In the early stages of marijuana legalization, fire officials realized the need to establish codes and standards that would help the industry operate safely. Since 2015, fire officials, cannabis industry stakeholders and the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) have been working together to develop codes and educate businesses and regulators alike about the challenges this fast-growing new industry poses.
“It’s all about saving lives and saving property,” says Raymond Bizal, a registered fire protection engineer in California and the director of regional operations for the NFPA.
In addition to elevating safety standards, Bizal says working with members of the cannabis industry helped dispel stereotypes about marijuana entrepreneurs.
“We found out that most of the people in the industry were way, way smarter than we were and had more certifications and degrees than we did,” Bizal says. “It eliminated, at least from one perspective, that stereotype immediately. It was really cool.”
Bizal and the NFPA are continuing their efforts to educate the industry and to emphasize the importance of being prepared. After all, it’s almost human nature for people to overlook the possibility of catastrophe until it happens to them.
When the NFPA began interacting with the cannabis industry and various regulators and government agencies, it became readily apparent that regulators had minimal knowledge about marijuana production.
Tours of grow facilities opened regulators’ eyes to issues they were unaware of: the use of CO2 to enrich the atmosphere for plants; the use of butane, propane and other flammable solvents for extraction; the need for safety when fertilizing and fumigating.
And in a lot of ways, the cannabis industry knew little about the broader regulations that all businesses — not just those in the marijuana space — must abide by.
“People in the cannabis industry didn’t know they needed electrical permits, fire sprinklers or permits for building walls,” Bizal says.
The steep learning curve presented a challenge for all involved, but it also meant there was room for important growth.
“Everybody was learning,” Bizal says. “It was tremendous to come together and learn from each other.”
With concentrates and edibles rapidly rising in popularity, the extraction side of the industry has evolved significantly since Washington and Colorado first legalized recreational marijuana in 2012.
“The equipment is just so much more complex,” Bizal says. “The amount of product they’re putting in has quadrupled. This is pretty fancy stuff, so we just want to make sure the fanciness is protected.”
From a fire safety perspective, flammable solvents like propane, butane and ethanol pose a serious threat.
And while CO2 extraction may sound more “innocuous,” Bizal says, “it’s done at 3,000 pounds-per-square-inch or more, which can be terribly dangerous.”
Proper permits and inspections are critical for extraction labs. Upgrades to machinery may require another inspection.
“It’s not just for the person working the equipment,” Bizal says. “If there’s an explosion, it will also affect firefighters and neighboring businesses.”
Although it’s hard to imagine, there are still people using flammable solvents for extractions without using a closed-loop system, a technique often known as “open blasting.”
In June, two people were injured in Millcreek, Utah when an alleged marijuana extraction operation exploded. Just one day later, two men received third-degree burns in Sonoma County, California, where they were allegedly extracting “hash oil,” according to local law enforcement. Dozens of similar explosions have led to injuries and even deaths in recent years.
“Open blasting is so dangerous,” Bizal says. “It’s like playing Russian roulette.”
For the most part, the legal cannabis industry has embraced closed-loop systems — “a definite change in the right direction,” Bizal says — but there are still plenty of people open blasting or using combustible materials improperly.
This also brings up an important point about the illicit market: There are still thousands of people operating illegally and they, too, need to be educated about fire safety and the dangers of open blasting. By no means should this education be solely for state-licensed operators. Dangerous practices threaten not just those individuals, but everybody in the building, as well as neighbors, emergency responders and more.
Close the Loop
Compared to open blasting, a closed-loop system is a huge step forward. However, Bizal cautions that a closed-loop system is “only as good as that closed loop.”
Therefore, it’s crucial that extractors follow best practices and the manufacturers’ specific instructions.
For example, something as simple as not tightening the bolts on an extraction cylinder could be a hazard.
If you read the manual, it probably recommends using a torque wrench to ensure nuts and bolts are securely fastened. But Bizal says people will often say, “I do this every day; I don’t need to use a torque wrench. I know how tight this needs to be.”
To be clear, it’s not that easy.
“You really need to use a torque wrench,” Bizal says. “Little things like that and having a user guide that extractors follow can improve safety.”
How can business owners better educate their employees on the wide range of fire safety protocols?
“That’s a simple solution,” Bizal says. “They can — and they should — develop a relationship with their local fire department. The fire department is not the bad guys. They want to help.”
Implementing a fire safety program and closely following all the regulations may cost more in the short term, but those investments will be worth it in the event of an emergency.
A Means of Egress
When Bizal toured several grow operations, one of the most common hazards he saw was the lack of egress from individual rooms within the facilities. It’s imperative that aisles be kept clear, and not just so people can exit the building safely in an emergency — although that’s obviously extremely important — but so firefighters can enter.
“If there’s an alarm that goes off, firefighters wake up and they’re on the road in three minutes from a deep sleep and within about six minutes, they’re in a smoke-filled room trying to lay hose,” he says. “They need that access to do that.”
The DIY component
Due to the previously illegal or underground nature of the cannabis industry, many entrepreneurs took a do-it-yourself approach to construction and facility design.
Bizal says this opened the door for permits and codes to be overlooked.
His advice? Where necessary, hire a professional. Building, fire and electrical codes must be followed. Don’t overload the electrical panel. Don’t steal power from a nearby building. Be careful with wall construction. Pay attention to door sizes. And perhaps most importantly, everything should be properly permitted.
This advice is particularly relevant when it comes to electrical components in an indoor grow, due to the sheer amount of equipment and power required. Electrical malfunctions are one of the leading causes of structure fires.
“By and large, people don’t really think electricity is dangerous because they use it every day,” Bizal says. “There are a lot of rules for people to keep it safe, but you see fire reports of what happens when people do it the wrong way.”