Five Steps to Incorporate Social Distancing Without Creating Fire Hazards

1. Beware sprinkler obstructions! In the wake of this pandemic, retail establishments are implementing new ways to create physical barriers between their employees and the public, where six feet of social distance cannot be realistically maintained. Many customer-facing employees are being sequestered behind physical barriers such as Plexiglas, to allow them to interface with customers through smaller openings and help protect them from exposure to the public. While this solution may offer greater protection from an unmasked sneeze or cough, it may create a fire protection issue. 

Sprinkler systems are designed to deliver a specific density of water over the entire floor area of a building or space. Where dividers are erected, they may interfere with the sprinkler spray pattern. The density delivered by these sprinklers is prescribed based on the anticipated fire load by the Standard for the Installation of Sprinkler Systems, NFPA 13. 

However, if a barrier interferes with the development of that spray pattern, a fire could grow for a longer period of time before it spreads to a point where sprinklers can reach it. That additional time for fire growth could potentially create a scenario where the fire size could overwhelm the sprinkler system creating a larger loss fire. 

Even if barriers do not extend all the way to the ceiling, there are complex rules in NFPA 13 for how tall barriers may be and how far away from the nearest sprinkler they may be without creating an obstruction. As a result, it is important for a sprinkler professional to assess any plans to erect vertical barriers to ensure that they will not interfere with the operation of the fire sprinkler system.

2. Hand sanitizer is a hazardous material! Most alcohol based hand sanitizer is classified as a flammable liquid, and as such, is regulated as a hazardous material. Many businesses that have not been designed for hazardous material storage, sale, or handling are finding opportunities in the increased demand for alcohol-based hand sanitizer to profit. Even distilleries are trading in their cocktail shakers for plastic pump bottles, in order to help fill the increased demand for hand sanitizer. 

The important thing to remember is that the allowable quantities of hazardous materials in any facility are limited by the code. Where those quantities are exceeded, your jurisdiction may require a hazardous materials assessment and plan to show that the fire suppression systems can handle a flammable or combustible liquids fire. In those facilities that are being repurposed to produce hand sanitizer or alcohol based cleaning products, there are also additional fire protection requirements. 

The storage, handling, sale, and manufacture of these products requires an assessment by a fire protection professional to ensure that your plans do not violate the fire and building codes applicable in your jurisdiction. 

3. Don’t forget egress! The most important thing during a fire or emergency is to ensure occupants of a building can safely escape the building before the environment becomes untenable. In order to encourage social distancing, many retail establishments, as well as restaurants and other high-occupant-load facilities, have instituted new wayfinding features. 

These features may dictate one-way travel throughout a building to ensure that two occupants do not violate the 6’ social distancing requirement by traveling opposite directions in the same walkway or aisle. Most of the time this is accomplished with floor markings. However, there is a potential for some facilities to consider using erected barriers to enforce these efforts. 

Any floor plan changes should be reviewed by a life safety professional for compliance with egress requirements. Erecting temporary or permanent barriers could create paths of travel that exceed the maximum distance permitted by code, or could create dead ends, or reduce aisle widths too much to meet the prescribed code limits. Temporary barriers may not provide any relief from such requirements as egress rules mandate unobstructed access and even temporary or movable barriers violate these rules. 

Therefore, any floor plan modifications should be reviewed by a life safety professional to ensure that they do not create a code violation that could result in an unsafe condition during an emergency. Likewise, using door locks or blocking exits to encourage occupants to follow prescribed travel paths could prove deadly and should never be undertaken without evaluation by a life safety professional. 

4. Mind your fire barriers! Fire rated construction and smoke partitions are a vital piece of the fire protection in facilities. Some facilities may be seeking ways to reduce touch points and may prop open doors in fire and smoke barriers that are required to remain closed in order to maintain the proper compartmentation during a fire or similar emergency. 

There are alternative approaches to propping open doors necessary for compartmentation. Some of these options include providing automatic door holders that will release upon a fire alarm signal, or activation of a smoke detector or using motion detection to open doors. Even something as simple as a paper towel dispenser that occupants can use to grip door hardware may offer an alternative, but even this approach should be reviewed by a fire protection professional to ensure that fuel load is not added to required exit enclosures such as stairwells. 

A fire protection professional can help facility operators identify and select the most appropriate approaches to reduce touch points without compromising the building’s fire compartmentation.

5. If a facility has implemented any changes to encourage wayfinding or provide physical barriers to protect people inside the building, these changes may impact other emergency systems including fire detection systems, fire extinguishers, exit signage, and emergency lighting. 

For example, Plexiglas may be highly reflective, and in a power outage, a reflected exit sign in a Plexiglas barrier could lead people away from an exit. Emergency lights may not be spaced to provide the minimum required light levels around revised travel paths. Fire extinguishers are required to be spaced so that the path of travel to reach one meets the limits prescribed by the code based on the extinguisher’s rating. 

As a result, any changes to the facility that have been included in the four instances,  above, should trigger a review by a fire protection professional of all fire and life safety equipment including emergency lights, fire extinguishers, exit signage, AEDs, first aid kits, and any other code-required emergency equipment that is necessary based on the occupancy. 

Fire protection and life safety professionals are here to help ensure that your facility meets the code-prescribed level of protection. Do not hesitate to reach out if you have questions or concerns about your facility.

April Musser, a certified professional engineer, is Southeast Regional Practice Leader of fire protection engineering for Telgian Engineering & Consulting (TEC) She has more than 15 years of experience in fire protection engineering and consulting, including code consulting and design. She can be reached at [email protected].

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