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COVID-19 Business Adjustments Are Changing Fire Safety

By Randall Hanifen
Contributor, EDM Digest

For society, 2020 has been a very different year, due to the coronavirus. In March, much of the economy shut down, which restricted people being able to go into businesses.

Next, we saw the gradual reopenings of businesses. Retailers adjusted how to allow people into their stores, and restaurants reorganized their facilities to allow patrons to maintain social distance while dining.

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At the same time, most fire departments suspended fire safety inspections. When businesses reopened, fire safety inspections went to a virtual format, if they were conducted at all.

How Businesses Have Altered Customer Access

Call me strange, but when I go into stores and other establishments, I automatically look for the sprinkler systems, observe the exits, and see if other provisions of the fire code are maintained. I do this in areas other than my own jurisdiction; I guess it is true that you do not turn off the firefighter after hours!

I’ve noticed that businesses have made certain accommodations for COVID-19, including:

  • Assembling a patron check-in/counting system at an exit
  • Closing off dressing rooms, which has blocked access to rear exits
  • Adding a tent to the side of a restaurant and leaving open the connecting door to the restaurant
  • Setting up tables and chairs in streets to accommodate extra patrons
  • Adding lines at entrances and exits to guide people while they maintain social distance

COVID-19 Accommodations Are Affecting Fire Safety in Retail Stores

Every state has a different fire code. Even municipalities can adopt a different version of the fire code, and you should consult your local official for the specifics of the fire code in your area.

The entrances of most stores are the largest exit point for people inside a building. In an emergency, most patrons tend to leave via the main entrance because they lack a knowledge of other exits.

It’s a natural human behavior. During the fast-moving Station Nightclub fire in 2003, the victims naturally headed to the front entrance rather than waste time searching for another exit. Overcrowding at the main entrance hampered people’s ability to get out, and many victims were overcome by smoke and fire before they could leave the building.

Due to COVID-19, there are now podiums, chairs, tables and other non-immediately movable objects in retail store doorways to control patron entrances and exits. That is a safety hazard, because it limits how fast people can get out of the store.

Similarly, dressing rooms are often in the rear of a store and are in the corridor to the rear exit. However, there are people who may look around and determine their original exit is blocked due to the emergency and seek an alternative exit, which is often through the dressing room corridor and out through the back of the store.

Because the dressing rooms are often closed with barriers to keep people from accessing them, this secondary exit is blocked. That traps people trying to escape from an emergency.

COVID-19’s Impact on Fire Safety in Restaurants

Restaurants have needed to adjust their dining room configurations to comply with state restrictions. To avoid losing business, restaurants have added more seating areas, particularly on sidewalks and in streets.

This strategy has created several safety issues. The first issue is that any add-ons can interfere with the main entrance to a building. Many fire codes indicate that a travel path must be created to allow people to not only get outside, but also to travel a certain distance away from the building.

This rule in fire codes is the reason that you cannot have an external exit that leads to a fenced-in patio with no gate. The occupants would be out of the building but trapped on the patio.

Additionally, if a dining area is set up on a sidewalk, are the tables blocking other exits? Similarly, does the business have chained barricades in place on the street? Those barricades could interfere with the fire department’s ability to easily unchain and remove the barriers in an emergency, unless there are Knox padlocks or other tools available.

If the building has a fire, the street is often needed for ladder trucks, as the ladder is only a certain length. The old adage is that you can stretch hose but not a ladder, which is why we have certain fire apparatus in the places that we do at emergencies.

The other option that many restaurants have taken is to set up a tent next to their building and to put dining tables in the tent, which helps them to regain the number of patrons that they possessed prior to COVID-19 regulations. As we move towards the colder months, using enclosed tent-style dining rooms rather than outdoor picnic tables will become more popular, especially in suburban settings that can accommodate the assembly of tents on the property.

The largest issue with this setup is attaching the tent directly to the existing building and having the connecting door remain open, especially if the building has sprinklers. Sprinkler installation and hydraulic calculations are made based on the entire space that is not fire separated having sprinklers.

If a fire were to start in an outdoor dining tent, the existing sprinkler system could be quickly overrun. Even if the building has no sprinklers, the addition of an extra dining area with no fire separation can easily push the restaurant space into a size that needs sprinklers.

What Fire Departments Need to Do

Fire departments are in a peculiar position right now. We need to help our municipalities recover economically and maintain social distancing, but we must also protect the safety of our citizens.

The best alternative to maintain fire safety in businesses is to ask local firefighters who visit local establishments to look around during their visit. If they note a fire code violation, they should pass it along to the code enforcement personnel for a follow-up visit. This tactic will ensure that fire department personnel more easily find this type of violation but maintain their distance.

Dr. Randall Hanifen serves as a shift commander at a medium-sized suburban fire department in the northern part of the Cincinnati area. Randall is the CEO/principal consultant of an emergency services consulting firm, providing analysis and solutions related to organizational structuring of fire and EMS organizations. He is the chairperson and operations manager for a county technical rescue team. From a state and national perspective, he serves as a taskforce leader for one of FEMA's urban search and rescue teams, which responds to presidential declared disasters. From an academic standpoint, Randall has a bachelor’s degree in fire administration, a master’s degree in executive fire service leadership, and a doctoral degree in business administration with a specialization in homeland security. He is the associate author of “Disaster Planning and Control” (Penwell, 2009), which provides first responders with guidance through all types of disasters.

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