COVID-19 Risk or Fire Safety Risk—What Is More Important?

In this article, Tetra Tech’s Simon Widjaja, technical manager with our High Performance Buildings Group in Melbourne, Australia, discusses how to find the balance between preventing the spread of COVID-19 and managing fire safety, especially in reduced occupancy scenarios.

As part of return to work measures, many initiatives seek to reduce occupant numbers 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 escape. However, should social distancing measures apply in fire escapes? It would make sense that the immediate risk of fire and smoke outweighs the potential risk of a virus transmission; however, should this logic apply during false alarms and evacuation and fire 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 reopened, building managers and workplaces must implement measures to reduce the risk of contamination in these buildings.

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

As increased cleaning regimes and the regular use of hand sanitizer become the new normal, personal protective equipment 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 elevators, but also changes, including:

  • Fixed/set workspaces instead of hot desking
  • More work area per employee in line with social distancing protocols 
  • Staggered starting and finishing work schedules
  • Reduced occupant numbers in elevators

It is a requirement for building managers to conduct annual or biannual fire drills. While 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, including:

  • Do temporary partitions impact egress paths or widths, smoke exhausts or makeup 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 escape if there is no immediate danger (does social distancing apply)?
  • Would reduced egress speed and flow rates compromise the existing fire safety strategy?
  • If elevator 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 or larger areas be selected?
  • Is a post-incident quarantine strategy required?
  • Can fire drills be temporarily conducted virtually using 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, while also maintaining the preventative measures put in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Beyond the impacts on fire safety, as an all services firm, Tetra Tech is working with our clients to consider the impacts and measures necessary with respect to managing occupied and unoccupied buildings.