How COVID-19 Upturned Fire Safety
COVID-19 threw a wrench into project plans for many integrators, as proposals were put on hold and NFPA and ICC meetings moved online.
This month’s article was written on Nov. 6, 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic has had the United States on one form or another of lockdown and altered work habits since March. In California, where I am based, the 17th of this month will be the seventh month. This pandemic has had an impact on how the fire protection industry has operated.
In an article that I wrote at the beginning of the pandemic, being an essential worker and an essential business was covered, and the steps that were taken for the fire protection industry to obtain these designations. Since then, we have learned over time how to operate within the new realities of our present time. This article is what I have seen from my perspective.
At the beginning, entry into buildings to conduct a required inspection and test of either a fire detection or suppression system was extremely difficult. Premises were either closed or access was being denied. This occurred during the first several months of the pandemic. As the shelter in place orders were modified over time, buildings were opening back up and entry into them to conduct the required inspections and tests was becoming less restrictive.
There remain a number of occupancy classifications in which entry is still difficult, if not impossible. These are healthcare and residential occupancies.
For multifamily residential occupancies, R-2 for those who operate in a jurisdiction that uses the International Fire Code, I have found that we can test the equipment that is in common areas or electrical or riser rooms, but entry into individual dwelling units for the testing and inspection of detectors, notification appliances and sprinklers is still not occurring at most of these locations.
We have taken the approach, as provided within NFPA 72, which allows an inspection or test to be deferred for up to 18 months if the detection equipment is located within a hazardous location.
The submittal of plans and specifications for review, approval and permitting came to an almost total standstill during the first few months of the pandemic. Most counties, cities and districts had closed their facilities to the public. Plans that had been submitted pre-pandemic were in submittal purgatory. Even if they had been approved, we could not get them released.
After a few months, a number of AHJs began to allow either a drop-off of the plans outside of their buildings or the electronic submittal of plans and specifications. This may be the one positive takeaway from this pandemic is that the submittal of plans and the releasing of both the approved plans and permits, or the redlines for a backcheck has moved to being performed online. About 80% of our submittals are now being done through this means.
At the beginning of the shelter in place orders in California, most construction sites were shut down. This prevented a large number of projects being completed or even to be placed on the schedule board. At the same time, there was a notable decline in bookings.
A number of providers of the equipment that we installed were also having issues with maintaining production, as plants were ordered closed. For the most part, this is now behind us. The work now is to catch up as property owners and general contractors are wanting to get their projects and buildings completed.
I am also seeing proposals that were provided either pre-pandemic or at the start of this event now being agreed to and contracts being signed.
The virtual meeting was discovered. For the first four months of the pandemic, I went into my office two times, and these trips were during the weekend. I had to acquire a webcam, headset and a good microphone, but since then I have grown accustom to seeing fellow workers and colleagues in the two-dimensional world of the Zoomosphere.
The training that we provide to our employees is now totally virtual. In the training of how to work on a control panel, the equipment is sent to the employee and then the instruction is provided online.
The principal provider of the fire detection brand that we use is also now conducting all of its training this way, in which through a network connection the student is connected to a control panel or panels and can learn how to program remotely, with the instructor observing the work and being able to provide the instruction.
Both the NFPA and ICC have moved to virtual committee meetings. The second draft meetings for NFPA 72 as well as all other documents that are in cycle have been conducted this way. The first draft meetings for NFPA 70, National Electrical Code, will also be conducted as such.
As we ramp up for the next edition of the International Building and Fire Codes, all of the many meetings have been conducted remotely. I am not convinced that this is the way it should remain post-pandemic, as I feel that there is still a lot to say about live in person meetings. It is, however, working for now.
At some time, we will return to a more normal way of life. My wife and I for the first time since this began were able to dine inside of a local restaurant this week. I think, however, that some positives have been discovered, such as electronic submittal of plans, remote inspections and to some extent virtual meetings. Virtual trade shows, no.
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