Fire Danger in High-rise Buildings


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High rise fire
Intro: At Emergency Plan Guide, we try to write about subjects we know something about from personal experience. (It helps to be “a mature adult!”)  But until we become paid reality-show stars, some things we have to write about as observers.

The news is often an inspiration. Last week I wrote about hurricanes — though I have never lived through one. This week, it’s a fire in a high-rise.

The closest I’ve been to that is living through a fire on a ferry boat — not exactly the same thing, but certainly some similarities.

The point of all this? My own experience may be limited, and the risks that I face may be limited. But we all will  face a variety of emergencies FOR THE FIRST TIME. I’m convinced that simply being open to ever more more knowledge gives us a better chance of surviving. That’s what keeps me learning and writing.

With that, here’s this week’s offering. 

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The high-rise apartment building fire in London was horrifying. And deadly. When I started this Advisory – 3 days after the fire – the number of people missing and presumed dead had risen to 58. As of today, 2 days later, it is now at 79 missing and presumed dead.

High-rise fires are alarming but infrequent.

High-rise fires are always particularly horrifying. We all picture flames shooting up the sides of buildings, far above the street, and we can imagine the terror of the people trapped inside.

Still, with the exception of terrorist acts, the threat posed by fires in high-rise buildings isn’t as great as that in low buildings.

According to the National Fire Protection Association, in all the structure fires in a year, around 2,600 people die – but only 40 of them are in high-rise building fires.

Moreover, the NFPA says the danger of fire in high-rises is going down.

Why? It’s a function of old buildings being replaced by newer ones.

Modern high-rise buildings have fire-suppression protections that work.

If you’ve read the details about the London fire, you will discover that the 24-story Grenfell Tower did NOT have such protections. According to news reports:

  • Only one stairwell was available for residents.
  • There was no sprinkler system.
  • Recent “upgrades” to the building included a plastic-filled cladding material that was not fire-resistant.

What do you know about the building you are about to enter???

Safety depends on the building codes in effect.

In the United States, national and state codes regulate new construction and, to a certain extent, upgrades or retrofits. Generally, these codes apply to different aspects of the building – some of which we, as consumers, may be aware of, and other that are hidden from sight but just as important.

Outside the U.S., codes and standards may be different. For example, in the case of the London fire, the new cladding would not have been allowed in the U.S. (A visitor to the building wouldn’t have known that. Even the residents of Grenfell Tower, who had requested fire-resistant upgrades, may not have realized that their new cladding did not meet that standard.)

So, whether living, working or traveling, here are some questions to get answered before you stay in a high-rise building.

It’s good practice to answer these every time you enter a high-rise building!

1-Is there a fire alarm or smoke alarm system?

Easy enough to find out. If you don’t see installed alarm buttons, just ask!

2-Is there a fire sprinkler system?

An alarm doesn’t fight a fire!

So, look up and see if you can identify sprinklers. These are the key safety feature – in fact, they have been determined to be 97% effective in suppressing fire. (The other 3% didn’t work because they water supply wasn’t hooked up right, or the system wasn’t properly maintained.)

Don’t see any sprinkler heads? Are they blocked by furniture or decorations? Ask property management if a system has been installed.

This is the very most important feature for high-rise fire safety! No sprinkler? Don’t stay!

(An older building can be retrofitted with a fire sprinkler system. Unfortunately, it costs many times more to put in after the fact that if it had been incorporated into the original building. So, building owners may resist adding systems if the law doesn’t require it.)

3-Where are the fire exits?

Look for signs. Identify more than one exit. Check diagrams of the building so you would know which way to go if you couldn’t see because of darkness or smoke.

4-Where are the stairwells?

Again, note the PLURAL word. Every high-rise building needs more than one set of stairs. Note where stairs are located so if you need to evacuate, and one set of stairs is blocked, you can go down the other. (Remember, in a fire, one stairwell may be reserved for use by fire fighters.)

5-Are there fire doors in the hallways?

Modern buildings include fire doors that close in the case of a fire, keeping it from spreading. Usually, these doors are held open electromagnetically, and if a fire alarm goes off the circuit is broken and the door closes by itself.

Bad sign: Fire doors are blocked so they cannot close.

Again, under normal circumstances you may never notice these doors because they are “hidden” by the décor. However, it is good to know that in an emergency you may come upon a door that you didn’t expect.

6-How would people with a disability be assisted in case of a fire?

While you may see special signs for emergency procedures for people in a wheelchair, etc., it is up to you to figure out how you will handle an emergency.

Other fire safety features to look for, in any building.

1-What is the maximum occupancy?

Overfilled rooms, theaters, restaurants, stadiums, etc. may be more dangerous if there is panic. Be aware of where exits are located, and in an emergency do not automatically head for the door where you came in. Is there a better exit option?

(In my experience it’s fun and valuable to train children on a regular basis to look for multiple exits. As you settle down in movie theater seats, ask, “How many exits do you see? Or, how many ways to do you see that we could get out of here?”)

2-Where are fire extinguishers?

In a commercial building in the U.S., there’s sure to be one not far away!

Usually, local fire codes require that fire extinguishers be installed based on square footage, and they also require that you be able to find one no more than 75 feet away. (“75 feet” is only an example. Specifics may change slightly in a different state and in a different type of building.)

In any case, when you enter a building or room, it’s a good idea to look around to see if you can locate the nearest hand-held extinguisher.

This assumes you know HOW TO USE an extinguisher, of course.

What to do if there is a fire in a high-rise?

Fire experts still say “shelter in place” is the best advice IF THE BUILDING HAS PROPER FIRE SUPPRESSION PROTECTION.

(Stuff towels under the door to block smoke from entering, stay alert for instructions.)

Sprinkler systems have been in use for over 100 years. They provide 24/7 protection, turning on automatically when sprinkler heads reach a certain heat level. Fires can be caught and put out without people even realizing it until later.

Once again, if you plan to visit or stay in a high-rise building without a sprinkler system, think twice. Think three times!  You may want to find another option.

Virginia
Your Emergency Plan Guide Team

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One Response to “Fire Danger in High-rise Buildings”

  1. Mary Wilkins Says:

    Thanks for sending this info. to us.

    When we go to Pechanga Casino we always ask for a room close to the ground. It is a TALL building.
    We had a false fire alarm go off in a hotel a couple of months ago near Yosemite National Park.
    It was caused by something in the toaster in the breakfast room. All the hotel guests started their day early.
    Mary