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Three people died and six were injured in a fire at a senior housing complex in Chesapeake, Virginia on Saturday, July 15th. The cause of the fire is reported to be a lightning strike somewhere in the vicinity of the roof of the three-story building. According to media reports, the building, which was constructed in the early 1990s, was protected by automatic sprinklers in the living areas but lacked sprinklers in the attic. This sounds like a residential sprinkler system, probably based on NFPA 13R, Standard for the Installation of Sprinkler Systems in Low-Rise Residential Occupancies, although I haven’t confirmed this. Residential sprinkler systems are intended to provide for occupant life safety by controlling or extinguishing the majority of residential fires where they start, which is within living areas. Unoccupied spaces, such as attics and garages, are generally not required to be sprinklered so as to not require freeze-protection and minimize cost. Since the Chesapeake fire apparently started in the area of the roof, there was no way for the sprinkler system to control it. Compounding the problem, the Chesapeake apartment building reportedly lacked a fire alarm system. Media reports indicate the building had alarms “connected to the sprinklers” – that sounds like an outside sprinkler waterflow alarm, which is not intended to notify building occupants of a fire.
The 1991 edition of the Life Safety Code was the first edition to mandate automatic sprinklers in new apartment buildings, with a handful of exceptions based on the means of egress arrangement. In that respect, the Chesapeake apartment building’s residential sprinkler system was state-of-the-art. That edition of the Code, however, also required a fire alarm system. Again, media reports indicate the code under which the Chesapeake apartment building was constructed did not require a fire alarm system. We’ll never know if a fire alarm system would have made a difference to the three individuals who did not survive Saturday’s fire.
The protection of senior housing apartments is an issue the NFPA 101 technical committees have been wrestling with for many years. Special requirements for apartments for the elderly were included in one edition of the Code: the 1981 edition. These requirements were deleted for the subsequent 1985 edition as the requirements were deemed to be discriminatory. The Code assumes occupants of residential occupancies are able to evacuate using the provided means of escape and means of egress. In reality, there is the potential that not all residents will have that ability in any apartment building, and especially in housing designed for seniors.
So where do we go from here? It will be up to the NFPA 101 technical committee responsible for the apartment building requirements to determine what, if any, changes need to be made to the Code. Is it a case where the Code adequately protects all apartment buildings, including senior housing, and the Chesapeake fire was a one-off event that we just have to accept from time to time? Or, are the current requirements inadequate? It’s interesting to note that for the 2018 edition, the Code recognizes that in apartment buildings of combustible construction, where the roof is more than 55 ft (17 m) above the lowest level of fire department vehicle access, some form of attic protection is needed. The protection options include sprinklers in the attic, the use of noncombustible materials or fire-retardant treated wood for attic construction, or filling the attic with noncombustible insulation. It doesn’t appear the Chesapeake apartment building met the 55-ft (17-m) roof height threshold, so this new requirement likely would not have made a difference there. If it’s determined that the Code requirements need to be enhanced, there’s no reason why this concept couldn’t be applied to any new apartment building. Yes, additional protection features have costs associated with them. Last Saturday’s fire in Chesapeake had a significantly greater, tragic cost.
What can you do? If fire protection and life safety are important to you, it’s incumbent on you to participate in the code development process. You don’t necessarily need to travel to committee meetings (although we’d be happy to see you there); you can participate by submitting public input and public comments for code revisions. NFPA is about to issue the 2018 edition of NFPA 101 on August 15th. Soon thereafter, NFPA will begin accepting public input for the 2021 edition. (Details on the public input process can be found here.) I’ll be blunt when I say I see very little fire service participation in the public input process. This is a challenge to all fire service organizations out there to step up your participation and submit public input. It’s not only the public’s safety, but also your safety that is directly impacted by the requirements of model codes and standards such as NFPA 101. I speak from personal experience when I say if you make your voice heard, you can make a difference.
Between the recent fire in Chesapeake, the horrific June 14 Grenfell Tower inferno in London that claimed 80 lives, the May 15 high-rise apartment building fire in Pittsburgh that left one person dead, and the July 14 high-rise apartment building fire in Honolulu that killed three people, it’s been a difficult couple months with respect to residential fire deaths. Our hearts go out to the victims and their families.
I’ve asked the question before: we can do nothing and go on, status-quo, or we can take action (by “we” I mean “you” because I can’t change the codes; only you can). In response to these recent fires, NFPA President Jim Pauley has called on legislators to enact the requirement of NFPA 1, Fire Code, to install automatic sprinklers in all high-rise buildings, regardless of occupancy, both new and existing. I can’t help but notice the disconnect between NFPA 1 and NFPA 101, which also requires existing high-rise apartment buildings to be sprinklered unless they’re provided with something called an engineered life safety system. The stated reason for the disconnect? They’re different codes with different scopes. While that’s true, if NFPA’s president is calling for all existing high-rise buildings to be sprinklered, NFPA 101 should perhaps take a hard look at that exemption. Once again, your voice could make a difference.
The fire protection community can be proud of the strides it has made in reducing fire deaths in recent decades, but I’m feeling anything but proud after the last couple months. I know we can do better. I can raise awareness because NFPA gives me a platform to do so, but if you think change is needed, it’s up to you to make it happen. Get after it.
Thanks for reading, and as always, stay safe.
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