Reopening Schools – Temporary Use and Alterations

As we quickly approach the start of another school year, many colleges, universities, and other educational institutions are faced with making difficult decisions due to COVID-19. Dormitories are densely packed spaces that in more recent years have been designed as large suites to encourage social interaction. Classroom and office buildings present another challenge with many having open floor plans with collaboration, flex spaces and limited private offices. The reality is that if students and staff are not back to school using the dorms, classrooms and dining facilities, the financial consequences will be real and significant.  So, if schools decide to open, the big question is how they do it safely with consideration given to both fire and life safety as well as COVID concerns?

Every school is approaching this in a different way, but many are going through the same due diligence process, with temporary solutions being sought.  Some common considerations and solutions being evaluated are:

  • Buildings are being evaluated for use as temporary classrooms and dormitory space due to a need for social distancing.
  • Dining facilities are being converted to grab-and-go style only.
  • Dedicated and isolated COVID dormitories are being created should a student or staff show signs of sickness or if they need to quarantine for 14 days.
  • Cubicles are being temporarily modified to have higher walls using combustible materials, i.e. lumber and/or plastic wrap
  • Hand sanitizer, a flammable liquid, is being added at every turn, in addition to bulk storage in select areas.
  • Outdoor tents are being setup for classrooms and other uses.

The underlying questions with all of these temporary changes are: what are the code implications and do these solutions help to mitigate COVID concerns but at the same time create a fire or life safety issue?

Temporary Structures

Building officials have the authority in Massachusetts to grant a permit for temporary structures, such as tents, which conform to the building code for a period not exceeding 180 days (Massachusetts State Building Code (780 CMR) Section 108). Tent structures erected for this period are required to comply with the 2015 International Fire Code (IFC) Section 3103.1. Major requirements in this section include:

  • A building permit is required when the tent exceeds 400 square feet and is intended to be used for the gathering of 10 or more people (IFC Section 3103.2).
  • Locating the tent at least 20 feet from lot lines unless meeting certain exceptions (IFC Section 3103.8.2).
  • An unobstructed fire break passageway or fire road not less than 12 feet wide and free from guy ropes or other obstructions shall be maintained on all sides of all tents and membrane structures unless otherwise approved by the fire code official (IFC Section 3103.8.6)
  • Compliant means of egress, exit signage and illumination are required (IFC Section 3103.12).
  • A detailed site and floor plan is required for tents having an occupant load of 50 or more. Floor plans must delineate the means of egress, the tent location on the site, occupant load, arrangement of seating, and the location and type of heating and electrical equipment (IFC Section 3103.6).
  • Tent materials must be compliant with fire resistance ratings in accordance with NFPA 701 (IFC Section 3104.2).
  • Patio heaters must be used only in well-ventilated areas and away from combustible materials. They are not permitted within tents having enclosed walls. Patio heaters with open or exposed flames are not permitted inside or within 20 feet of tent structures per IFC Section 3104.7. Coordination with the fire department is necessary for the approval and permitting of these appliances, fuel storage and use.

Tents that are erected on buildings, balconies, decks or other structures shall be regulated as permanent membrane structures in accordance 780 CMR Section 3102 (IFC Section 3103.8.4) and additional requirements will apply.

Tent locations are not permitted to obstruct fire department access lanes or egress paths from adjacent buildings. The occupant load of outdoor tent is not permitted to exceed the capacity of indoor plumbing fixtures associated with the tent.

Temporary Emergency Use for Housing/Care

Upon declaration by the Governor of a State of Emergency under St. 1950, c. 639, or of an emergency detrimental to the public health under M.G.L. c. 17, § 2A, a building or space within a building may be used as a temporary emergency use for purposes of housing and/or caring for persons in accordance with procedures established for such purpose as contained in Section 3113 of 780 CMR (780 CMR 108.5). On March 10, 2020, Governor Charlie Baker declared a State of Emergency for Massachusetts due to COVID-19, which remains in effect presently. Therefore, a building may be used as a temporary emergency use for purposes of housing and/or caring for persons, provided the following requirements of Section 3113 of 780 CMR are satisfied:

  • Temporary emergency uses are not permitted to be operated or maintained for any purpose without first obtaining a permit from the Building Department (780 CMR 3113.1.1).
  • A written request for the temporary emergency use change, identifying the address-specific property is required to be provided for the permit (780 CMR 3113.2).
  • A temporary emergency use shall be so identified by a special certificate of use and occupancy as established for such purpose by the municipal or state Building Official in consultation with other appropriate municipal and state officials in accordance with procedures established for such purposes. See the Division of Professional Licensure website here s requirements of 780 CMR 10.00: Means of Egress to the degree practicable (780 CMR 3113.4).

General Reconfiguration Guidelines

When changes are made within the building such as reconfiguration of classrooms, hallways, or the use of rooms for new purposes, it is critical to ensure that these changes maintain the level of fire and life safety required by the building and fire codes. Reconfiguration of space, addition of barriers, and changes to egress, may require a building permit per 780 CMR 105.1.  Some common examples of code issues that arise as part of temporary repurposing / reconfiguration of rooms or spaces are shown below.

  • Continuous or noncontinuous barriers shall not be installed within 18 in. of the bottom of automatic sprinkler heads (2013 NFPA 13: 8.5.5.3).
  • Membrane barriers such as draperies, curtains, and similar loosely hanging furnishings shall be flame resistant in accordance with NFPA 701 (527 CMR 1.00: 12.6.2).
  • Doors required for fire separation may not be held open unless they are configured to close automatically and latch upon activation of the building fire alarm system (780 CMR Chapter 7 and 527 CMR 1.00: 12.3.3).
  • Temporary signage establishing one-way circulation patterns to maintain social distancing must indicate that emergency exiting is always allowed in the direction of required egress, regardless of the one-way circulation patterns.
  • Means of egress and egress pathways within rooms must comply with the provisions of 780 CMR Chapter 10.
  • The repurposing of rooms into additional classroom space must be evaluated for compliance with fire sprinkler and fire alarm requirements as required by 780 CMR Chapter 9.

Hand Sanitizer

The Massachusetts Comprehensive Fire Safety Code (527 CMR 1.00) and 780 CMR regulates the storage and use of alcohol-based hand sanitizer, including limitations for flammable and combustible liquid storage.  At the concentration of alcohol recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to be effective against COVID-19, alcohol-based hand sanitizer will typically be considered a Class IB Flammable Liquid. A permit is required from the local fire department for alcohol-based hand sanitizer in quantities above 10 gal (527 CMR 1.00: 1.12.8.40 and 1.12.8.50). Quantities of these liquids are further limited depending on where they are being stored within the building (780 CMR 307.1).

Wall-mounted or free-standing alcohol-based hand sanitizer dispenser locations are regulated by 527 CMR 1.00. Whereas some installations may be temporary and portable, it is critical that building owners understand the provisions associated with their safe installation and use if they are moved from their original location. The following are some of the major requirements (527 CMR 1.00: 60.5.2):

  • The maximum capacity of dispensing units in areas open to corridors is 41 oz. (0.32 gal or 1.2 L).
  • The maximum capacity of dispensing units in rooms or suites of rooms and separated from corridors is 67 oz. (0.53 gal or 2.0L).
  • The minimum separation distance between dispensers is 48 in.
  • No dispensers shall be located above, within 1 in. to the side of, or within 1 in. below an ignition source, such as an electrical outlet, or open flame [527 CMR 1.00: 60.5.2(6)].
  • Dispensers may be installed directly over carpeted floors only in sprinklered areas of the building.
  • Dispenser operation must comply with manufacturer’s instructions and 527 CMR 1.00:60.5.2(9).

It is important to note that the provisions of 527 CMR 1.00 Section 60.5.2 apply to the hand sanitizer dispensers only.  Bulk storage of alcohol-based hand sanitizer solution in quantities greater than 5 gallons [527 CMR 1.00: 60.5.2(5)] will be subject to additional requirements of 780 CMR and 527 CMR 1.00 for flammable liquid storage.

Temporary Partitions

Temporary partitions and modified cubicle walls are required to comply with 780 CMR and 527 CMR 1.00. Walls are permitted to be constructed using wood in buildings constructed with combustible construction (Types III, IV, & V). In noncombustible buildings (Type I or II), walls are required to be constructed using non-combustible materials or fire retardant-treated wood (780 CMR 603.1). Regardless of the materials of construction, walls and partitions should not be installed within 18 in. of the bottom of automatic sprinklers (2013 NFPA 13: 8.5.5.3).  Where existing partial-height walls are extended to full-height and/or new temporary full-height partitions are constructed, the spacing of automatic sprinklers and fire alarm equipment in the affected area must also be analyzed to confirm that compliant coverage is still maintained under the temporary conditions.

Interior wall finish materials are required to be classified in accordance with ASTM E 84 or UL 723 based on the occupancies and presence of sprinklers. Interior finishes are grouped in the following classes: Class A – flame spread index 0-25, Class B – flame spread index 26-75, Class C – flame spread index 76-200. All classes must have a smoke-developed index that does not exceed 450. The following are tables for classrooms (Group B  if less than 50 people; Group A-3 if 50 or more people), offices (Group B), dining (Group A-2), retail (Group M) and dormitories (Group R-2).

Areas Protected with Sprinklers

Occupancy Classification

Exit

Enclosures

Corridors, Exit Access Stairways/Ramps Rooms and Enclosed Spaces

Group A-2/A-3

Class A or B

Class A or B Class A, B or C

Group B/M

Class A or B

Class A, B or C

Class A, B or C

Group R-2 Class A, B or C Class A, B or C

Class A, B or C

 

Areas Not Protected with Sprinklers

Occupancy Classification

Exit Enclosures Corridors, Exit Access Stairways/Ramps

Rooms and Enclosed Spaces

Group A-2

Class A Class A Class A or B
Group A-3 Class A Class A

Class A, B or C

Group B/M

Class A Class A or B

Class A, B or C

Group R-2 Class A or B Class A or B

Class A, B or C

 

If these partitions are attached to furniture and are not permanently attached to the building, then the partitions could potentially be classified as part of the furniture and would be exempt from the interior finish requirements.

Additional requirements can be found in the following memorandum from the Division of Professional Licensure and the Department of Fire Services here.