A 75-year old woman died, and several fire fighters escaped tragedy after being trapped in a fire early Monday morning at Pittsburgh’s Midtown Towers, a non-sprinklered, 17-story apartment building constructed in 1907. The victim died in the apartment of fire origin. It was only through the heroic efforts of the Pittsburgh Fire Department that only one other resident needed to be transported to the hospital. The potential for significant loss of life was apparent.
This building, like many older high-rise buildings, pre-dates requirements for automatic sprinklers. Unfortunately, most people seeking affordable housing don’t first ask whether the building is sprinklered. Therefore, we as a society must ask ourselves, “Is the risk of living in non-sprinklered high-rise buildings acceptable?” We also need to ask whether the risks posed to emergency responders are acceptable; you can bet that fire fighters will put their lives on the line when a fire breaks out in an occupied, high-rise apartment building in the middle of the night. Are we doing enough to protect those first responders?
Clearly, the installation of automatic sprinklers in all existing high-rise buildings is the optimal solution. However, the position of NFPA is reflected by the requirements of its codes and standards. The Life Safety Code says existing high-rise apartment buildings need to be protected by automatic sprinklers OR an engineered life safety system, unless every apartment is provided with exterior exit access. As described in Annex A of the Code, the engineered life safety system might consist of a combination of any or all of the following systems:
(1) Partial automatic sprinkler protection
(2) Smoke detection alarms
(3) Smoke control
(4) Compartmentation or other approved systems, or both
I don’t have any details on what systems were provided in the Pittsburgh high-rise, other than news reports indicating it was non-sprinklered. I don’t know if any mitigating features were in place, other than reports of a working fire alarm system. The trapped fire fighters were located on the 8th floor, two floors above the fire-floor; that leads me to believe smoke control and compartmentation were either not in place or ineffective.
The question I keep asking myself is, “What will it take to mandate sprinklers in all existing high-rise buildings?” Cities have done it, or at least come close. In Philadelphia, it took the deaths of three fire fighters at the One Meridian Plaza fire in 1991. Following that fire, the city mandated the installation of automatic sprinklers in all nonresidential buildings 75-feet or taller. As I peruse the Internet for examples of high-rise sprinkler retrofit requirements, I see numerous exemptions for residential occupancies, thus omitting protection where it’s needed most. Yes, it’s disruptive to people’s lives to mandate a sprinkler retrofit in existing apartments and condos. Yes, there is a cost associated with it. Is it necessary? Unless the risks to occupants and emergency responders demonstrated by the fire this week in Pittsburgh are acceptable, I would argue yes, it’s necessary.
Interestingly, NFPA 101’s companion code, NFPA 1, Fire Code, came to this conclusion years ago. NFPA 1 mandates the installation of automatic sprinklers in ALL high-rise buildings within 12 years of its adoption. Is there a disconnect here? Maybe. The scope of NFPA 1 is broader than that of NFPA 101; it includes fire fighter safety and property protection. The scope of NFPA 101 is limited to occupant life safety. I know what I think, but as I often say, I can’t change the Code because I’m an NFPA staff member; only you can. If you believe the provisions of NFPA 101 are inadequate, it’s incumbent on you to participate in the process, which is easy to do. NFPA’s online public input system allows anyone to submit proposals for revisions, which you’ll be able to do shortly after the publication of the 2018 edition of NFPA 101 later this year.
Thanks for reading, and as always, until next time, stay safe.
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