Fires in high-rise buildings are usually smaller than fires in shorter buildings

Blog Post created by martyahrens Employee on Nov 23, 2016

When many of us think of fire in high-rise buildings, our minds go first to the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City on September 11, 2001. That means that we remember the deadliest high-rise fire in world history.  In reality, fires in high-rise buildings are usually smaller than fires in other buildings.

In high-rise buildings, fire spread beyond the room of origin in 1% of the dormitory fires; in 4% of the fires in apartments or multi-family housing, hotels, and properties that care for the sick; and in 10% of the office buildings.  In buildings that were not high-rise, fire spread beyond the room of origin in 2% of the dormitory fires, 9% of the fires in properties that care for the sick, 10% of the apartment or multi-family housing fires, 11% of the hotel or motel fires, and 21% of the office building fires.

According to NFPA’s new report on High-Rise Building Fires, U.S fire departments responded to an estimated average of 14,500 structure fires in these properties per year in 2009-2013.  These fires caused an average of 40 civilian deaths, 520 civilian injuries, and $154 million in direct property damage annually.  For this analysis, a high-rise building is a building that has at least seven stories above grade.  

Just five occupancy groups accounted for almost three-quarters (73%) of all high-rise building fires:

  • Apartments or other multi-family housing (62%);
  • Hotels (4%)
  • Dormitories (4%)
  • Office buildings (2%)
  • Facilities that care for the sick (2%)

The report provides more details about high-rise fires and fires in shorter buildings in these five occupancy groups.

Compared to fires in buildings that were not high-rise, fires in high-rise buildings were much less likely to spread beyond the room or floor of origin. High-rise buildings were more likely to have fire detection and much more likely to have wet pipe sprinklers than shorter buildings.  While construction type was dropped from the current version of the National Fire Incident Reporting System, data from 1980 to 1998 showed that high-rise buildings were much more likely to have fire-resistant construction.

Most high-rise building fires start below the seventh floor. The kitchen or cooking area was the leading area of origin in all five occupancies, regardless of height. 

And for those of you interested in the really big high-rise fires, Appendix A of NFPA’s High-Rise Building Fires report has a list of the ten deadliest high-rise building fires in the world.  Most in the list link to previously published NFPA material about these blazes. 

The causes of high-rise building fires have a lot in common with fires in other properties. We know that smoke detection, fire sprinklers, and compartmentation are vital to fire safety.  Today’s high-rise buildings are more likely to have this protection than are other properties.  The statistics remind us how important this protection is.