19 pandemic.

Below are former Parkhill Principal Troy Swinney’s three top life safety tips for keeping clients and projects safe.

1. Aging Buildings

Oftentimes, projects that are selected for life safety upgrades are older facilities. Working in existing buildings presents unique challenges with existing ceilings, limited space, etc. Most cost analyses will show that when working above ceilings to install fire protection piping, for example, it will be most cost-effective to replace ceilings and lighting.

2. Infrastructure

One of the keys to a successful life safety project is to completely investigate the existing infrastructure, including water pressure, physical space for any fire pumps and the proximity of the electrical service to the proposed fire pump location. All of these are key cost drivers for the project.

3. Coordination with Code Officials

It is important to communicate with all stakeholders in a life safety project to ensure that planned systems are acceptable to the code officials. Oftentimes in existing buildings, give and take decisions are made regarding appropriate solutions in the design that meet the intent of the code. These decisions and options must be closely coordinated for a successful project.

Troy Swinney is an Electrical Engineer at Parkhill. He was the engineer of record on a variety of electrical engineering projects and actively participates in marketing efforts.

His education includes a Bachelor of Science degree in Electrical Engineering Technology and he is a licensed engineer in Texas and New Mexico.

Mr. Swinney has worked with Parkhill as a subconsultant and as an employee over the past 17 years. His experience includes the design of electrical distribution and power systems to include primary power, power distribution equipment, variable frequency drive design and plant control systems, including the Canadian River Municipal Water Authority well field electrical distribution and SCADA system and several secure governmental facilities.

Other areas of design experience include standby power generation facilities, grounding systems, and lightning protection. Mr. Swinney had also been responsible for the investigation, design and specification of numerous special electrical and grounding systems for several interstate communication companies.

This experience was particularly directed at grounding and lightning protection systems for protecting sensitive electronic data processing systems. He also served as a Project Manager for the firm and provides multi-disciplinary project coordination for several projects. He is a current member of the National Society of Professional Engineers and the Texas Society of Professional Engineers.

NFPA Common Causes of Fire

Consider that the most common causes of construction and renovation fires in the most recent five-year period, as well as historically, involve electrical distribution and lighting equipment, heating equipment, cooking equipment, a torch, burner, or soldering iron, or an intentional cause. For each of these, safety protocols are available to reduce the risk of fire. These include:

• Ensuring that temporary electrical service lighting follows installation requirements set forth in the National Electrical Code®, that electrical equipment is maintained and regularly inspected, that use of extension wiring is kept to a minimum, and that machinery and equipment do not overload available circuits.

• Prohibiting the use of temporary cooking equipment (such as hot plates or grills) or the use of improvised heating devices for warming food at the construction site.

• Ensuring that unauthorized temporary heaters are restricted from the worksite, that heaters permitted on the worksite are placed at safe distances from combustible and flammable materials and used in conformity with manufacture instructions, and that heaters are regularly checked to ensure that they are being safely operated and do not constitute a hazard (such as being overturned).

• Requiring a permit system for hot work activities and enforcing a 30-minute (or longer) cool-down interval following use of torches, burners, or soldering irons.

• Reducing the risk of arson by safeguarding construction sites with fencing or other controls, such as lighting or after-hours security personnel, as needed.

Guidance for preventing fires at structures under construction or undergoing renovation is available in NFPA 241, Standard for Safeguarding Construction, Alteration and Demolition Operations.

https://nfpa.org/ for updates on fire, electrical and related hazards, plus online training during COVID-19