The recent tragedy in Oakland is a heartbreaking call to action on the part of all makers. As we extend the bounds of who is a maker and where making occurs, we must also expand our safety practices to protect ourselves and others. Fire is one of humanity’s oldest tools, but it still requires vigilance and preparation to keep it from becoming a terrifying and destructive force. As the Flame and Safety Coordinator for Maker Faire Austin, I spend a lot of time thinking about how to encourage creativity while keeping everyone safe. There are a lot of people thinking and writing about this; I can’t recommend highly enough Gui Cavalcanti’s piece.
One of the best aspects of the maker movement is that we draw people together to create. Build co-ops, makerspaces, garages, and Maker Faires have all increased over the last few years. Many events occur at these kinds of spaces that draw crowds for education or entertainment. It’s not uncommon for “dangerous” art to be under construction or on display. We’re entrusted with making sure that the people visiting or working at our spaces are safe.
Whether you work in a house, a garage, a makerspace or a warehouse, there are basic principles of fire safety that you must attend to. In short, these are ignition sources, fuels, response, and egress. Each of these is a topic that can be discussed in book length, but we’ll talk about their fundamentals so that you can review how they apply to your workspace.
Ignition sources can be obvious, like open flames or heating elements. But they can also result from less obvious sources like friction, chemical reactions, electrical resistance and thermal radiation. Fires can start from a variety of unexpected sources, such as:
- Power tool blades that get hot from the friction of cutting
- Fiberglass resin with excessive catalyst that heats up too quickly
- Items that concentrate sunlight through reflection or refraction
- Devices that overheat wires or cords (like when your phone charger feels warm after your phone has been plugged in for awhile)
It’s dangerous to assume that emergencies arise only from obvious hazards — more subtle or invisible hazards can be just as deadly. Ignition sources can come from old or worn building infrastructure. According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), the leading cause of accidental fires in warehouses is arcing from electrical distribution and lighting equipment. Your space is one of your tools, you have to care for it.
Knowing how to identify and manage ignition sources is essential for workspace safety. While it’s impossible to list every possible ignition source, most can be addressed through consideration of operations, storage, and standards.
- Have you considered the possible sources of heat when you’re operating tools?
- Are chemicals, batteries, paints, and “work in progress” projects stored appropriately?
- Are you overloading a wall socket? (Make sure your devices and the circuits powering them are appropriate for ampacity and duty cycle)
Take a look around your workspace and start asking yourself these kinds of questions.
When an ignition source meets a fuel source, fire results. Flammable items are everywhere: fuels, fabrics, solvents, cleaning and painting products, wood, paper, plastics, the list is huge. Eliminating all possible fuels isn’t feasible, but managing their exposure is. Controlling how accessible fuels are to ignition sources through proper storage and ventilation is essential. Examining work practices with an eye towards possible heat sources and their proximity to fuels (and worse, fuel vapors,) is critical.
It’s easy, especially in crowded work spaces, to have a jumble of tools and fuels. When working in a hurry, it’s easy to lose awareness of where you tossed that acetone rag. In a cold workspace it’s hard not to want to seal up the windows and doors to keep in heat while allowing flammable vapors to concentrate. But maintaining a conscious segregation of heat sources and fuels is not optional.
Take a walk through your space and try to spot anything that could burn. Then exercise your imagination and picture how it could get ignited. Some things will be highly unlikely, but others will surprise you. Organize your space to reduce risk.
Fire Response, Alarms, and Extinguishers
The hot cinder from your cutting wheel might smolder for hours before erupting into flame in a pile of sawdust. Having a means to detect a fire, typically by its smoke, and raise an alarm is an absolute requirement. No workspace of any size should be without smoke alarms. This can pose a special challenge in spaces where makers want to turn detectors off during an operation that might cause a false alarm. The circumstances where this is appropriate are few and far between. Disabling a smoke alarm is something that generally requires fire department approval. The better response is to increase ventilation or move the offending operation outdoors.
Facing a fire is no time to start considering how to respond. You need to plan your workspace with appropriate fire extinguishers in easily accessible locations. The extinguishers need to be visible so that people unfamiliar with the space can spot them without searching. Determining the likely types of fires, and the appropriate responses is also something that requires forethought.
In the U.S., fires are categorized under five types:
There are many types of extinguishers available, with different capabilities. Here are a few of the most common:
- The most common is the ABC Dry Chemical. This is rated for three types of fire but uses a corrosive agent, monoammonium phosphate, that also has some health risks.
- Pressurized water extinguishers are great for type A fires, but extremely dangerous when used on electrical or grease fires.
- CO2 extinguishers are excellent for type B & C fires, but can have trouble putting out Type A fires, and they’re expensive.
- Sodium Bicarbonate extinguishers are good alternatives for B & C fires and are starting to be marketed for Type K kitchen fires. They are less hazardous than monoammonium phosphate, so they’re not as offensive to spray near people, but they aren’t rated for Type A.
No one type of extinguisher is perfect, but it’s better to over-respond than under-respond. If you have time to assess the type of fire and can safely use the extinguisher specific to the fire type, or water or even sand, that’s a great choice. But you don’t want to try to figure that all out in an emergency, and a dry chem ABC is the safest bet if you’re unsure.
Regardless of how many types of extinguishers you have, you have to be sure that they are charged and ready and that you’re using them correctly. This is something that must be attended to before a fire occurs. Hold safety sessions with the makers in your space so they know what to do in a fire or other emergency.
Egress, aka How to Get Everyone Out
Take the time to look at your workspace and visualize where possible accidents could occur. You also have to consider where the possible exits are and how the locations of accidents will impact people’s ability to use those exits. The worst case scenario (such as what happened with the Oakland fire) is when the only exit is blocked. If you can’t provide egress through another door or window, you must organize your work to leave your single exit clear.
Smoke, flames, and fear create an environment that’s difficult to navigate. Marking exits so that they are visible even in low visibility or during power outages is an important way to help people who may be unfamiliar with your space to get out safely in an emergency.
A corollary to egress is access for emergency personnel. How hard will it be for responders to get to the space with hoses and other emergency equipment? At makerspaces and warehouses, does parking get so crowded that firetrucks or ambulances can’t get close enough to help? You may never need emergency services, but hoping that will be the case is no substitute for preparing to make their job easier if you do.
Matching Safety to Space
The basic concerns about fire safety are universal, but different spaces can have different needs. A home workshop is different than a makerspace and a warehouse is different than an office. The core threats are similar, but the characteristics and priorities of concern can change.
Small adjunct spaces such as garages and residential workshops typically add additional risk due to many functions, tools, and supplies being cramped into a small space. This increases the importance of paying attention to the relationship between ignition sources and fuels. They may require that various types of hot work be moved outside.
Medium sized spaces like offices and prototyping shops in industrial parks can have a mix of top concerns. In offices, the primary focus is generally the ability to get everyone out of the building safely and efficiently. Most offices are in buildings that have regular inspections of extinguishers, alarms, sprinklers, etc. according to the building and safety codes of their locality. If you work in an office, know where you and your officemates should meet if evacuated so that you can be sure everyone got out okay. In small industrial spaces like cabinet shops, CNC fabs, and other places where tools or hot work is going on, evacuation plans are essential, but easy access to extinguishers so that small events can be stopped in their tracks starts to increase in importance.
Large warehouse spaces often have special requirements. As noted, aged or damaged electrical cords are the highest unintentional cause of fires in warehouses. (Sadly it’s tied with arson as the number one cause, but that’s another conversation.) Large spaces also often have nooks and crannies where old equipment, or, worse, chemicals and paints are stored. Along with egress and extinguishers, regular inspections of the space to make sure that problems aren’t brewing starts to become important.
The Balancing Act Between Artistic Freedom and Necessary Regulation
One of the most painful aspects of the Oakland fire is that it’s easy to list all the things that might have kept the fire from occurring, or at least from being as deadly. The painful truth is that the risks were dramatically increased by the uses the space was put to, which were created outside of codes, regulations, and permits. As I write this, as a Maker Faire Safety Coordinator, Safety Officer at my job, owner of an 80 year old church we converted into a home, author of a book on building safe fire art, and former volunteer firefighter, I feel like a hypocrite.
In my 20’s I lived in a warehouse that was almost exactly like the Ghost Ship space. As Gui Cavalcanti called it, a “warehome.” It was one of three arts warehouses in Tallahassee or Austin that I lived and worked in. I believed then, and I believe now, that the output from these spaces is a phenomenal creative engine for a vibrant society. The young me does not want the old me to forget the value of the creative culture operating under the radar.
There are thousands of these kinds of spaces across North America. Could the residents or artists in these spaces get contractors or inspectors to help them understand the space’s risks? Sure, but it would generally expose them to the legal requirements of working within code. And that brings price tags that range from tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars. The people who can afford to do that are often considered gentrifiers. They are often seen as driving out creative but low income artists and makers.
Does this mean that we should turn a blind eye to situations where people are living or working unsafely? No, it can’t. We have to take care of each other even when it means limiting possibilities to limit risk. Does it mean we should give up on places that serve artists and makers who don’t have money? Deep in my bones I believe it doesn’t have to.
There are examples of a middle ground. There are co-ops and collectives that pool resources to create large open workspaces. There are membership-based makerspaces and places like the Burning Flipside Warehouse in Austin where the burn community shares resources. They may have to conform to codes which limit some activities, and they might not be residential, but they are open and willing to share space and resources. It’s important that we create access along with art, that we share opportunity as well as knowledge. If you want to respond to the tragedy that befell Oakland, think about how you can help make more spaces for everyone to create in, safely.
The Oakland fire strikes close to home for many artists and makers. As a community we have to adopt safety as a way to care for one another, not just a necessary burden. The world needs more spaces for creation and invention. Let’s make sure that the ones we help to make are as safe as we’re able to make them.