(James Johnson photo)
When I look back on some of the events that occurred in the fire service during 2017, my mind immediately goes to the countless number of devastating fires that have occurred in large wood-frame buildings under construction, or as Fire Engineering Technical Editor Glenn Corbett likes to call them, “toothpick towers.” Buildings under construction are some of the most challenging fires we face and, depending on the amount of passive and active fire protection that has been installed or is operational, it can be a losing battle from the start.
In this article, we are going to look at one aspect of fire protection that can directly affect our operations and tactics during fires in buildings under construction: the standpipe system.
According to National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 126.96.36.199, standpipe systems are defined as “an arrangement of piping, valves, hose connections, and associated equipment installed in a building or structure, with the hose connections located in such a manner that water can be discharged in streams or spray patterns through attached hose and nozzles, for the purpose of extinguishing a fire, thereby protecting a building or structure and its contents in addition to protecting the occupants.”
Codes and Standards
Because of the extreme risk of a fire during the construction of a building, virtually all the building and fire codes have specified that a standpipe system with a fire department connection (FDC) be installed and operational during the construction process.
I will be referencing NFPA 14, Installation of Standpipes and Hose Systems, as it is one of the most widely adopted standards regarding standpipe design, installation, maintenance, as well as the International Building Code (IBC). It is vitally important to inquire into which standard, building code, and fire code the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) in which you serve has adopted and the specific requirements relating to standpipes in buildings under construction. It is also important to note that the building and fire codes determine when a standpipe is required for a building while it is under construction. Whether your AHJ has adopted the IBC/International Fire Code, NFPA 500 Construction and Safety Code/NFPA 1 Fire Code, The National Building Code of Canada/National Fire Code of Canada, or any combination of these, there may be slight differences in what is required.
In the Streets
When arriving on scene to a fire in a building under construction, typically our first interaction with the standpipe system is through the FDC. When specifying the requirements for buildings under construction, NFPA 14.12.2 Fire Department Connections states, “The standpipe shall be provided with conspicuously marked and readily accessible fire department connections on the outside of the building at the street and shall have at least one standard hose outlet at each floor.” Although these requirements are clearly defined, it is ultimately up to the building and fire officials to enforce. As you can see in photos 1 and 2, the phrase “conspicuously marked and readily accessible” appears to be quite subjective. Over the years, I have seen everything from plywood spray painted with the words “Fire Hose Plug In” with an arrow pointing to the FDC to a row of portable toilets completely blocking the connections. I cannot overstate the importance of visiting and walking through the job site to preplan, as the time to find deficiencies in any of these systems is not during a fire.
In the Halls
The next part of the standpipe system that directly affects us as firefighters is the individual outlets on each floor (photo 3). Section 3311.1 of the IBC lays out a couple of requirements for buildings under construction that I feel are important to know and understand. The first is the number of working standpipes that are actually required in a building under construction. Section 3311.1 states, “No fewer than one standpipe shall be provided for use during construction.” During a recent tactical inspection of a building under construction, we found that although the building was designed to have a standpipe in each of the two main stairwells, only one was required to be operational for fire department use during the construction. This knowledge becomes important for us as firefighters when estimating our stretch off the standpipe for the amount of hose that will be required. In the case of this particular building, it was exactly 200 feet between standpipes, which is the maximum travel distance allowed for sprinklered buildings according to NFPA 188.8.131.52.2.1.1. If faced with a fire at the opposite end of the hallway, many fire departments may not initially bring enough hose to make a stretch of this length, and for fire departments that still use 1¾-inch hose or high pressure nozzles for their standpipe operations, an extended stretch off the standpipe is likely to require operating pressures that exceed the minimum residual pressure requirement of 100 psi from the outlet.
The next requirement contained in Section 3311.1 is actually very beneficial for us as firefighters. “Such standpipes shall be extended as construction progresses to within one floor of the highest point construction having secured decking or flooring.” This means that as each floor goes up, an operational standpipe that meets the minimum pressure and flow requirements as specified in NFPA 14 will be ready for fire department use.
From a developer or contractor standpoint, the need for the standpipe outlets to be installed so early in the construction process creates issues with the potential for the components to become damaged. In photos 4 and 5, you can see examples of attempts to protect the standpipe outlets. In my experience working in the trades, this is a very common practice, and although it is not necessarily a major issue for us in the fire service, it is still something to be prepared for.
NFPA 14 and the sections of the building and fire codes that pertain to standpipes are detailed and comprehensive documents. This article has only just begun to scratch the surface of the topic, and my hope is that it will encourage you to investigate it further.
Finally, although NFPA and the various building codes provide clear recommendations and requirements for standpipes in buildings under construction, the final say is ultimately up to each AHJ. There are many external factors, such as industry lobbying, and political posturing done behind closed doors, that unfortunately influence the final outcomes, and it is crucial that we take the time to educate ourselves, so we know what to expect when we are faced with one of these challenging fires.
James Johnson, a member of the fire service since 2003, is a firefighter with Vancouver (Can.) Fire and Rescue Services. He is a member of its technical rescue team and an urban search and rescue member of Canada Task Force 1. He is a certified Red Seal journeyman carpenter, a fire service instructor 1 and 2, and an FDIC International presenter.