NFPA 101 and COVID-19

Engineers need to consider the public health and life safety issues of reopening a building after COVID-19

By William E. Koffel, PE, FSFPE, Koffel Associates, Columbia, Md. February 2, 2021


Learning Objectives

  • Know the life safety and public health guidelines for reopening a building.
  • Highlight life safety issues as buildings reopen after the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Apply the requirements of NFPA 101: Life Safety Code to buildings that remained open during the pandemic.

It is unlikely that many, if any, members of an NFPA Life Safety Technical Committee truly considered the impact of a global pandemic as they participated in the code development process. Engineers must consider life safety considerations as buildings reopen, and also look at applying the requirements of NFPA 101: Life Safety Code to those buildings that remained operational during COVID-19.

In some ways, reopening a building after closure for some period of time as the result of a public health emergency is similar to reusing any building that had been closed for a period of time. Depending on the duration that the building was closed, it may be appropriate to conduct some level of recommissioning of the building systems and the life safety features of the building.

The extent to which the building needs to be recommissioned can be determined considering a number of factors, including:

  • Did the fire protection systems remain in service? Presumably they did because fire codes generally require that fire protection systems remain in service even in vacant buildings. However, if the fire protection systems did not remain in service, additional evaluation may be needed. If water was removed from a wet pipe fire protection system, there is likely increased corrosion in the pipe. Studies have also shown that the introduction of new water into steel pipe will result in accelerated corrosion for a period of time shortly after the water enters the pipe.
  • Were other building systems maintained in service? Many of the fire protection systems required by NFPA 101 are impacted by environmental conditions: humidity, temperature, dust, etc. While building systems may not have been operating at the same level as when the building was occupied, if the systems are shutdown these environmental conditions are not being maintained in the building. For example, if a heating, ventilation and air conditioning system is not operating for a period of time there could be increased dust accumulating in the ducts, which could result in increased nuisance alarms from smoke detectors when the system is reactivated.
  • Environmental and climatic conditions can also impact the operation of other life safety features of the building. For example, the lack of use could result in situations in which egress doors may be more difficult to open. From an egress perspective, one way to address this issue is to simply walk every egress path and use each component that is encountered that would be used to egress the building (e.g., open every door along the path of egress).
  • Was required inspection, testing and maintenance of systems and equipment performed as required or deferred? Many fire protection system contractors reported challenges associated with gaining access to buildings to perform periodic inspections, tests and maintenance because no one was available to give them access to the building. When such activities were not performed, it may be appropriate to perform all deferred activities before opening the building for use by the public.

When a commissioning plan was prepared for the initial occupancy of the building, one should consider using a risk assessment approach to evaluate which of the activities performed during initial commissioning should be performed before reopening of the building. Unfortunately, any existing buildings that were not subject to a comprehensive commissioning process may not have documentation available to the current owner. In such cases, especially with more complex buildings, it may be necessary to engage a commissioning agent or other professional to assist in determining what needs to be done before reopening the building.

In all cases, building owners should work with the authority having jurisdiction in the same way the AHJ is involved in issuing a certificate of occupancy for new construction. Owners should also reach out to their insurance carriers to let them know that they are reopening and to determine what, if any, requirements may apply.

However, from the AHJ’s perspective, one needs to recognize that this puts a significant demand on resources over a short period of time and as such, some may require third party validation that the building is in a condition to be reopened.

From a fire protection standpoint, the NFPA has prepared a Fire and Life Safety Checklist For Reopening a Building. In some instances, the local AHJ will also have similar checklist or guidance documents to be used.

Applying NFPA 101 during COVID-19

Buildings that remained in operation during the public health emergency were likely used in a different manner than what was assumed during the design of the building. In addition, challenges were experienced in operating the building in compliance with NFPA 101, especially from an inspection, testing and maintenance standpoint.

Reduced occupancy: Many areas permitted buildings, such as essential retail establishments, to remain in operation but with a reduced occupant load. The criteria were often based upon a percentage of the occupant load permitted by codes, such as NFPA 101. For some building owners this may have been the first time they even heard that there was a calculated occupant load for their building using code prescribed occupant load factors.

While the design occupant load is often required to be shown on the certificate of occupancy, many building owners may not be able to locate the original certificate of occupancy. As such, one of the first steps to complying with this requirement was to determine the design occupant load for the building.

Unfortunately, many building owners assumed that if the occupant load is reduced, not all of the means of egress needed to be maintained operational. During the height of COVID-19, one could easily identify buildings with entrances and exits that were locked with signage indicating that access or egress required the use of a different path of travel. Were the exit signs that might lead an occupant to that exit removed? In most instances, they were not.

However, assuming that a reduced occupant load results in the ability to secure certain exit doors does not address the entire issue. Not only does NFPA 101 require a certain number of exits and a certain egress width based upon occupant load, there are also additional egress requirements with respect to travel distance and arrangement of the means of egress that still must be met.

Some examples of NFPA 101 requirements that were often not met during periods of reduced occupancy include:

  • Travel distance: As designed, the travel distance to the nearest exit had to meet a certain minimum distance that varies for different occupancies. By eliminating one of the exits, the path of travel required to get to the nearest exit from areas near the exit that was secured will increase and may not be within NFPA 101 travel distance limits.
  • Common path of travel: Similar to travel distance, NFPA 101 limits the portion of the egress path in which one is limited to traveling in one direction. Again, by eliminating an exit the way that common path of travel was measured could change and may not be within the code limit.
  • Distribution of egress capacity: Think of a retail establishment that has three exits, two of which consist of a pair of double doors near the front of the store and the third exit is a single door in the back of the store. Because occupant load is restricted, one of the entrances is closed so that an employee can monitor the number of people entering and leaving the store. However, newer buildings were designed to meet a code requirement that the loss of a single exit will not reduce the required capacity by more than 50%. By eliminating one of the double doors exits at the front of the store, the remaining two exits create a situation in which if the front entrance is not available during an emergency, more than 50% of the available egress capacity is not available.

Before preventing the occupants from using one or more exits during the public health emergency, a life safety evaluation should have been performed to verity that all applicable code requirements would still be met. The assumption that a reduce occupant load automatically allows the number of available exits to be reduced does not apply in all cases.

Inspection, test and maintenance: NFPA 101 requires that building features, equipment and systems required to comply with the code be properly inspected, tested and maintained. However, in some cases this was difficult to achieve during the pandemic, even in certain buildings that were occupied and in use. Although personnel who performed inspection, testing and maintenance activities were typically deemed as an essential business and were permitted to continue to work even in those states where many other businesses were closed, other challenges complicated the ability to perform such tasks.

Especially in health care occupancies, some contractors were hesitant or unwilling to enter such buildings so as not to expose their personnel to COVID-19 positive patients/residents receiving care in the facility. From the facility’s perspective, the facility may want to limit outside personnel from entering such facilities to avoid exposing their patients/residents to someone who may be COVID-19 positive. In some states, nonemployee personnel who were not directly related to providing care to the patients/residents were prohibited from entering health care facilities. As such, the ability to perform the required inspection, testing and maintenance activities was compromised.

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services issued a waiver allowing health care facilities to defer certain, but not all, inspection, testing and maintenance activities. While the waiver helped facilities comply with the federal requirements, CMS did not have the authority to grant a waiver related to local or State requirements related to inspection, testing and maintenance.

It should be noted that a similar waiver was issued regarding conducting fire drills in health care facilities to address what was already an increased demand on care providers just to provide care during a surge in demand for such services.

Change of occupancy: This issue primarily impacts the designation of alternate care sites during the public health emergency. With the surge in demand for patient care, many buildings that were not occupied as a health care occupancy were being converted to a health care occupancy. These included large, open assembly occupancies such as convention centers, schools, hotels, parking structures and prisons.

In accordance with Chapter 43 of NFPA 101, converting any of these occupancies to a health care occupancy results in a higher hazard category (see Table 43.7.3, NFPA 101-2018 ) and as such the building must comply with the requirements for a new health care occupancy (Chapter 18, NFPA 101-2018). It is unlikely that an existing building would meet or could easily meet, the code requirements for a new health care occupancy.

For example, how many schools or hotels have a corridor that is at least 8 feet wide and room doors that are at least 41.5 inches in clear width? How many large, open assembly occupancies are subdivided into smoke compartments? If smoke compartments are added, with fire protection systems need to be altered so that zoning is consistent with the newly established smoke compartments?

However, during the public health emergency the need to provide patient care was a priority. The conversion of these buildings to a health care occupancy was a priority and the stakeholders had to work with the AHJ’s on a project by project basis to determine what code requirements could be met. Even within a hospital, some nonpatient sleeping or treatment areas, such as a chapel, were converted to a patient care area.

The Facilities Guidelines Institute formed an emergency operations committee that is currently developing a white paper offering guidance on how to address such demands for health care during various types of emergencies. NFPA has issued two white papers addressing the challenges that health care organizations faced related to COVID-19. The white papers addressed temporary compliance options that could be considered related to the health care environment and alternate care sites during COVID-19.

Future plans

Various organizations are discussing code changes that may be needed to address the lessons learned over the past several months. It is likely that future editions of codes and standards will include language to help building owners and AHJ’s deal with situations such as a global pandemic. The white paper that FGI is developing may lead to changes to the FGI Guidelines.

Recently the NFPA Technical Committee responsible for NFPA 25: Standard for the Inspection, Testing, and Maintenance of Water-Based Fire Protection Systems met and discussed potential changes to that standard to address performing inspection, testing and maintenance activities during a situation such as the current global pandemic. It is premature to identify changes that will occur to our codes and standards but it is more likely that future editions of our codes and standards will include more consideration of how to achieve code compliance during such situations.

Author Bio: William E. Koffel is president of Koffel Associates. He is chair of the NFPA Correlating Committee on Life Safety and a member of several NFPA technical committees. He is a member of the Consulting-Specifying Engineer editorial advisory board.