New Milford High School blaze sparks calls for closer watch over projects that could be fire risks

NEW MILFORD — The blaze that damaged the New Milford High School roof over the summer has sparked calls for better oversight of local construction projects that could be a fire risk. 

The solution, says Fire Marshal Kevin Reynolds, is an ordinance that regulates "hot work" conducted in town. 

“It is something we should definitely do to protect the assets of this town and the businesses in this town,” Reynolds said.

“Hot work” refers to any activity or process that involves open flames or that generates sparks or heat. This includes (but isn’t limited to) welding, heat treating, thawing pipes, torch-applied roofing, pipe sweating, and any similar applications that produce or use sparks, flames or heat. 

The proposed ordinance would only apply to construction, renovation and repair projects in commercial buildings. Under the National Fire Protection Association’s standards, every job site involving hot work requires a permit to document the project hazards and safeguards in place to ensure the work doesn’t cause a fire.

There will be a $50 fee for the permit, and permittees must schedule an inspection of the premises where the hot work will occur before any hot work can begin. Hot work activity can only be conducted between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. on Mondays through Fridays, excluding holidays.

Reynolds cited the roof fire that erupted on the New Milford High School roof in July as an example of how having a hot work ordinance would protect buildings. There was also the fire on the high school roof last December, which Reynolds said originated from the roof work.

During a public hearing on Nov. 14, New Milford Mayor Pete Bass acknowledged the roof fire at Litchfield High School on Nov. 4. Similar to New Milford High School's fire, crews had been conducting roof work at the time of the Litchfield fire, according to the district's superintendent.  

Attorney Randy DiBella said Reynolds instructed him to limit the proposed hot work ordinance to commercial work. In order to craft the ordinance, he said he had to blend National Fire Protection Association regulations with Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations.

“Those are not necessarily compatible pieces of legislation, but it does what the fire marshal asked me to do,” DiBella said.

In his research into whether other towns have a hot work ordinance, DiBella said very few of these ordinances exist “and many of them are unartfully crafted.”

“This is essentially a preventative measure that enforces a fire watch and requires a contractor to meet our fire marshal,” DiBella said.

Reynolds affirmed the size of the job will determine how many fire watches are needed on the job.

“It’s great we’re leading the way and this is a preventative, looking-forward remedy in the way of the fire on the roof,” Councilwoman Hilary Ram said.

However, Ram said she was concerned that contractors and developers won’t want to come into New Milford to do work if they’re under fire watch. 

“If someone doesn’t want to be safe when they come into town, we probably don’t want them here,” Reynolds said. “It doesn’t make sense if you’re going to come here and not want to follow the rules.”