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Inaccurate situational awareness: Fires in buildings under construction or demolition

Hazard Knowledge

When dealing with any fire in buildings under construction or demolition, whatever its size or complexity, the generic control measures for this hazard and the control measures found in National Operational Guidance: Fires in buildings should be applied.

When dealing with a fire in a building under construction or demolition, the hazards in this guidance supplement those detailed in National Operational Guidance: Fires in buildings.

This guidance presumes that construction, demolition or building work complies with relevant regulations. However, this may not always be the case; if work is unregulated or in direct contravention of regulations, this could have a significant impact on the incident and firefighter safety.

Some small construction sites or buildings undergoing building work may be unknown to fire and rescue services, making pre-planning difficult. Sites known to fire and rescue services may alter significantly throughout the life of the project. For example, there could be changes to access and egress, hazardous material storage, layout and fire protection features. Information obtained from site visits and inspections should be regularly reviewed, updated and communicated to relevant fire and rescue service personnel.

Existing buildings may contain hazardous substances that are associated with either the previous use of the building or building materials. This could include substances such as asbestos, which may not have been highlighted in a survey. If disturbed during building work or firefighting, asbestos presents a significant risk to health.

Shipping (ISO) containers are sometimes used on site for storage purposes and may lack signage; if they are affected by fire, it could be difficult to establish what is being stored in them or gain access.

Although sites should be well-secured, using high fencing, hoardings or other security measures, these may be compromised allowing the public to gain unauthorised access. This may make it difficult for fire and rescue services to gain immediate access, but may also provide a pre-existing cordon.



Figure 1: Large building site showing high fences and gates, and shipping containers - photograph courtesy of Brian Massie

Large quantities of combustible building materials and waste may be stored on the site during various phases of the project. They may have a direct impact on the incident due to the effect of fire loading.

A building site is a working environment that may have physical hazards such as:

  • Restricted access and egress
  • Confined spaces
  • Groundworks, excavations and trenches
  • Open pits and sewers
  • Uneven ground and debris
  • Plant and machinery
  • Silos
  • Skips and rubbish chutes
  • Exposed utilities
  • Hazardous substances, such as fuel or asbestos
  • Unguarded edges and openings
  • Fragile surfaces
  • Objects falling from height
  • Guard dogs

Control measures for physical hazards can be found in National Operational Guidance: Operations and National Operational Guidance: Hazardous materials.



Figure 2: Building under construction showing cranes and scaffolding - photograph courtesy of Brian Massie

Sites may have various temporary accommodation units, like portable cabins or converted shipping (ISO) containers, which may be difficult to identify as such. These units may be used for a number of purposes, so the following should be considered:

  • LPG for cooking and heating may be present
  • The unit may be used inappropriately, such as for storing hazardous materials or as sleeping accommodation
  • There may be high fire loading due to poor housekeeping
  • Difficult to gain access and egress due to security
  • Temporary accommodation units may be located within the structure of a building
  • There may be live electricity, temporary cables and cable fixings



Figure 3: Large construction site - photograph courtesy of Brian Massie

Large construction or demolition sites may result in a protracted incident. The sites may also be exposed and subject to extreme weather conditions with little shelter available. Wind speed and direction may have a direct impact on fire development. Refer to National Operational Guidance: Fires and firefighting for information on fire development and National Operational Guidance: Operations for information on welfare at incidents.

It is possible that contractors working on sites, or security guards, may not use English as their first language and therefore they may find it very difficult to communicate risk critical information about the site to the incident commander. Refer to the hazard for 'Restricted ability to communicate' in National Operational Guidance: Operations.