Tips for fire safety on site, Risk UK – July 2015

Fires on construction sites are more common than many people realise and the results can be serious, far reaching and costly. Here, Paul Henson, Sales and Marketing Director at Ramtech Electronics, offers some tips to construction managers on ways to select an effective fire alarm system.

A fire alarm system is essential on all construction sites especially as they become more complex and have quantities of combustible materials. Add to this the increasing number of high rise and timber framed structures and you have a potentially dangerous combination of personnel working in high or remote locations, surrounded by materials and hot trades that can easily result in a fire.

Whilst fire evacuation procedures are used on site, all too often its implementation is haphazard rather than strategic. For instance, it is still common for whistles, hand bells and other manual systems to be used to sound the alarm. These have a number of limitations with the most obvious one being a danger that the alarm isn’t heard by everyone present on site.

In my experience, construction managers are inundated with different messages about what constitutes a fire alarm system. The problem is that they are presented with different and conflicting information ranging from ‘a fire alarm system is not required on a construction site because it isn’t a completed building’ (not so), through to those offering a fire alarm system but one that doesn’t fully comply with relevant legislation.

So, to clear up once and for all the confusion around fire alarms on constructions sites, these are my top tips:

Rule 1: Check your fire alarm system meets EN54 requirements
A fire alarm system for a construction site should comply with EN54 and therefore the new Construction Products Regulation (CPR). EN54 is a mandatory standard that specifies requirements and laboratory testing for every component of a fire detection and fire alarm system. It applies to all buildings including those undergoing construction, demolition or refurbishment.

Rule 2: EN54 trumps everything else
EN54 is purely concerned with the quality standards for fire alarms. It does not make an exception for whether a project is temporary, for example, a construction site, or a permanent structure such as a completed building. And quite rightly, because a fire alarm is indeed a fire alarm whatever kind of facility it is installed in – the safety of personnel on a construction site is no different to people who occupy a completed building. Just remember that next time someone tries to tell you that EN54 does not apply to a construction site!

Rule 3: A fire alarm should be CE marked
If the fire alarm system you are thinking of specifying for a construction site has been tested to EN54 by a notified body you’ll see a four digit test centre number after the CE mark. To be absolutely sure, ask your supplier for their Declaration of Performance certificate. If the certificate you are presented simply relates to an individual component part within a larger unit, it does not follow that the whole unit meets EN54 requirements.

To comply with EN54, the complete unit – for example, the entire heat detection unit, not just the detector head – and every unit in the system including the base station, fire point or smoke and heat detection unit – should all have been tested to the relevant part of EN54.

Rule 4: Technology can be more predictable in a crisis
Relying on human response alone has its limitations; people often don’t react well in stressful situations such as an emergency evacuation, and there’s the added concern of what would happen if a fire started while no one was on site. Plus, hand bells, whistles and other manual systems, which are still used, are unlikely to be loud enough for everyone to hear, especially on larger sites.

Investing in a technology-based fire alarm system removes this uncertainty and sends a clear message that you place the safety of personnel, visitors and people in nearby buildings above all else.

Rule 5: Wireless beats wired
The very nature of construction sites means they’re constantly changing. This creates an added challenge for fire safety, although this can be overcome if you specify a wireless fire alarm system. This enables the heat and smoke detection units to be easily moved as your site progresses; work can continue as planned without being held back as you wait for an electrician to reposition the electrical cabling (as would be needed on a wired system).

What’s more, the wireless frequency is capable of passing through all solid materials typically found on a building site. This way you know everyone will be alerted, regardless of where they’re working. Plus, there are wireless systems available with a three year battery life to reduce maintenance. Do make sure, though, that the system you’re considering uses highest specification Category 1 wireless equipment.

A wireless fire alarm system comprises manual call points that are installed on site in accordance with the project’s Fire Plan. These call points are interlinked, which means that all areas receive the same audible and visual alert signal even if the fire is contained to just one of them. The alarm can be manually triggered by personnel from any call point. Where heat or smoke detectors are incorporated into the wireless system, it provides automatic cover 24/7, ensuring that the site is protected even when personnel are not present.

Fire can cost lives and results in extensive damage to assets and nearby buildings. Wireless fire alarm systems offer greater flexibility, ensure emergency services are alerted at the earliest opportunity and are therefore an effective method of ensuring safety on site.

I hope that these tips help when choosing an effective and fully compliant fire alarm system for your next construction project.

This article was published in Risk UK, July 2015

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