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Prevention Topics

Considerations for the Design and Construction of Temporary Construction Barriers

Brian Love, Fire Protection Specialist | Sep 13, 2013

Construction projects in, or near, occupied buildings create an elevated hazard and a unique set of circumstances which are often overlooked or under-planned.  Of those hazards, the most important are those that shield the occupants from the hazards inherent to any construction site and safely exiting building occupants in emergencies, all while avoiding additional hazards.  Most building codes are disturbingly silent, or at a minimum vague, when defining temporary separation requirements, though requirements are present in NFPA 1 Fire Code, NFPA 101 Life Safety Code, IBC, IFC, as well as most other commonly used construction codes and standards. In this short narrative we will not attempt to explain all prescriptive code requirements, but instead, to assist you in better understanding temporary barriers.

Construction projects must have some form of a physical separation installed between building occupants and the construction area.  These construction barriers, if improperly designed, constructed, or placed, often create more risk than benefit.  Construction barriers, even as temporary structures, must be constructed properly.  Temporary separation must be of equal or greater flame resistance as the permanent structure.  In a non-combustible building, temporary construction barriers must be of non-combustible materials.  In buildings where flame spread ratings in corridors are limited to Class A, so must the temporary barriers constructed within those corridors.

A “common sense” approach to the design and construction of temporary separations usually will avoid many common errors.  The following should be utilized as a tool when planning for temporary barriers.

Remember, first and foremost, we are creatures of habit.  If I have exited this building every day, the same way, for the past two years - through the same corridor – through the same exit door – then over the same sidewalk – then you had better make it crystal clear why today is any different.  Exit signs must be planned for the temporary path of egress.  Staff must be trained and, where possible, the building occupants should be trained and practiced on the new path of egress. 

Minimum requirements for corridor width do not lessen during construction or renovation.  Required width does not lessen during construction.  Exit width calculations for facilities being renovated are normally figured “as-built”.  This said, if corridors and passageways are narrowed due to construction, a “bottleneck” may form, putting occupants at increased risk.  In healthcare facilities, exit width is assumed to accommodate hospital beds passing in the halls, this feature cannot be negated to accommodate temporary barrier walls being constructed within the corridor.

During an emergency, if I see daylight at a locked exit, I’m not going to continue following signs leading me down other dark, smoky corridors to the exit the architect thinks I should use.  Though not mentioned in code, this is a theory that deserves a degree of respect.  Where possible, cover exit doors to restrict daylight and recognition as an exterior door when they are inaccessible due to construction.  If the occupants don’t see what they believe to be their means of escape, then they will continue to follow the designated route.

Normal illumination requirements and emergency illumination requirements are not lessened just because the path of egress is temporary.  The temporary path of egress should be as bright, if not brighter, than the normal exits.  It is not in the nature of the occupants to choose a dark path over a well-lit path, especially during an emergency.

Fire alarm requirements apply the same in temporary egress corridors as they do in permanent installations.  Where fire alarm audio/visual devices are required, they must be installed in the temporary passages also.  Where voice signaling systems are utilized, it must be assured that adequate volumes are present at all points within the temporary egress.  Where manual pull stations are required to activate the fire alarm, they must also be provided within the temporary egress.

Practice-practice-practice. When means of egress are changed, it’s time for a fire drill.  As we discussed earlier, we creatures of habit must practice anything we do to be proficient at it.  Whether fire drills are due, required, monotonous, annoying, burdensome, or any other excuse, they must be done to familiarize the staff and building occupants to the temporary egress.  Not unlike any “regular” fire drills, the performance of the occupants as well as the performance of the building should be critiqued and changes made where necessary.  Even if the temporary path of egress looked like it should work on the blueprints, the true test is when the alarm sounds.

Temporary egress and construction separation plans must be designed, reviewed and constructed as phases of any multi-phase project.  When temporary egress plans are submitted for review, it is mandatory that they coincide with the construction phases that they are designed to accommodate.  It must be understood by all involved; that phasing plans must incorporate the temporary egress plans to be utilized during each phase. 

While this article doesn’t attempt to describe prescriptive code requirements or all standards applicable to a specific occupancy type, it is intended to provide a general overview of what makes temporary egress function safely.  Representatives of the Office of the State Fire Marshal can always be made available for questions specific to individual projects and circumstances.