]As part of return to work measures, many initiatives seek to reduce occupant numbers in order to maintain social distancing. This reduction can have a positive impact in evacuation scenarios, reducing the number of people required to be moved through a fire stair. However, should social distancing measures apply in fire stairs? It would make sense that the immediate risk of fire and smoke outweighs the potential risk of a virus transmission. Should this logic apply during a false alarm or fire and evacuation drills?

COVID-19 has presented tremendous challenges in controlling and containing the spread of the virus through the community. Part of this strategy has been a significant shift to working from home for many office based employees.  As restrictions begin to lift and offices are re-opened, building managers and workplaces must implement measures to reduce the risk of contamination in these buildings.

This becomes an increasingly challenging in modern high rise buildings which accommodate thousands of occupants and often include increased occupant densities and connectivity, both between levels and within each level, which can contribute to increased risk of contamination.

As increased cleaning regimes and the regular use of hand sanitiser become the new normal, PPE and other initiatives and guidelines for COVID-19 resistant workplaces are being considered and rolled out. This includes the use of technology to reduce the need for contact on things such as light switches, taps and lifts but also changes such as:

  • Fixed/set work spaces in lieu of hot desking
  • More floorspace per worker in line with social distancing protocols i.e. lower densities
  • Staggered start/finish times
  • Reduced occupant numbers in lifts.

It is a requirement for building managers to conduct annual or biannual fire drills. Whilst these may end up being postponed, it is important to review and factor lower occupancy into a building’s emergency procedures. The review should ensure the fire safety strategy is not adversely impacted by COVID-19 related measures. A review should also be seen as an opportunity to clearly communicate with building occupants any changes to the strategy or to reinforce the existing strategy. This will reduce the likelihood of confusion in an actual event. Several questions come to mind when thinking of the impact of temporary measures on building evacuation and management:

  • Do temporary partitions impact egress paths/widths, smoke exhaust/make-up air pathways, sprinkler and detector spacings and coverage?
  • Does the existing system have capacity to incorporate an investigation period to prevent evacuation for a false alarm?
  • Should occupants enter the fire stair if there is no immediate danger (does social distancing apply)?
  • Would reduced egress speeds/flow rates compromise the existing fire safety strategy?
  • If lift use was previously permitted in an evacuation, will this strategy change?
  • Are additional fire wardens required due to staggered workforce?
  • Are existing assembly areas appropriate or should multiple/larger areas be selected?
  • Is a post-incident isolation/quarantine strategy required?
  • Can fire drills be temporarily conducted virtually using online presentations and videos?

The answers to the above questions will be different for each building and may also raise other questions based on specific circumstances and tenant preferences. However, it is clear that the necessary changes to deal with COVID-19 will have an impact on building fire safety and on building owners obligations with respect to fire safety. A considered plan for fire safety issues needs to be fully thought through to ensure life safety, whilst also maintaining the preventative measures put in place to tackle the spread of COVID-19.

Beyond the impacts on fire safety, as an all services firm, NDY is starting to work with our clients (as well as implement plans for our own offices) to consider the impacts and measures necessary with respect to lift numbers/control and air conditioning and would welcome the opportunity to assist.

To find out more about reviewing your fire safety plans get in touch with our expert, Simon Widjaja.

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Simon Widjaja
Technical Manager - Fire Engineering
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