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Heeding the call for improved life safety in buildings.

In the wake of Philadelphia's tragic fire at One Meridian Plaza, a mostly unsprinklered 38-story office tower across from City Hall, building owners and tenants nationwide are asking themselves the same question: "Just how safe is my building?" For individuals concerned about life safety in commercial high-rises, the Meridian Plaza fire, which killed three firefighters and burned out of control for almost 19 hours, is a painful reminder that meeting code may not be enough to protect a building or its occupants from serious harm.

Built in 1972 - 12 years before Philadelphia passed a law requiring automatic sprinkler systems on every floor in new commercial buildings over seven stories tall - One Meridian Plaza did meet code for existing structures at the time of the fire, according to local fire officials. Currently, no law requires complete sprinkler retrofits in existing high-rises.

If history is any guide, it usually takes a tragedy (the severity of which is often measured by how many lives are lost) to motivate city officials to enact stringent fire sprinkler regulations. Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and Atlanta - all cities with buildings victimized by major fires - swiftly passed legislation mandating that commercial high-rises be retrofitted with automatic sprinklers. The Philadelphia fire is the nation's worst high-rise blaze since a fire at the 28-story MGM Grand's hotel and casino in Las Vegas killed 84 people in 1980. Presently, Philadelphia's City Council is considering similar legislative action that would require sprinkler retrofits in commercial high-rises. This pattern of reactive legislation, however, is costly - in terms of lives, property damage, and liability claims.

Just how important is life safety or emergency preparedness (including fires, natural disasters, or bomb threats) for occupants of commercial high-rises? In all too many cases, life safety issues only become a priority after a major disaster occurs. In a survey conducted one year after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, for example, a cross-section of leading San Francisco Bay-area companies cited more confidence today in their ability to withstand another major earthquake. But the survey indicates these companies may be more ill-prepared than they think.

A growing need for life safety

Of the 100 companies queried by the San Francisco office of Flack + Kurtz, a New York City-based engineering firm, 47 percent feel more positive today about surviving an earthquake than they did prior to the October 1989 earthquake, and 81 percent now consider their buildings to be sufficiently earthquake-proof. In polling the facility managers of these companies, however, it became apparent that life safety and emergency preparedness plans were not at the top of everyone's agenda. We wanted to see who was involved in making decisions and what decisions they had made. We were somewhat taken aback by how ill-prepared people were and by how little they thought about [emergency pre-paredness]. There really was a general attitude of 'Well, someone else will take care of it,' or 'It's really nothing to worry about,"' says Dominic Phillips, a marketing manager for Flack + Kurtz.

Surprising for companies that occupy buildings in an area obviously at risk to suffer another earthquake disaster in the future? Unfortunately, the following survey results do not point to overwhelming concern for life safety and emergency preparedness prior to an actual emergency:

* Emergency preparedness plans are not discussed among senior management at many corporations, and not at all by one in four CEOs.

* Earthquake drills are rarely conducted by these companies.

* Many respondents worry about the failure of power and data processing systems, relying too heavily on emergency back-up power and data processing systems rather than devising alternate internal and external communications systems.

What about life safety and emergency preparedness plans for buildings in geographical areas not prone to natural disasters? As the Phliladelphia fire and other tragedies indicate, buildings without comprehensive fire protection systems can be as life-threatening to occupants and suffer as much structural damage from a fire as damages inflicted by a natural disaster. According to statistics provided by the Patterson, NY-based National Fire Sprinkler Association (NFSA), an estimated 8,000 Americans die each year because of fire, another 54,000 people are hospitalized, and 1.4 million people sustain minor injuries. In addition, fire damage costs average $3.8 billion per year, causing insurance premiums for building owners to skyrocket.

Preventive measures taken by building owners, such as the inclusion of automatic fire sprinklers as part of a building's overall fire protection system, can protect property, save lives, and discount insurance premiums. A recent issue of Consumer Reports suggests that a majority of insurance companies offer a 2 to 15 percent discount on premiums to those building owners who opt to install automatic fire sprinklers.

Every tragedy generates heightened awareness of life safety planning among building owners, transforming their generally reactive mindset into a more pro-active management approach. The following building owners demonstrate outstanding commitment to life safety and emergency preparedness in their commercial high-rises.

301 Howard Street, San Francisco

Owned by 301 Howard Street Associates, a joint venture of Continental San Francisco Corporation (a subsidiary of El Segundo, CA-based Continental Development Corporation) and Paladin U.S.A., Inc. (an affiliate of international commercial and industrial developers), this 23-story speculative office building is home to more than the 24 companies listed on its tenant roster. The Real Estate Industries Centre, or 301 Howard Street, is also the fictional headquarters of radio station KJCM, the location of the television mystery "Midnight Caller," a Lorimar Television production.

Despite the glamour of on-site filming on a regular basis (usually after business hours), 301 Howard Street is in all other respects a typical office tower - except when it comes to life safety design features, where meeting or exceeding code requirements is serious business. This $75 million building, completed in June 1989, provides maximum occupant and property protection.

Under San Francisco law, building owners must equip new high-rises over 75 feet high with a comprehensive life safety system, comprised of automatic fire sprinklers (there is no provision for compartmentation in lieu of sprinklerization in San Francisco), automatic elevator recall, fire alarm systems, smoke detectors, emergency pumps, voice alarms, a public address system, and a fire department communications panel. Building owners must also provide an emergency preparedness plan to occupants.

Although the city code may seem a bit too restrictive at times, according to W Gene Mays, executive vice president of Continental Development Corporation, the 340,000 square foot building's state-of-the-art design can be used as a selling point in a town where safety is an issue. "A number of tenants in San Francisco are concerned [about high-rise safety], particularly with the recent earthquakes we've had, where a number of older buildings not built to current seismic code sustained considerable damage. A lot of tenants have moved from some of those older buildings to newer ones that do meet the new seismic code," says Mays.

Aside from an automatic sprinkler system, the life safety features at 301 Howard Street include a computerized fire control system. In a fire emergency, this system automatically contacts the fire department; sounds an alarm on the fire floor and the floors above and below; alerts all other floors in the building; activates the fire mode for ventilation and exhaust fans; activates dampers when smoke is detected in elevator lobbies; closes fire doors; recalls elevators to emergency positions; triggers emergency lighting; and provides building-wide communication through a fully controllable public address system.

The building contains two pressurized stairwells and vestibules. All exit doors are fire-rated with fail-safe automatic release for closing and unlocking during a fire. During an evacuation, tenants are directed by graphic panels located by all exits, elevators, and in the lobby and entrance to 301 Howard Street. Periodic fire drills and educational meetings help prepare tenants for any unexpected emergency.

The Amoco Building, Chicago

Though Chicago's code does not call for existing high-rise structures to be retrofitted with automatic sprinklers, the Amoco Corporation voluntarily opted to install sprinklers on every floor of its landmark 80-story headquarters building. The comprehensive fire protection system retrofit (including sprinklers, smoke detectors, automatic elevator recall, and firemen's recall) was completed in September 1990, coming in under budget at a cost of $9 million.

Commissioned just two years earlier (approval was initially sought from management in March 1987), Amoco's sprinkler retrofit is just one of a growing number of similar projects nationwide, indicating building owners' heightened concern for the protection and care of tenants and property. "We didn't think the degree of fire risk had changed, but the standards of safety in order to meet those risks had changed, and public and employee perception as to the degree of protection that we should give occupants of this building has increased," says Roger Hage, manager of Property Operations for Amoco. "We wanted to meet that [new perceived standard], and the best protection against fire is to extinguish it in an incipient stage, so the faster you can pro-actively handle that through extinguishing, the better off you [as the building owner] are."

Prior to the massive undertaking to equip the building with a complete fire protection system, of which the most important is the inclusion of sprinklers, Hage says the building primarily had a fire detection and alarm system which was dependent on firefighters to actually put out the fire should such an emergency occur. "Our concept of fighting a fire has changed ... We make prudent expenditures to increase life safety protection and achieve a better workplace for individuals."

As part of its emergency preparedness plan, twice a year Amoco runs through a fire brigade and drill. During the course of the exercise, people are moved three floors below a predetermined "fire floor." "We go through the procedures: fire brigade acts out the disaster; people are moved off the floor and down stairwells they would normally use in case of a disaster, and are assembled three floors below until the drill is completed. We then move people back [to their floors] and critique the exercise," says Hage.

Built in 1972, the Amoco Building is now 50 percent occupied by Amoco; the remainder of the tenancy is made up of prominent accounting and law firms, as well as other businesses.

101 California, San Francisco

Built in 1982, 101 California, a speculative 48-story high-rise designed by Philip Johnson and John Burgee and owned by Houston-based Hines Interests Limited Partnership (formerly Gerald D. Hines Interests, Inc.), has been recognized for both energy conservation and life safety. The Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA) International named 101 California the best office building over 500,000 square feet during its 83rd annual convention, held in Las Vegas in mid-1990.

Equipped with state-of-the-art life safety features (including sprinklers, mandated by a 1974 law for newly constructed high-rises, and a seismic monitoring instrumentation system), 101 California is representative of what building owners are doing to comply with - or surpass progressive city and state code requirements. According to Brian J. Lennon, Hines Interests L.P.'s property manager for 101 California, the building's life safety components and devices are inspected and tested regularly to ensure proper response and operation. "All mechanical, electronic, automatic, and manual devices from top to bottom of the 48-story high-rise are tested at least twice a year. Smoke detectors, manual pull stations, magnetic door closers, stairwell exhaust and pressurization fans, elevator recall devices, a paging system, strobe lights, sprinkler pumps, and emergency generators are all maintained and tested regularly to ensure they respond properly in a real emergency."

A crucial factor in 101 California's life safety program is tenant preparedness. San Francisco code requirements demand the designation of Floor Wardens to assist tenant employees in the event of an emergency. 101 California provides emergency response training for fire, earthquakes, bomb threats, and medical emergencies to employees of the more than 100 companies occupying the high-rise.
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Author:Sraeel, Holly
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Apr 1, 1991
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