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How fire safe are commercial high-rises?

The tragic fire that burned out of control for almost 19 hours in One Meridian Plaza, a mostly unsprinklered, 38-story office tower in Philadelphia, is the nation's worst high-rise fire in over a decade. In the aftermath of the 12-alarm blaze, which killed three firefighters and gutted the 22nd through 29th floors of the skyscraper, the debate over whether sprinkler systems should be required in all new and existing commercial high-rises is once again heating up nationwide.

The unfortunate reality is city officials across the country have wrestled with the issue of mandatory sprinkler systems before, with many passing legislation that requires automatic sprinklers in new high-rises while sidestepping the more pressing need for laws mandating sprinkler retrofits in existing buildings. Sadly, many of the cities requiring sprinkler systems in both new and existing high-rises - Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and Atlanta, to name a few enacted such stringent legislation after a major tragedy occurred. Philadelphia's City Council is reportedly considering equally rigid legislation that would call for all existing high-rises to undergo automatic sprinkler retrofits.

In 1984, Philadelphia adopted what is now known as the National Building Code, which requires sprinkler systems on every floor of new buildings over 75 feet tall. Built in 1972, One Meridian Plaza, owned by E/R Associates (which includes Philadelphia developer Richard I. Rubin & Company, was completed in compliance with existing codes at the time of its construction. Local real estate sources estimate the 756,000 square foot building to be worth about $150 million.

Whatever could go wrong, did

Although not required by law, the top ten floors of One Meridian Plaza did have sprinklers. Firefighters were unable to get the fire under control until after the fire reached the building's 30th floor, activating the sprinkler system voluntarily put in by the tenant on that floor. Fire officials in Philadelphia maintain that sprinklers on the 22nd floor, where the fire began, would have enabled firefighters to extinguish the fire before it got out of control. Damage is estimated to be in excess of 100 million, and the building will most likely not reopen this year, if at all. Some sources suggest it might be easier to raze the tower rather than reconstruct it.

Despite its still unknown cause, the Meridian Plaza fire has sparked more than just questions over the need for mandatory sprinklerization in all high-rises. Ironically, fire protection systems that did exist in the building at the time of the fire failed. Fire officials want to know why emergency electrical generators, water pumps, pressure valves, and elevators failed or malfunctioned during firefighters' attempts to put out the blaze. The building's emergency air conditioning system malfunctioned, allowing smoke to travel throughout the building; water pressure was so low firefighters couldn't get enough water to the 22nd floor.

Making strides in life safety

As Philadelphia's fire officials try to uncover the cause of the fire, more comprehensive fire protection measures for commercial structures are being scrutinized by federal, state, and city officials, fire experts, and building owners in an effort to determine what is needed to provide maximum life safety in high-rises.

Fire experts insist that mandatory inclusion of automatic sprinklers in fire protection systems for all commercial buildings will greatly reduce the number of deaths or injuries, amount of property damage, and insurance premiums for building owners. According to statistics from the National Fire Sprinkler Association (NFSA) based in Patterson, NY, the presence of fire sprinklers or smoke detectors in a fire increases the chance of survival between 74 and 90 percent. Thus far, there has never been a multiple loss of life in a fully sprinklered building due to fire or smoke inhalation. In addition, the NFSA says a majority of major insurance companies offer building owners a 2 to 15 percent discount on premiums if they opt to include sprinklers in their fire protection systems. The general cost of retrofitting a commercial building with a sprinkler system, fire experts suggest, ranges between $1.75 and $4 per square foot, barring the need for asbestos abatement work.

Presently, the U.S. has the worst rate of fires in the industrialized world. Proponents of fire sprinkler systems in all commercial buildings got a substantial boost in September 1990 when President Bush signed into law a bill encouraging hotels and motels to install fire sprinklers by restricting federal travel business to only sprinklered hotels and motels. The bill, H.R. 94, the Hotel and Motel Fire Safety Act, was sponsored by Congressman Sherwood Boehlert, R-NY, of the 25th Congressional District in New York. To comply with the law, states have two years to compile lists of hotels and motels with properly installed sprinklers and smoke detectors, according to Hank Price, Boehlert's press secretary. "The bill prohibits federally funded [travel] from being held at unsprinklered hotels. ... The law is a landmark in the history of fire safety in this country. It's probably the first time the federal government has taken direct action to protect the public at large from the danger of fire."

Though the fire sprinkler issue takes center stage, fire protection efforts are beginning to extend to other areas of concern, such as smoke toxicity of building materials. In January, the Washington, D.C.-based National Institute of Building Sciences (NIBS), a non-profit, non-governmental organization, and the New York Building Congress, a private sector building, design, and construction association, co-sponsored a conference to explore advances made in the study of building material smoke toxicity. A spokesman for the New York Building Congress says the intent was to examine what research exists in this area, as well as what regulations possibly need to be addressed. "It was an overall view of the state of research [in the area of smoke toxicity], but with an eye toward where regulations need to be brought up to match [current] technology and research," he adds.

Increasingly, research the nature of fires and building materials or products. In an effort to estimate the impact of interior product choices on life safety in buildings (developed case studies include upholstered furniture, floor coverings, wall finishes, and combustibles in walls and ceilings), the National Fire Protection Research Foundation, a Quincy, MA-based independent, public, non-profit foundation (which the National Fire Protection Association [NFPAI bills as its "microscope and telescope of the future"), has issued six reports on the subject covered by the National Fire Risk Assessment Research Project.

The objective of such a research project, says John Hall, the NFPA's assistant vice president for Fire Analysis and Research, was to derive "a flexible, computer-based method for estimating the probability and severity of different kinds of fires that may occur in a building where severity is life safety-based, doing so in such a way that you can estimate the impact of changing a certain class of products in that building based] on either the probability or the severity." Though Hall admits the reports are far from user-friendly at this point, and have not been applied to any real problem yet, they are certainly a starting point. "These are at the cutting edge of fire science ... [but] people should not expect to pick up something the equivalent of the users' manual of 'Lotus 1-2-3.'"

But questions about fire safety in high-rises still revolve around arguments that many city codes are not tough enough on building owners. Officials of five major cities - San Francisco, Atlanta, New York, Dallas, and Chicago - discuss what's law, and what's lacking, in current codes.

San Francisco, CA

California, in general, is known for its restrictive laws; in fact, some sources say Californians make a living out of taking stands - in anti-growth movements, anti-freon proposals to combat ozone depletion, and precedent-setting high-rise sprinkler regulations. The severity of San Francisco's fire safety codes ranks fairly high up in the state, possibly only exceeded in the retrofit area by the city of Los Angeles.

Presently, San Francisco's building code requires that all new commercial high-rises over 75 feet tall be equipped with a life safety system comprised of the following: two smoke-proof stairwell enclosures, automatic elevator recall, a fire alarm system, smoke detectors, emergency pumps, fire sprinklers on all floors, a voice alarm and public address system, and a fire department communications panel, according to Chief Joe Medina, fire marshal for the city and county of San Francisco, and chief of the Division of Fire Prevention and Investigation.

Passed in July 1974, the city's high-rise code (Section 18, Title 24 in the California Code of Regulations), which mandates the incorporation of fire sprinklers into a life safety system, applies to both commercial and residential structures that meet the height requirement - different from other cities that have been unsuccessful in passing regulations that would cover residential high-rises. The state also requires that building owners provide an emergency preparedness plan in order to receive occupancy certification.

The city's law does not provide for a compartmentation option in high-rises, and, to date, no retrofit law has been passed in San Francisco. The city of Los Angeles, however, has one of the most stringent retrofit sprinkler ordinances in the nation, passed after a fire in the First Interstate Bank tower left one person dead and caused substantial damage to the building. "There have been several attempts at the state level to retrofit existing high-rises, but [nothing] has been passed," says Medina.

The city's Bureau of Building Inspection, however, is considering developing an ordinance that would require sprinklers in existing high-rises, according to a Building Inspection spokesman.

Atlanta, GA

Perhaps the most rigid building codes to ensure greater life safety are enforced by the city of Atlanta. Following a deadly fire at the Peachtree 25th Building in 1989, the city of Atlanta was swift to enact retroactive legislation requiring automatic fire sprinkler systems in all existing commercial and multi-family buildings six stories or more in height. In addition, the amended code also requires that all new commercial buildings five or more stories in height, and certain specified multi-family buildings and hotels three or more stories in height, be equipped with automatic sprinklers as part of their overall fire protection systems.

Since the late 1970s, all new commercial and residential high-rises in Atlanta had to be fully sprinklered (earlier in the decade, compartmentation was an option). Norman A. Koplon, P.E., director of Atlanta's Bureau of Buildings, is proud of Atlanta's tough new legislation - deadline for compliance is the mid-1990s which he says was urgently needed following 1989's fire in the Peachtree 25th Building. "There are no options for compartmentation in lieu of sprinklering office buildings in the ordinance. The ordinance is simple and straightforward: Existing [commercial] buildings, six stories or more in height, are required to be sprinklered throughout."

Koplon would not comment, however, on what, if any, type of mandatory emergency preparedness plan is required for commercial buildings.

New York, NY

In 1973, New York City passed its first high-rise fire safety law, known as Local Law #5. Enacted a few years after two major high-rise fires killed five people, the new law required that high-rises over 100 feet tall be equipped with fire safety systems, devices, and controls." After a court battle brought by various New York City real estate owners was decided in favor of the city, the law became enforceable in 1978.

Under Local Law 5, all existing and new buildings over 100 feet tall must be retroactively equipped with automatic elevator recall, interior fire alarm signal and voice communication systems, according to Vahe Tiryakian, spokesman for New York City's Department of Buildings. In addition, new and existing high-rises having central air conditioning systems and/or mechanical ventilation systems (serving more than one floor) are required to provide one of two options: full sprinklerization, or compartmentation (sectioned off into areas from 7,500 square feet to 15,000 square feet) and pressurization.

Today, New York City's building code mandates that all new high-rises over 75 feet tall, as amended by Local Law #16 of 1984, must be fully equipped with automatic sprinkler systems, thereby rejecting compartmentation as a fire protection option.

Dallas, TX

Prior to 1984, the city of Dallas followed fire safety requirements for newly constructed and existing high-rises as stipulated in Section 1807 of the National Building Code, according to Nicholas Gadzekpo, building code specialist for the Building Inspection Division of the Dallas Economic Development Department. This meant high-rise building owners could either opt for area suppression walls or full sprinklerization.

How does the city of Dallas define an office high-rise? "When [office] buildings are more than 75 feet above the lowest level of fire department access, they are considered high-rises," says Gadzekpo.

Buildings constructed today, however, must be fully sprinklered. In 1984, Dallas passed a mandatory sprinkler ordinance requiring that all new commercial buildings exceeding 75 feet be equipped with automatic fire sprinklers.

Currently, there is no sprinkler retrofit law on the books for commercial high-rises.

Chicago, IL

Tagged as one of the least progressive cities with regard to building and fire code requirements, Chicago's very conspicuous political powers-that-be, sources claim, have been able to keep much-needed high-rise regulations to a minimum. Currently, Chicago's code requires one of two fire protection alternatives for new commercial buildings over 80 feet tall: sprinklerization or compartmentation (no stairwell pressurization is required).

Chicago's high-rise code was enacted in 1975. Prior to that time, buildings were only required to have standpipes - no fire alarms, sprinklers, compartmentation, smoke detectors, emergency preparedness plan, etc.

Under its current code, says Wayne Mitchell, fire prevention engineer for Chicago's Fire Prevention Bureau, the compartmentation option requires that each floor have at least two compartments, with each compartment not exceeding 30,000 square feet. In addition, all elevator recall systems are manual, not automatic. "Chicago is about 15 years behind the times. Our [code] is extremely sketchy compared to any other city."

At this time, no sprinkler retrofit law exists. Asked if there is any move afoot to initiate a retrofit sprinkler law, Mitchell says nothing is being discussed by city officials. "Our City Council, unless you kill them, will not do anything. We had a fire here a few years back; we burned out maybe two-thirds of a floor and a young lady was killed. We suggested at the time that a retrofit be enacted to provide sprinklers, or at least a decent fire alarm system in each high-rise building. But after a couple of months of hearings, it all died down - the hearings, the media coverage. Apparently, it wasn't a very important matter that we killed one person. We haven't had the furor or the leadership here to apparently want to change."
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Title Annotation:high-rise buildings
Author:Sraeel, Holly
Date:Apr 1, 1991
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