Construction Fire Safety Evolves With The Times

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It can be the flick of a cigarette or a blowtorch gone awry. Construction sites—home to a medley of flammable materials—are essentially tinderboxes at the ready to go up in flames with one wrong move.

In recent months, some East End houses under renovation made headlines when they fell victim to fires or gas explosions. Most recently, on April 15, the Sandpiper co-op on Dune Road in Westhampton Beach succumbed to a structure fire. Although officials have not yet determined the cause of the massive blaze, several workers were doing renovation work inside the seasonally occupied condominium complex when the fire started.

Last month, on March 18, a historic, multimillion-dollar oceanfront mansion in East Hampton Village belonging to Hard Rock Cafe co-founder Peter Morton burned to the ground. A few days later, East Hampton Village Fire Marshal Kenneth Collum said he would not comment on the cause of the fire before his investigation was complete; more recently, he did not return calls for a follow-up.

However, the attorney for Mr. Morton, Errol Margolin, said he was told there was a construction worker on the roof with a blowtorch—working during 40-mph winds. Known as torch down, this method involves a propane tank with a handheld implement that shoots out a 3-foot flame to adhere roll roofing.

Mr. Margolin said he was told that sparks blew from the blowtorch to an area of the roof that did not have a fire shield on it, causing the house to catch fire.

Finally, on February 11, two Riverhead men were injured when they accidentally cut a gas line while working in the basement of a Water Mill home, triggering an explosion and fire that destroyed the house and shook buildings a mile away.

Despite these noteworthy examples, the jury appears to be out on whether or not there has been an increase in construction-related fires.

Reticent to offer an official evaluation without hard numbers to back it up, Southampton Town Chief Fire Marshal Cheryl Kraft surmised there might actually be a decline in these incidents compared to years past, in part, she thinks, because of a slower economy, which affects the building industry.

However, Allison Schmidt, who specializes in personal insurance at Cook Maran and Associates in Southampton, suggested the opposite. “I think that there’s been a real up-tick in construction over the last couple of years, because the real estate has picked up,” she said. “I drive down every street in Southampton, and every other house is getting renovated. More construction would naturally lead to more losses happening.”

In fact, the numbers for new homes, additions and renovations in 2014 were up compared to previous years in Southampton Town, according to the municipality’s Building Department.

Fire Starters And Stoppers

Structure fires are often the result of human activity—usually unintended, but occasionally deliberate. Arson, however, is difficult to prosecute. “We can prove that nothing else started the fire, but then it’s proving who did it, and that’s where it gets complicated,” said Ms. Kraft.

In Southampton Town, the police and fire departments have been working together to refine their investigations, especially of suspicious fires. “We’ve been having meetings with police and fire marshals, educating the police on what to ask in their investigations, and I think in the last few years, we’ve really, really excelled in working together, which helps to prove a case,” said Ms. Kraft.

Intentional fire-setting aside, the style of building can also play a role in construction fires. “Balloon construction, which is the older style, is more likely to have fire spread just by the way it’s built—they have open chases between floors,” she said, referring to spaces left for pipes and ducts to pass through.

Popular at the turn of the 20th century, this type of housing would “have studs that go from the basement to the roof … those cavities are not closed off,” said Harald Steudte, a Tuckahoe-based contractor who does home renovations. “Balloon construction was really the cause of many fires. Once it got started in the basement, it ended up in the roof very quickly.” Although these older homes still pepper the Hamptons landscape, new construction requires fire stoppers between floors.

In addition, work practices with regards to safety at construction sites have improved. According to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, employers are encouraged to train their workers about fire hazards in the workplace, and for the construction industry, it states, “a ‘fire plan’ should be set up prior to beginning any demolition job.”

Workers at larger construction sites are also likely to receive safety training by OSHA, according to Paul Houlihan, the building and zoning administrator in Westhampton Beach Village. “There are courses that contractors go to. The larger the contractor, the more likely it is he’s sent some of his men to get OSHA training,” he said. “The smaller the contractor, the smaller the jobs, the less hazards you run into.”

And contractors are required by law to call for inspections as a project proceeds. “We go to a site, and if there is a dangerous unsafe condition, we take steps to make sure that’s corrected,” said Mr. Houlihan.

Finally, the use of hot sourced heating and tar, popular in the 1970s, has declined, and smoking on construction sites is now banned in New York. “We did see more fires that were the result of carelessly discarded cigarettes or problems related to cigarette smoking. You have less of that now,” said Ms. Kraft. “For most homes, the roofing is just done with a nail gun. It’s not a heat source … I’ve been here since 1984, and we don’t see torch work as much in plumbing or in roofing.”

Fire safety is important, but total fire prevention is impossible. Thus, the need for insurance. Homeowners should make sure that everyone working for them is properly insured. From the “general contractor all the way down to subcontractor, that homeowner should make sure they all have insurance,” said Kimet Speed, who specializes in commercial insurance at Cook Maran. A contractor’s insurance should be under a builders’ risk policy, which will cover the house for any physical damage it may endure during construction due to fire, wind or theft, for example.

Ultimately, “the burden has to be on the property owner … to really cross their t’s and dot their i’s prior to their project starting, because there’s nothing anybody can do if you don’t have the proper insurance after your loss,” said Ms. Schmidt.

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