Fire Meets Its Match
No job too large, no in-between space too small for Halpert Life Safety Consulting LLC
Structure fires can find a way to spread—but not if Sharron Halpert is involved!
While construction materials and building techniques have come a long way to contain or thwart a fire, insufficient connections and conduits in the guts of a building still invite flames to inch along and spread. The result is potential property loss and more cost and time for recovery and—absolutely worse than those—possible injury or death.
The science of fire containment calls for the usual “active” measures of protection—like fire sprinklers and nonflammable materials—but the “passive” ways of minimizing a building’s blaze are also important. Those little in-between spaces, those passageways meant to ensure a building is functional and comfortable, get Halpert’s expert attention.
Halpert’s firm, Halpert Life Safety Consulting LLC, is a certified woman-owned business that offers training, consulting and inspection services to architects, general contractors, engineers, property owners and even local governments that enforce building codes. She is passionate about all of this, but when she talks about her firm’s newest opportunity, she is bursting at the seams to share how her firm has developed a protocol that can mitigate the liability of a terrorist attack on new construction. No one has created an opportunity that extends this protection to the entire building community as well as the facility owner.
In her eight years as head of the company, currently based in Ridgewood, New Jersey, Halpert has overseen firestop work for some $18 billion in projects covering 25 million square feet of property. “Firestop” is the common term referring to passive measures to limit fire from spreading in a building.
Halpert has built a reputation as a consultant and trainer to maximize fire protection, and she especially likes big and/or challenging firestop projects. She dons her hard hat and protective gear to view connecting points in walls, ceilings, floors and crawlspaces. She matches the physical demands with a strong working knowledge of building materials, construction practices, building codes, the nature of fire and the intent of architects and contractors.
“I love it when they call me to help solve problems no one else can fix,” she says.
Halpert didn’t always aspire to become a firestop expert. Her life took some interesting twists and turns, but today she looks at the early part of her journey as preparation for her professionalism in the field.
Her story includes time as a kindergarten teacher, a bartender and a boat-builder—all as part of a self-described stint as “a vagabond who traveled the world.” At age 30, she was ready to get serious about life and so she pursued her postgraduate education at Thunderbird School of Global Management in Phoenix, Arizona. As luck would have it, she found herself interning and then working full time as a fire protection specialist for Hilti. Next, she worked for a company that sold 3M fire products. This path clicked for her and, in 2011, she launched her consultancy.
Her credentials today mark 20 years of experience in the firestop field. She is a member of ASTM International, formerly known as the American Society for Testing and Materials, and the International Firestop Council (IFC). She has developed training for the International Code Council (ICC) and the American Institute of Architects New York Chapter (AIA New York), and has delivered training across New Jersey and as far away as Saudi Arabia. She even helped craft the IFC exam leading to a certificate as a third-party firestop inspector.
Recognition she has garnered along the way includes being named one of the “50 Best Women in Business” in 2019 by NJBIZ and being a finalist for the 2019 New York City Construction Award in the “Process Innovation” category.
Her entrepreneurial spirit and heart for helping others has played out in other ways, too. Halpert seeks out philanthropic ways to help the less fortunate. She supports organizations such as Family Promise of Bergen County, Habitat for Humanity and a local homeless shelter.
“Any place that I benefit from needs to benefit from me too,” she says.
That motto extends to the remote locations where she delivers her services as well. While on an extended job for a Nassau resort in the Bahamas, she became aware of the needs of children at Ranfurly Homes for Children. She convinced the team members of the larger construction project to become “Santa’s Helpers” and donate funds to buy Christmas gifts for the children of the orphanage. Besides collecting $1,000, she got United Airlines and the government of the Bahamas to waive fees for transporting the gifts. She repeated the gift-giving endeavor for children in the Bahamas the following year, too.
From the start, Halpert has added to her experience by participating in numerous product trials, manufacturers’ training sessions, building code workshops, on-site inspections, and architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) planning sessions for specific projects.
Her consultancy work stems from her in-depth knowledge of the “Fire and Smoke Protection” section—better known as Chapter 7—of the International Building Code. She has a passion for ensuring a project is done right from the start instead of having to be retrofitted for code adherence later.
Offering training for other professionals was a natural next step. “Many presenters are engineers and are not always engaging, but I’m a former kindergarten teacher,” Halpert says. After everyone snickers, she adds, the class unfolds and they start to see the typically dry and boring building codes and standards in a new way as she animates them and connects them in a way that they can be immediately applied on the job site.
She has helped educate numerous people in the AEC field, including those in the trades who may not fully understand building code requirements in terms of firestop capabilities.
“This kind of passive fire protection has little to do with a typical scope of work for a number of trades,” she says. “So [these industry professionals] could be green initially, but after training, they have a new skill set they bring to all future projects.”
Actually, participating in inspections has always been one aspect of her business. Local jurisdictions often require third-party independent inspections and Halpert is available for those teams as well.
One project serves as an example of her unique involvement in serving the AEC community. She provided expertise during construction of the $4.2 billion, 2,200-room Baha Mar resort hotel, casino, shopping destination and spa that opened in 2017. On this project she provided extensive consultancy work, training, value engineering and troubleshooting. Additionally, she overcame communication challenges because all the installers were Chinese since the resort was built by a Chinese company, so overcoming the language barrier was essential for training the subcontractors. Once again, her vagabond years served her well with this new challenge.
Halpert takes her own professional development and her investment in industry knowledge very seriously. Some ways she keeps keenly informed is by being a member of industry organizations, participating in IFC and ICC events and regularly following the news. Her admitted daily use of Google Alerts to get relevant news gives her knowledge of what’s happening throughout the nation and the world that increases her value to potential clients. As a result, she can refer to fire-related issues occurring anywhere around the world or circle back to her own experiences for examples of “best practices” and more.
To Halpert, her work is all about life and building safety. That is why her newest emphasis focuses on adding unique value to AEC teams’ work when it comes to thwarting possible terrorist attacks. Halpert has developed a protocol that has earned the Department of Homeland Security’s “SAFETY Act” approval. In this way, she has led the industry in creating a protocol that can be deployed during planning and construction. It ensures a building will be more resilient in the event of certain types of terrorist attacks.
It is not an insurance offering, but rather something that is built into the bones of the building and with minimal maintenance will provide protection from the liability of a terrorist attack for the life of the building. The protocol won’t “harden” a building with bollards and massive doors. In fact, when construction is completed, no difference is actually “seen.” In addition to this, it will ensure that the building is safer even if there is a fire from non-nefarious means. It will be safer for the people who will live, work and play there when the construction team is long gone.
Halpert believes that most people she works with want to do things right and they often get down on themselves when they learn more and realize they may not have been reaching their own standard. That is when she quotes American poet and author Maya Angelou. “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better,” says Halpert.
She continues, “I have a passion for helping make sure firestop work is done right, and in many cases that means educating the installers and helping them better understand why certain overlooked elements are critical. Once they ‘know better,’ they can ‘do better,’ even when I am gone.”