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46 Posts authored by: gharrington Employee

A resident clings to the exterior of a 25-story Los Angeles high-rise apartment building on January 29, 2020; photo courtesy of Al Seib/Los Angeles Times

 

I have to wonder whether passersby on L.A.’s Wilshire Boulevard thought they were witnessing the filming of a new action film, considering they were only about nine miles away from Hollywood. This was no movie, however. This was real life, and the scene that played out on the morning of January 29th at the Barrington Plaza apartments was nothing short of terrifying. A 19-year-old man died and 13 other people were injured – 10 civilians and three firefighters – in a fire on the sixth and seventh floors of a 25-story apartment building. The building, which was constructed in 1961 and the scene of another major fire in 2013, was not protected by an automatic sprinkler system.

 

According to media reports, the City of Los Angeles does not require high-rise buildings to be protected by automatic sprinkler systems if they were built prior to 1974. This has led some to ask about NFPA’s position on sprinkler protection for older high-rise buildings. NFPA’s position is established by the requirements in its codes and standards that are developed using an ANSI accredited, open-consensus process in which any person can participate. Two NFPA codes specify sprinkler requirements for existing high-rise buildings: NFPA 1, Fire Code, and NFPA 101, Life Safety Code. The requirements of NFPA 1 and NFPA 101 differ slightly because the two codes have different scopes and different goals and objectives.

 

The scope, goals, and objectives of NFPA 101 are limited to protecting building occupants from the effects of fire and similar emergencies. Building occupants are those who live, work, or otherwise normally occupy a building. Building occupants, in the context of NFPA 101, do not include emergency responders. Because NFPA 101 is concerned only with occupant life safety, protection of neither the building itself nor its contents is considered. If a building has a fire in which all occupants are able to safely evacuate and the building subsequently burns to the ground, the goals and objectives of NFPA 101 are considered to have been satisfied. The life safety requirements of NFPA 101 are based on a building’s occupancy classification (i.e., how a building is used). The Barrington Plaza building would be classified by the current edition of NFPA 101 as an existing apartment building. In addition, any building having a floor level more than 75 ft above the lowest level of fire department vehicle access is a high-rise building; the 25-story building in question meets this criterion.

 

The 2018 edition of NFPA 101 requires existing, high-rise apartment buildings to be protected by automatic sprinkler systems unless one of the specified exemptions exists. Because this requirement applies to existing buildings, it is intended to be applied to any high-rise apartment building that was constructed prior to the adoption of the 2018 edition of the Code, irrespective of the requirements of the code adopted at the time of construction. NFPA 101 does not “grandfather” existing buildings. Two exemptions apply to the mandatory sprinkler requirement: one is if every apartment is provided with exterior exit access (e.g., outside balconies), and the other is if the building is provided with an engineered life safety system (ELSS) designed to compensate for the lack of sprinkler protection and approved by the applicable authority having jurisdiction. ELSSs can be comprised of a combination of partial sprinkler systems, smoke detection systems, smoke control systems, building compartmentation, and other approved systems. An ELSS is an engineered, complex, alternative system that is designed to provide a level of protection essentially equivalent to that afforded by automatic sprinklers. In some cases, building owners might find that the design and installation of a complicated ELSS is cost-prohibitive and the installation of a relatively simple automatic sprinkler system is more cost-effective.

 

Whereas the scope of NFPA 101 is limited to occupant life safety, the scope, goals, and objectives of NFPA 1, Fire Code, include not only occupant life safety, but also emergency responder safety and property protection. For this reason, the high-rise building sprinkler provisions of NFPA 1 and NFPA 101 differ. The 2018 edition of NFPA 1 states that all existing high-rise buildings, regardless of occupancy classification or when the building was constructed, must be protected by automatic sprinkler systems, without exception, within 12 years of adoption of the Code by the applicable jurisdiction. NFPA 1 does not offer the ELSS alternative, recognizing the life safety benefits as well as the property saving benefits of automatic sprinkler systems.

 

While neither NFPA 1 nor NFPA 101 has criteria that specifically addresses short-term rental of residential dwellings, it is interesting to note, according to media reports, residents of Barrington Plaza complained about numerous units being used as such with sites like Airbnb. It’s reported that some units would be rented for a night by partiers. Where a building is used for residential purposes on such a transient basis, it starts to have some of the characteristics of a hotel. Codes have different requirements for hotels when compared to apartment buildings recognizing the transient nature of the occupants. The 19-year-old who died in the Barrington Plaza fire was an exchange student from France. Further details haven’t been released so it isn’t known whether he was a short-term renter, if he had a standard lease from the building management, or if he was a visitor. Regardless, the risks associated with hotels and apartment buildings differ, and this is a topic that warrants further study. (A feature article in the July/August 2018 issue of NFPA Journal titled “The Airbnb Challenge” addresses this issue.)

 

Automatic sprinkler systems have proven to be the best defense against fire in high-rise buildings. While the recent fire in Los Angeles was tragic, it had the potential to be catastrophic. I believe the outcome would have been much different had the fire occurred at 2:30 a.m. instead of 8:30 a.m. The relatively few numbers of injuries were thanks to the heroic efforts of the members of the Los Angeles Fire Department who selflessly put their lives on the line. They had no other choice, largely because an older high-rise building was grandfathered from requiring a basic fire protection feature like an automatic sprinkler system.

How did I get here?

When you read an average of a half-dozen home fire death stories every day for a month, it changes you. That’s not hyperbole; I did and it changed me. At the conclusion of 2019, I wrote in my #101Wednesdays blog about the year and decade in review in terms of life safety from fire. While there were several significant advances, I pondered whether enough was being done to reduce the number of civilian deaths in home fires. The number has hovered between about 2,500 and 3,000 for the last 20 years or so. This is a significant improvement over the number of deaths recorded in prior decades, largely attributable to the proliferation of smoke alarms; but it’s not getting any better. I had to ask myself, “Is this good enough?”

To help me understand the problem, I assigned a project to myself. On January 1, I started scouring the internet for media reports of home fire deaths and tweeted the results each day with a running tally (you can see them in my Twitter feed at @NFPAGregH – see the hashtag #homefiredeaths). The U.S. Fire Administration’s website was a valuable resource; between their data and my findings, I was able to provide a daily summary of who was dying in home fires every day in the U.S. My goal was to educate myself and to raise awareness. I did so until this past Monday, January 27, when the task became too much; the numbers were so high that it was affecting my ability to perform the functions NFPA pays me to do and was cutting into my nights and weekends. Reading all the stories of loss and tragedy also had an emotional impact on me. I needed to be reminded of why I came to work for NFPA almost 24 years ago. Yes, overseeing the development process for codes like NFPA 101 is important work and ultimately leads to a safer built environment. But I believe there’s more that we – I – can do to make a real difference, and the home fire death problem is certainly an area in which there is room to make a difference.

While each story I read over the past month was tragic, there were several that stood out in my mind. This journey actually started a few days before the new year. On December 27th, a spectacular fire destroyed a Concord, MA mansion. This fire garnered tremendous media attention despite the fact that no one was killed or injured. On the same day, a father and his two young daughters died in a fire in their modest apartment in Hemet, CA; this fire was barely a blip on the media radar. The disparity in coverage was glaring.

On January 5th, two men died in a house fire in Fitchburg, MA. The fire was blamed on an overloaded power strip (or relocatable power tap in code parlance); coincidentally, the latest #FireCodefridays blog addresses electrical safety requirements in NFPA 1, Fire Code. This fire stood out to me because I grew up in the adjacent town and was a member of that town’s on-call fire department in the 80s and 90s. We ran mutual aid to Fitchburg quite often; that’s where I caught most of my “big fires.” Because of my personal experience, this fire hit close to home.

On January 8th, an elderly woman died in a fire in Ellabel, GA caused by a clogged dryer vent. This fire stuck out for several reasons: one was because the victim was elderly, as were several other victims I documented over the month. Another was because the fire was in a manufactured home (or “mobile home” as commonly referred to by the media). Manufactured home fires and elderly fire victims are apparently not uncommon. If you search my Twitter feed for #manufacturedhomefire and #olderadultfiredeath, you will find several occurrences. Another fire in a manufactured home in rural Kentucky killed a grandmother and three children the day before.

Another house fire in Kentucky left a mother and her six-year-old daughter dead on January 17th. This fire was noteworthy because it was reported that the home had no working smoke alarms; this is also not an uncommon occurrence (search my Twitter feed for #noworkingsmokealarms). It’s unimaginable to me that people still don’t have working smoke alarms. This will be a topic for a future post in this series.

On January 20th, a fire in a Bronx, NY high-rise apartment building killed an 85-year-old retired NYPD police officer. Although not reported, it is presumed that sprinklers were not installed in the apartment of fire origin. The combination of a high-rise building, residential occupancy, elderly residents, and lack of automatic sprinklers seems to be a “perfect storm” with regard to the potential for large numbers of fatalities. Disaster was averted in this fire thanks to the strong work by the FDNY.

The home fire death problem appears to stem from a combination of lack of protection (sprinklers and smoke alarms) and an apathetic public. Codes like NFPA 101 can prescribe minimum protection requirements, but we can’t regulate people’s attitudes towards fire; this is, I believe, the biggest hurdle to be cleared if we’re going to lower the numbers of fire deaths. In this series, I don’t expect to have a lot of answers; rather, I intend to ask questions to stimulate discussions to help hone in on the things we can change to have the biggest impact. I figure I’ve got about another 15 years left in this career. It won’t mean much in 2035 to have my name in a bunch of Life Safety Codes if 2,500 to 3,000 people are still dying each year in U.S. home fires as they have been for the last 20 years.

Thanks for reading, and as always, stay safe.

The views expressed in #101Wednesdays are my own and do not reflect the views of NFPA.

Got an idea for a topic for a future #101Wednesdays? Post it in the comments below – I’d love to hear your suggestions!

Did you know NFPA 101 is available to review online for free? Head over to www.nfpa.org/101 and click on “FREE ACCESS.”

Follow me on Twitter: @NFPAGregH 

As 2019 and the 2010s draw to a close, it’s a good opportunity to reflect on our accomplishments as a fire protection and life safety community in reducing loss of life from fire and similar emergencies. It’s also an opportunity to reflect on where room for improvement still exists. While people continue to die in fires, we continue to have work to do.

For me, 2019 was punctuated by two occurrences: mass shootings (or more broadly, mass violence) and the fire at Cathedral Notre Dame in Paris. To date, there have been 409 mass shootings with 486 people killed in 2019 in the U.S. (based on the unofficial definition of ‘mass shooting’ being four or more people shot in a single incident). Nine of these incidents occurred at schools or universities. The Code doesn’t regulate buildings to protect occupants from these acts of violence, but mitigating the risk certainly has life safety from fire implications. (I’ve always contended that security and life safety from fire are diametrically opposing forces.)

NFPA has been responsive to the gun violence crisis in this country by facilitating, in 2017 following the Orlando Pulse Nightclub shooting, the development of NFPA 3000 (PS), Standard for an Active Shooter/Hostile Event Response (ASHER) Program. This provisional standard was developed on an emergency basis under ANSI regulations to respond to the need of communities for a framework for the development of programs to prepare for, respond to, and recover from active shooter and other hostile events. NFPA continued to work this past year to assist its stakeholders by providing training and a roadmap for the implementation of NFPA 3000, and it continues to facilitate the development of NFPA 3000 as a full-fledged, ANSI accredited standard, the issuance of which is scheduled to occur in 2020.

In the Life Safety Code arena, the technical committee responsible for requirements in educational occupancies (K-12 schools) recognized in 2019 the need for practical, cost effective, and most importantly, safe classroom door locking solutions that could be implemented on existing doors without meeting the strict, single-motion lock/latch releasing requirement present in the 2018 edition of NFPA 101. Lacking a code-compliant, cost effective solution, the alternative for many school districts was to purchase and equip classrooms with dangerous barricade devices, and other makeshift arrangements, such as five-gallon plastic buckets containing rope, a hammer, a wooden wedge, and duct tape. To preemptively mitigate the hazards of these unsafe alternatives, NFPA issued a tentative interim amendment to the classroom door locking provisions in the 2018 edition of NFPA 101, and carried the same concepts forward in the draft 2021 edition slated for publication in 2020.

The Cathedral Notre Dame fire last April drove home an important lesson in my mind; I wrote about it in my #101Wednesdays blog shortly following the fire. Although this particular fire resulted in no loss of life, it demonstrated where a fire protection (or life safety) plan relies on human intervention, the plan must accommodate, and compensate, for the very real potential for human error. The need for quality and consistent training can’t be overstated. The Code can only do so much; unless communities and society embrace the concepts it embodies, the words in the book aren’t worth the cost of the paper they’re printed on. Following the Oakland Ghost Ship fire in 2016, I wrote about the need for a new way of thinking – a paradigm shift, of sorts – to prevent such recurring tragedies. I believe one such new way of thinking has been realized by the development of the NFPA Fire & Life Safety Ecosytem, a framework that identifies the components that must work together to minimize risk and help prevent loss, injuries, and death from fire, electrical, and other hazards. For the Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem to have an impact, it’s up to us to continue to talk about it and educate. This is no easy task and will be an ongoing challenge in 2020 and many years to come.

The past year and decade have seen important advancements in NFPA 101, including: new requirements for carbon monoxide detection; significant changes to health care occupancy requirements to accommodate homelike settings (e.g., community kitchens), particularly in nursing facilities, to enhance patients’ cognitive abilities and dignity (so-called “health care culture change”) – these provisions were incorporated into the 2012 edition, which was subsequently adopted by the U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services; and recognition of hazardous materials emergencies and targeted violence events in the 2018 edition.

The area of fire protection and life safety in which I fear significant progress has not been made is home fire deaths. Fire data compiled by NFPA indicates somewhere in the neighborhood of 2,500 to 3,000 people die in home fires in the U.S. each year. These numbers haven’t changed much in the last 20 years, let alone the last decade. NFPA 101 requires all new one- and two-family dwellings to be protected by automatic sprinklers; however, as long as trade organizations continue to successfully advocate against sprinkler legislation, that requirement, and a companion requirement in the International Residential Code, will have no impact. Granted, the vast majority of the population lives in existing housing stock and the installation of sprinklers in all new homes would not have a measurable impact on fire death statistics for decades, most likely. However, the impact would come one day; it’s never going to come at the rate we’re going. The question I ask myself heading into the 2020s, then, is, “Are we doing what’s needed to reduce the burden of fire on society, or are we doing what’s needed to maintain the status quo?” The numbers seem to point towards the latter. I don’t know what it will take to drive the home fire death numbers down appreciably. Maybe it’s sprinklers. Maybe it’s stricter smoke alarm requirements. Maybe it’s something else. I do know that I’m not content with maintaining the status quo; it’s not good enough and it’s not why I got into this business. I would challenge you to think about whether it’s good enough for you as well, and if not, what are we going to do about it.

I’d like to take this opportunity to wish you all a very happy holiday season. We’ve done a lot of good work together this past year and decade; I’m looking forward to the good work we’ll do together in 2020 and beyond.

Thanks for reading, and as always, stay safe.

Got an idea for a topic for a future #101Wednesdays? Post it in the comments below – I’d love to hear your suggestions!

Did you know NFPA 101 is available to review online for free? Head over to www.nfpa.org/101 and click on “FREE ACCESS.”

Follow me on Twitter: @NFPAGregH

Winter doesn’t officially start for another couple weeks, but looking out the window here in New England and many other parts of the country tells a different story. Snow is covering the ground, and each additional storm will pile it higher. With the cold, wintry weather brings an increased risk of carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning from blocked heating system combustion exhaust vents. The current (2018) edition of the Life Safety Code requires the installation of carbon monoxide detectors or alarms in certain occupancies with combustion equipment, including:

  • New assembly occupancies
  • New educational occupancies
  • New day-care homes
  • New and existing health care occupancies with fireplaces
  • New one- and two-family dwellings
  • New lodging or rooming houses
  • New hotels and dormitories
  • New apartment buildings
  • New residential board and care occupancies

Most of us, however, live in existing homes – defined as those constructed prior to the adoption of the current edition of the code – with older heating equipment and vent systems. It’s in these existing homes where the greatest risk lies. In 2005, seven-year-old Nicole Garofalo of Plymouth, Massachusetts died when a snow drift blocked the exhaust vent on her home’s heating system. Several months later, the state enacted Nicole’s Law in her memory, which requires all homes in Massachusetts with combustion equipment or enclosed parking to have carbon monoxide detection equipment. The law is enforced at the time a house is sold; fire department approval is required prior to the transfer. This exceeds the minimum requirements of the Life Safety Code, which does not require CO detection in existing homes. Kudos to Massachusetts for taking the lead on requiring relatively inexpensive, life saving protection where it’s needed most.

And what is the cost to provide this valuable protection in an existing home? I’ll offer myself as a case study. When I bought my house a few years ago, it met Nicole’s Law by having two plug-in CO alarms – one on each level. I just looked on my favorite online shopping site; a plug-in CO alarm goes for under $20. For under $100, you can protect a pretty good-sized home. Now, my house has a gas furnace, a gas stove, a gas fireplace, a wood-burning fireplace, and an attached garage; I wanted something more than a couple plug-in alarms. My house already had hardwired, interconnected smoke alarms that were due to be replaced. (Smoke alarms should be replaced every ten years or as directed by the manufacturer.) Instead of buying replacement smoke alarms, I bought combination smoke and CO alarms. Again, on my favorite online shopping site, a box of six hardwire combination carbon monoxide and smoke alarms with battery backup and voice warning goes for $168. I’m pretty handy so I did the installation myself. $168 was a small price to pay for the lives of me and my family.

If you’re reading this #101Wednesdays blog, I’m likely preaching to the choir. You already know about the dangers of CO poisoning and the need to keep combustion vents clear. Most people, however, don’t think like us. So as this holiday season approaches, think about your neighbors. Check to make sure their vents are clear. Maybe if they’re older, ask if you can help to clear them. Ask if they have CO alarms in their homes. If not, for $20 you could give a gift that’s much more thoughtful than a fruitcake.

See NFPA’s website for more details on CO, including safety tips and NFPA’s nonfire CO incident report.

Thanks for reading, and stay safe.

Got an idea for a topic for a future #101Wednesdays? Post it in the comments below – I’d love to hear your suggestions!

Did you know NFPA 101 is available to review online for free? Head over to www.nfpa.org/101 and click on “FREE ACCESS.”

Follow me on Twitter: @NFPAGregH

Protection of vertical openings is a subject about which we receive a fair number of questions here at NFPA. In general, floors need to provide a smoke-resistant barrier between stories in a building to prevent smoke from migrating vertically and affecting occupants on stories other than the story of fire origin. A vertical opening is a “hole in the floor” that requires some form of protection. Different vertical openings have different names: convenience opening; communicating space; atrium; two-story opening with partial enclosure; and others. The varied protection strategies offered by the code are, I think, what creates some confusion. To determine the protection requirements, refer to Section 8.6 and the X.3.1 subsection of the applicable occupancy chapters. A quick overview of a few scenarios based on the 2018 edition of the code follows:

  • Full enclosure: Where vertical openings (holes in floors) exist, enclose the openings with fire barriers on each story exposed to the opening. The required fire resistance rating of the enclosing barriers depends on the number of stories exposed to the opening(s) and whether it is new or existing. See 8.6.5 for the required rating. Examples include elevator hoistways and utility shafts. This scenario satisfies the base requirement of 8.6.2. Note that exit stair enclosures, which are a form of vertical opening, must meet the more stringent requirements of 7.1.3.2; meeting the exit enclosure requirements inherently meets the vertical opening requirements.

Where full enclosure on all exposed stories is not practical or is undesirable, the code offers several alternatives. These are referred to as continuity exemptions in 8.6.3; here are examples of a few of them:

  • Partial enclosure: Where a vertical opening occurs in one floor only (i.e., only two stories are exposed to the opening), 8.6.8 permits the opening to be enclosed on one story or the other leaving one of the stories exposed to the opening. The required rating of the enclosing barriers is covered by 8.6.5 (1-hr for new, ½-hr for existing). No special occupancy chapter permission is required and there are no restrictions on what the opening can be used for. If the opening is used for a stair, the stair could be used as part of a required exit access, but it does not qualfiy as an exit since 7.1.3.2 and 7.2.2.5 require exit stairs to enclosed on every story (there is an exemption for some existing two-story exit stairs in 7.2.2.5.1.3).
  • Convenience opening: Where a vertical opening occurs in one floor only (i.e., two stories are exposed to the opening), the opening might be permitted to be unenclosed on both stories if it meets the requirements of 8.6.9.1. These unenclosed openings require permission in the X.3.1 subsection of the applicable occupancy chapters, where X is the chapter number (e.g., 38.3.1 for new business occupancies. Some of the key requirements of 8.6.9.1 include: the opening can’t communicate with openings to other stories; new openings must be separated from any corridors (these convenience openings are sometimes found in office building tenant spaces); if the opening is used for a stair, the stair does not get any credit as a means of egress.
  • Communicating space: These are sometimes referred to as “mini-atriums.” Unlike a convenience opening, a communicating space can expose up to three stories to each other. With the increased exposure comes additional requirements and limitations in 8.6.6. Communicating spaces are permitted unless prohibited by the X.3.1 subsection of the applicable occupancy chapters; for an example, see 18.3.1.5, which prohibits communicating spaces in new health care occupancies. Portions of stories that are exposed to the communicating space must be separated from the remainder of the building by fire or smoke barriers depending on whether the building is protected by automatic sprinklers. Areas outside the communicating space need access to an exit without passing through the communicating space, and the communicating space needs to be open and unobstructed so a fire on any story within the communicating space will be readily apparent. Contents within the communicating spaces are restricted to low hazard (essentially noncombustible) unless the space has automatic sprinklers. By meeting all the criteria in 8.6.6, the unenclosed floor are openings are protected.
  • Atrium: Whereas a communicating space is limited to exposing not more than three contiguous stories, an atrium can expose any number of stories because it is subject to the stringent requirements of 8.6.7, which include automatic sprinkler protection throughout the building. New atriums must be provided with an engineering analysis to show that smoke from a fire in the atrium will not prevent the use of the highest exit access path exposed to the atrium for the time needed to evacuate; this frequently necessitates an engineered smoke control system. Think of a Hyatt or Embassy Suites hotel in which, upon leaving your guest room, you’re immediately in the atrium space. This exit access path needs to be maintained relatively smoke free to allow occupants to reach the enclosed exit stairs. The design of atrium buildings is largely performance-based and frequently involves computer fire and egress modeling.

NFPA atrium

The atrium at NFPA in Quincy, MA

 

The code offers a handful of additional vertical opening protection strategies – see Section 8.6 for the details. Be aware that some of the Life Safety Code vertical opening protection requirements might differ from those in the International Building Code; in some cases, the Life Safety Code might be more restrictive (several attendees at classes I’ve instructed have indicated this is the case for two-story, unenclosed vertical openings). Where a jurisdiction has adopted both NFPA 101 and the IBC, designers will likely need to comply with the more restrictive provisions so as to meet the requirements of both.

Thanks for reading, and stay safe.

Got an idea for a topic for a future #101Wednesdays? Post it in the comments below – I’d love to hear your suggestions!

Did you know NFPA 101 is available to review online for free? Head over to www.nfpa.org/101 and click on “FREE ACCESS.”

Follow me on Twitter: @NFPAGregH

Notre Dame FirePhoto Credit: Associated Press/Thierry Mallet

It’s been a little over a week since I watched Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris burn on live TV. In addition to my responsibility for the Life Safety Code at NFPA, I also staff the Technical Committee on Cultural Resources, which develops NFPA 909, Code for the Protection of Cultural Resource Properties - Museums, Libraries, and Places of Worship, and NFPA 914, Code for the Protection of Historic Structures. Having worked for the past dozen years with professionals dedicated to preserving our cultural heritage, the Notre Dame fire was like a punch in the gut. On a personal level, I had the opportunity to sing at Notre Dame 31 years ago with my college choir as part of a European tour. It was an experience I’ll never forget, and a memory that is now all the more poignant.

If there was any good news to come from the Notre Dame fire, there was no loss of life or serious injuries. Nonetheless, I believe there are life safety lessons to be learned. A recent New York Times article reports that some 31 minutes elapsed between the time of the first alarm and the time the fire department was notified. In the life of a fire, 31 minutes is an eternity. The reason for the delay was the reliance on human intervention in Notre Dame’s fire safety plan. No automatic fire department notification was in place to avoid nuisance alarm responses – one link in the “accident chain.” When the first alarm activated, employees climbed a steep staircase to the attic, did not immediately detect a problem, and left – a second link in the chain. It was only when a second alarm activated and guards returned to the attic that a fire was confirmed. The guards then had to walk back to a location from which the fire service could be notified, adding to the delay – a third link in the chain. Under ideal conditions, it would have taken at least 20 minutes from the time of alarm to the time of suppression operations. If any of the accident chain links had been broken, perhaps the fire damage might have been limited. However, given the assumed 20-minute delay, that is questionable, even if the plan had been perfectly executed.

So what is the life safety lesson? To me, it’s simple: if your fire/life safety plan is dependent on actions by people, your risk assessment needs to assume some degree of failure of the human intervention component, and that failure needs to be balanced by other fire/life safety features. In my previous fire service experience I learned that if something can go wrong on a fireground, it probably will. In some occupancies, NFPA 101 relies on people to perform specific duties as part of an emergency action plan for the protection of occupants from fire. A common example is in health care occupancies; we rely on staff to relocate patients from the smoke compartment of fire origin to an unaffected smoke compartment because patients are assumed to be incapable of self-preservation. The Code does not, however, rely solely on staff. Other protection features, such as automatic sprinklers and fire alarms, are mandated. The human intervention component is one element of a complete life safety package. If the human intervention link is broken, or bent, the other features work together to protect occupants. I sometimes hear of proposed equivalencies to reduce or eliminate life safety systems or features based on the presence of “trained staff.” I would caution authorities having jurisdiction to carefully evaluate what might happen if the trained staff do not perform as expected for whatever reason.

The real tragedy of Notre Dame is it did not need to happen. Had the lessons of other losses been heeded, any number of measures would have been taken to prevent it. Automatic sprinklers were not considered for the protection of the heavy timber attic space because they would have “drowned the structure” – a misconception at least partially responsible for the structure’s destruction. I have no doubt the stewards of Notre Dame would rather be mopping up a bit of water damage than contemplating how to restore a magnificent, iconic structure that will never be the same.  

Thanks for reading, and stay safe.

Got an idea for a topic for a future #101Wednesdays? Post it in the comments below – I’d love to hear your suggestions!

Did you know NFPA 101 is available to review online for free? Head over to www.nfpa.org/101 and click on “FREE ACCESS.”

Follow me on Twitter: @NFPAGregH

Health care facilities contain countless doors serving numerous purposes. Some doors require routine inspections, and the items to be inspected vary depending on the application of the door. In this NFPA® Live I guided viewers in determining which doors require routine inspections and where to find the required inspection frequencies and criteria in NFPA codes and standards.

In my recent NFPA Live I provided an overview of the code requirements and compared those with the expectations of surveyors when they are in a facility. I received this follow-up question from a member. I hope you find some value in it.

NFPA Live is an interactive video series in which members of NFPA staff address some of the most frequent topics they receive through the Member's Only Technical Question service. If you are currently an NFPA Member you can view the entire video by following this link. If you're not currently a member, join today!

Development of the 2021 edition of the Life Safety Code is well underway. The NFPA 101 First Draft Report, which contains the NFPA 101 First Draft with all approved first revisions (FRs), committee inputs (CIs), and resolved public inputs (PIs), is available for review online. Any topic addressed by an FR, CI, or PI, can be commented on by anyone. The public comment closing date is May 8, 2019, so if you would like to participate in the process, now is the time to submit public comments. If you’re new to the NFPA standards development process or could just use a refresher, head over to the codes and standards page on the NFPA website.

The NFPA 101 First Draft contains a total of 316 FRs (334 including first correlating revisions). A comprehensive understanding of the proposed revisions requires reviewing the entire First Draft Report. I realize relatively few people have time for such an undertaking, so I’ve identified what I think are some of the highlights (noted paragraph numbers are consistent with the First Draft numbering):

  • Revised definition of ‘personal care’ to include limited skilled nursing services (3.3.216, A.3.3.216)
  • New provision clarifying that non-required fire doors do not require compliance with NFPA 80 (4.6.12.14, A.4.6.12.3)
  • New term ‘clear floor area’ used in Ch. 7, Means of Egress (numerous locations, draft definition in CI 3.3.22.2)
  • Revised interior exit discharge provisions (7.7.2)
  • Revised communicating space provisions to permit smoke detection in lieu of openness (8.6.6)
  • New requirements for low-frequency alarm signals (9.6.2.10.3, 9.6.3.3)
  • New requirement for fire department two-way radio communication enhancement systems in new and existing buildings in accordance with the fire code (9.15)
  • New requirements for outdoor furnishings adjacent to buildings (10.4)
  • New requirement for automatic sprinklers in all new assembly occupancy bars and restaurants (12.3.5.1)
  • Revised classroom door locking requirements for existing educational and day care occupancies (15.2.2.2.4, 17.2.2.2.6)
  • Revised construction limits for existing nursing homes (19.1.6)
  • New requirement for automatic sprinklers in existing high-rise buildings containing ambulatory health care occupancies (21.4.3.1)
  • New requirement for carbon monoxide detection in existing hotels and dormitories (29.3.4.6)
  • New provisions for valet trash services in apartment buildings (30.7.5, 31.7.5)
  • Removal of engineered life safety system option for existing, high-rise apartment buildings; new 12-year phase-in for mandatory automatic sprinkler systems (31.3.5.12)

Several CIs were also developed for the purpose of soliciting public comments:

  • Proposed Annex A language on dynamic exit signage (7.10.2, CI-6568)
  • Proposed mezzanine area limits with automatic sprinklers (8.6.10.2, CI-6598)
  • Proposed revised school fire drill provisions (14.7.2.4, CI-6914)
  • Proposed mandatory requirement for automatic sprinklers in all new day care occupancies (16.3.5.1, CI-6910)

While this list is not intended to be all-inclusive, it touches on what I think are the “big proposed changes” for the next edition of the Code. Your comments are vital to ensuring that a broad range of stakeholder interests are considered by the NFPA 101 technical committees. For a video overview of these proposed revisions, NFPA members can check out my NFPA Live ARCHIVE: A Preview of the NFPA 101, Life Safety Code, 2021 Edition FIRST DRAFT from this past January.

Thanks for reading, and until next time, stay safe!

Got an idea for a topic for a future #101Wednesdays? Post it in the comments below – I’d love to hear your suggestions!

Did you know NFPA 101 is available to review online for free? Head over to www.nfpa.org/101 and click on “FREE ACCESS.”

Follow me on Twitter: @NFPAGregH

 

I still refer to the building rehabilitation chapter of NFPA 101, Life Safety Code, as the “new Chapter 43.” It’s been in the Code since the 2006 edition; that’s something like 13 years. I guess it’s not so new anymore. Nonetheless, when I teach NFPA’s three-day 2018 Life Safety Code Essentials seminar, I sometimes encounter some confusion in the class with the concepts of change of use and change of occupancy. Here’s how it works:

 

Chapter 4, General, mandates any rehabilitation work on an existing building must comply with Chapter 43 (see 4.6.7). One of the rehabilitation work categories is change of use or occupancy classification. It should be noted that change of use or occupancy classification does not necessarily have to involve a physical change to the building; Chapter 43 applies whether a physical change occurs or not. To understand the difference between change of use and change of occupancy classification, refer to the special definitions in Section 43.2:

 

43.2.2.1.5 Change of Use. A change in the purpose or level of activity within a structure that involves a change in application of the requirements of the Code.

 

43.2.2.1.6 Change of Occupancy Classification. The change in the occupancy classification of a structure or portion of a structure.

 

The key words in the ‘change of use’ definition are, “that involves a change in application of the requirements of the Code.” An example I give is converting an office in a business occupancy into a storage room. The occupancy classification has not changed; it’s still a business occupancy because storage is permitted by 6.1.14.1.3 to be considered incidental. However, general storage areas are considered to be hazardous in business occupancies per 38.3.2.1 and 39.3.2.1. This results in a change in the application of the requirements of the Code and is a change of use. Chapter 43 describes the requirements for change of use in 43.7.1. For this example, the creation of a hazardous area is covered by 43.7.1.2, which requires a new hazardous area to comply with the requirements applicable to the new use as though it were new construction. This means we would have to apply the requirements for new business occupancies in 38.3.2.1, which sends us back to Section 8.7. This requires either: 1) separation of the hazardous area from the remainder of the building by one-hour fire barriers and 45-minute doors, or 2) the installation of automatic sprinklers with a smoke partition separation and self-closing doors. Either way, some modification to the room and/or door is likely going to be required. Changes of use to other than hazardous areas might require compliance with the existing occupancy chapter requirements.

 

Change of occupancy is pretty straightforward: changing a building’s occupancy classification from one classification to a different classification. An example I give is when I worked in the fire marshal’s office in San Antonio (home of the 2019 NFPA Conference & Expo!) in the 1990s, we had several old office buildings on the Riverwalk that were bought by developers and converted into hotels. The former occupancy classification was business and the new classification was hotel and dormitory (this was back before Chapter 43 existed, so it’s a hypothetical application). To determine the requirements, the former and new occupancy classifications are assigned a relative hazard category classification in Table 43.7.3; these categories relate to the relative occupant risks for the various occupancies. In my example, both business occupancies and hotels and dormitories are assigned hazard category 3 (hotel and dormitory is a residential occupancy by definition). Where a change of occupancy creates other than an assembly occupancy, and the change occurs within the same hazard classification category or to a lesser hazard category, the building must meet the requirements of the applicable existing occupancy chapter for the occupancy created by the change, except that the requirements for automatic sprinklers, fire alarm systems, and hazardous areas must comply with the new occupancy chapter. For my office building-hotel example, the hotel would be required to comply with the requirements of Chapter 29 applicable to existing hotels and dormitories, except that automatic sprinklers, fire alarm systems, and hazardous areas would have to be provided/protected as required by Chapter 28 applicable to new hotels and dormitories. For other changes of occupancy, the requirements vary depending on the relative hazard categories.

 

Hopefully this will help you to better understand how the Life Safety Code applies to changes of use and occupancy classification and make your job a little easier. Join us at the NFPA C&E in San Antonio in June and check out some of those changes of occupancy for yourself!

 

Thanks, as always, for reading, and until next time, stay safe!

 

Got an idea for a topic for a future #101Wednesdays? Post it in the comments below – I’d love to hear your suggestions!

Did you know NFPA 101 is available to review online for free? Head over to www.nfpa.org/101 and click on “FREE ACCESS.”

 

Follow me on Twitter: @NFPAGregH

The revision process for the 2021 edition of NFPA 101 is currently underway. In my recent NFPA live, I offered viewers a preview of some of the key subjects for which revisions are being considered in advance of the posting of the First Draft, on which the public will have the opportunity to submit public comments.
I provided a brief overview of the revision process for NFPA 101, a synopsis of some of the key first revisions to be included in the First Draft, how to get more involved in the NFPA 101 revision process, and an overview of how to stay on top of potential revisions. I received a follow-up question from a member and included it in the video below. I hope you find some value in it.
NFPA Live is an interactive video series in which members of NFPA staff address some of the most frequent topics they receive through the Member's Only Technical Questionservice. If you are currently an NFPA Member you can view the entire video by following this link. If you're not currently a member, join today!

Spire London – Image via Greenland Group

When I look at my new copy of the 2018 edition of the Life Safety Code, there's a sense of accomplishment for the fire protection and life safety community in advancing the safety of building occupants from the effects of fire. Indeed, fire deaths are unusual in buildings in which the code’s requirements are met, and when they do occur, NFPA’s technical committees are quick to revisit those requirements and modify them as necessary. We’ve come a long way from the days of the fires that precipitated the development of what was then known as the Building Exits Code. For example, a fire at the Iroquois Theatre in Chicago killed more than 600 people in 1903, and another at the Triangle Waist Company in New York City killed 146 workers in 1911. We’ve learned from these fires and applied those lessons to our ever-evolving codes so those deaths were not in vain. 

The provision of multiple exit stairs has been a fundamental requirement for apartment buildings since the 1956 edition of NFPA 101. How is it, then, that in 2018 I’m reading in the Times of London about the development of not one but seven high-rise, residential towers that will each contain only a single-exit stair serving the highest floors? It’s mind-boggling to me with what we know about life safety from fire that anyone would consider designing—and any building code would allow—a high-rise building with a single exit.

The proposed Spire London will have a single stair serving the apartments on floors 55 through 67 (presumably equivalent to floors 56 through 68 in the U.S., since the first level above the ground floor is typically designated as the first floor in Europe). This was likely a design decision to allow for larger luxury apartments on the upper floors, since increased living space equals increased price. This is about money.

While the building will be equipped with automatic sprinklers and smoke extraction systems, these are active systems. Any active system (or passive life safety feature for that matter) has the potential to fail. It is this potential that makes redundancy critically important when it comes to means of egress. Anyone with any fire service experience knows that if something can go wrong, there’s a good chance it will. The risk of system failures can be minimized by performing the needed routine testing and maintenance, but it can never be eliminated entirely. Putting residents 770 feet above ground level with only a single-exit stair for the sole purpose of profit creates a completely unnecessary risk.

Compounding the Spire London exiting issue, travel distance from the furthest apartment entrance to the single stair will reportedly be about 70 feet, while the usual “government guidelines” call for a distance of no more than about 25 feet. This increased distance is based on “fire engineering solutions,” which is fine as long as all the systems on which the engineering solutions are based function as intended and the real fire does just what the design fire did. How can all this be assured? There’s not much of a safety factor when there’s only one way out, especially when there’s 70 feet of corridor between you and one exit. By comparison, the Life Safety Code would require at least two exits, and the maximum permitted common path of travel (the distance between an apartment door and the point at which an occupant would have a choice of going in two directions to reach separate exits) would be 50 feet.

What makes this story all the more unbelievable is it comes just seven months after the horrific Grenfell Tower fire in London, in which 71 people died. While the combustible exterior cladding and lack of automatic sprinklers and functioning fire alarms significantly contributed to the large loss of life in that fire, so too did the building’s single-exit stair. The proposed construction of these single-exit residential towers, nearly three times the height of Grenfell, is a slap in the face to those victims.

Grenfell Tower – Image via telegraph.co.uk

Let me put it in terms that the developers of these buildings can understand. You don’t put all your investments in only stocks, bonds, or real estate. You diversify your holdings. Why? Because each market has vulnerabilities, and you protect your assets by spreading your investment portfolio across multiple markets. To put it simply, you don’t put all your eggs in one basket because if you drop the basket, you can say goodbye to all your eggs.

In this case we’re not talking about investments. We’re talking about diversifying life safety features and providing redundancy so that when the bubble bursts (a system doesn’t work the way it was supposed to or the fire does something unanticipated), you don’t lose all your assets (the lives of the residents who have no idea what risk they’re being exposed to because they will assume the building is safe). Maybe residents of Spire London and the other single-exit high rises will be safe if everything works the way it’s supposed to. But what about if and when it doesn’t? How many lives might be placed at risk for the sake of an additional few hundred square feet of living area?

Thanks for reading, and as always, stay safe.

Got an idea for a topic for a future #101Wednesdays? Post it in the comments below – I’d love to hear your suggestions!

Did you know NFPA 101 is available to review online for free? Head over to www.nfpa.org/101 and click on “FREE ACCESS.”

Follow me on Twitter: @NFPAGregH

 

When I’m asked, “What is the required rating for a door in a particular wall?” nine times out of 10 my answer is, “It depends.” (This is the standard answer for nearly everything code-related.) In the Life Safety Code, required ratings for doors and other opening protectives (e.g., windows) depend on the required hourly, fire-resistance rating of the barrier in which the opening is located and the function the barrier is serving.

Not all fire barriers are created equal. A door in an exit enclosure fire barrier will probably require a different rating than a door in a similarly rated corridor or hazardous area enclosure. Or a smoke barrier. Or a smoke partition. Or a shaft enclosure. (You get the idea.) At first glance it may seem convoluted, but the code does a good job of consolidating the opening protective rating requirements in one location. In the 2018 edition, you’ll find the required door rating in Table 8.3.3.2.2 (what I’ll refer to as “the table”). In the 2015 and earlier editions, the required ratings were located in Table 8.3.4.2. Prior to the 2003 edition, there was no handy consolidated table. If you’re using the 2000 or earlier edition, you’ll have to sort through a series of requirements and exceptions to determine the required door rating. (If you’re using the 2000 or earlier edition, you’re using a code that’s some 20 years out of date, and it might be time to join the rest of us in the 21st century. But I digress.)

To use the table, you’ll first need to establish the fire barrier’s purpose as required by the code. The table lists the purpose under the heading “Component.” Components include:

  • Elevator hoistways
  • Elevator lobbies
  • Vertical shafts
  • Horizontal exits
  • Exit access corridors
  • Other fire barriers
  • Smoke barriers
  • Smoke partitions

This is where the table has, at times, caused some confusion. Some have misinterpreted it as prescribing minimum fire-resistance ratings for various fire barriers. For example, the bottom row addresses smoke partitions. The second column specifies fire-resistance ratings for smoke partitions (half hour and one hour). Some have been led to believe that based on the table, all smoke partitions must have a minimum fire resistance rating of a half hour. This is not the case for smoke partitions or any of the other components listed in the table.

The requirements for smoke partitions are located in Section 8.4; you’ll find no fire-resistance rating requirement there. Smoke partitions require a rating only where required by another section of the code. An example would be corridor walls in new, large, residential board-and-care occupancies, which require a half-hour rating (32.3.3.6.2). Once it’s determined that the smoke partition requires a fire-resistance rating, then refer to the table to determine the required fire-protection rating of any doors. In the case of a half-hour rated smoke partition, doors must have a one-third hour, or 20 minute, fire-protection rating. In short, use the table to determine the required opening protective rating when a barrier is required by another section of the code to have a fire-resistance rating.

Fire barriers having a one-hour rating might require one-hour doors, three-quarter-hour doors, or one-third-hour doors. Again, it depends on the barrier’s application. Fire barriers having a two-hour rating generally require one-and-a-half hour doors. Fire barriers with a rating exceeding two hours are rarely required by the code, except for a few occupancy separation fire barriers involving relatively hazardous occupancies.

I sometimes get the question, “Why does the code allow a 20-minute door in a one-hour barrier? Why not just require a one-hour door?” This would certainly make life easier when applying the code, but it also might require a more expensive door than is actually needed for life safety. Where the code requires 20-minute doors, it’s usually in a barrier that the committees primarily wanted to be smoke resistant. Before the days of smoke partitions, which first appeared in the 2000 edition, when a committee wanted a smoke resistant barrier (e.g., a corridor wall), it was simpler to mandate a one-hour barrier than to come up with criteria to evaluate smoke resistance. Since they really wanted a nominal degree of fire resistance, rather than mandating a substantial one-hour door, they were comfortable with a 20-minute door, which would inherently resist the passage of smoke.

Other reasons for the difference in fire barrier ratings and door ratings are the tests used to establish the ratings. You might have noticed I refer to the fire-resistance rating of a fire barrier, whereas a door has a fire-protection rating. Fire barrier assemblies are tested at a lab using a standard like ASTM E119, Standard Test Methods for Fire Tests of Building Construction and Materials, which yields a fire-resistance rating. Fire doors are tested using a standard like NFPA 252, Standard Methods of Fire Tests of Door Assemblies, which yields a fire-protection rating. Comparing the ratings from the different tests is not an apples-to-apples comparison. An hour’s worth of fire resistance (fire barrier) is not necessarily equivalent to an hour’s worth of fire protection (fire door).

And although it’s not a very scientific reason, this is the way the code has done it for many years and it seems to work. To this point, there has been no compelling reason to change the approach. If it’s not broken, there’s no need to fix it.

For more details on fire door installation, inspection, testing, and maintenance, check out NFPA 80, Standard for Fire Doors and Other Opening Protectives. NFPA also offers online training for NFPA 80 ITM requirements and classroom training on NFPA 101 and NFPA 80 fire door inspection for health care facilities.

Thanks for reading, and as always, stay safe.

Got an idea for a topic for a future #101Wednesdays? Post it in the comments below – I’d love to hear your suggestions!

Did you know NFPA 101 is available to review online for free? Head over to www.nfpa.org/101 and click on “Free Access.”

Follow me on Twitter: @NFPAGregH

(The mock revision shown in the photo wouldn’t be accepted because it isn’t in mandatory language, although it has merit.) 

We recently released the 2018 edition of the Life Safety Code and its companion Life Safety Code Handbook. (I’m still catching my breath.) The cycle of code revisions never stops, so here we are, ready to start working on the next, the 2021 edition. NFPA 101 is now open for public input, along with a number of other standards in the Annual 2020 revision cycle, which includes NFPA 1, Fire Code, and NFPA 5000, Building Construction and Safety Code.

 

I often tell attendees of NFPA’s Life Safety Code Essentials Seminar that you don’t get to complain about what’s in the code if you don’t participate in the process, similar to not complaining about politicians if you don’t vote. You don’t have to be an NFPA technical committee member to participate. Anyone can participate by submitting public input (PIs) and public comments (PCs) on proposed revisions. NFPA has made the process incredibly easy. Login to the NFPA website, navigate to the appropriate document information page (e.g., www.nfpa.org/101), click on ‘Next Edition’, and click the link to submit a PI or PC. The current code text will come up. All you have to do is type your revisions and a substantiation and you’re done.

 

The applicable technical committee will review and consider your submittal. Granted, the 2018 edition of NFPA 101 just hit the streets, so chances are you’re not familiar with all the new requirements. If you’re an NFPA member, you can view my one hour 2015 to 2018 NFPA 101 Changes webinar at no charge. The Origin and Development section of the code also provides a summary of the key changes. If I had to narrow it down, I would say the top five changes to the 2018 edition are:

 

• New requirements for hazardous materials protection that goes beyond fire-related hazards

• Added criteria for door locking to prevent unwanted entry in educational, daycare, and business occupancies to accommodate active-shooter/lockdown emergencies

• New provisions that permit health care and ambulatory health care smoke compartments up to 40,000 ft2 (3720 m2) in area

• New requirements for risk analyses for mass notification systems

• New testing requirements for integrated fire protection and life safety systems in accordance with NFPA 4, Standard for Integrated Fire Protection and Life Safety System Testing

 

If any of these or any other life safety topics are of interest to you, you’re encouraged to look at the requirements and provide recommended revisions. Our technical committees can’t operate effectively in a vacuum; input from the people directly affected by the code’s requirements is vital.

 

The clock is ticking; the public input closing date for NFPA 101 is June 27, 2018. If you miss that deadline, any new proposed revisions won’t be able to be considered until the 2024 edition cycle. (That’s a long wait.) Visit our website for more details on the NFPA code development process or to submit public input on NFPA 101.

 

Thanks for reading, and as always, stay safe.

 

Got an idea for a topic for a future #101Wednesdays? Post it in the comments below – I’d love to hear your suggestions!

 

Did you know NFPA 101 is available to review online for free? Head over to www.nfpa.org/101 and click on “FREE ACCESS.”

 

Follow me on Twitter: @NFPAGregH

 

Building security and life safety from fire have polar opposite objectives. The former is to make it as difficult as possible to get in or out of a building, and the latter is to make it as easy as possible. While NFPA 101 recognizes the need to provide security for occupants’ safety (especially now given the “new normal”), life safety from fire must also be maintained. This is a tricky balancing act. Many lives have been lost in fires due to locked or otherwise compromised egress doors.

 

During my recent NFPA Live presentation I provided an overview of the Code’s egress door requirements and the provisions that allow for special locking arrangements, including requirements that are new to the 2018 edition addressing classroom door locking to prevent unwanted entry.

 

During the live event we received this follow-up questions from a member. I'm now sharing it with you. I hope you find some value in it.


NFPA Live is an interactive video series in which members of NFPA staff address some of the most frequent topics they receive through the Member's Only Technical Question service. If you are currently an NFPA Member you can view the entire video by following this link. If you're not currently a member, join today!

Marriott Marquis New York designed by John Portman. Image via Wikimedia Commons
During NFPA’s winter shutdown between Christmas and New Year’s, I stumbled upon a New York Times obituary for architect John Portman, a pioneer of the modern atrium building design and a true visionary. Mr. Portman was famous for designing Hyatt hotels with soaring atriums, including the Hyatt Regency in Atlanta’s Peachtree Center, the first of its kind. When it was built, this Hyatt defied accepted building design practices.
 A fundamental tenet of building codes at the time and today, including what’s in the Life Safety Code, is to compartmentalize buildings to prevent the effects of fire from spreading beyond the floor of origin, allowing occupants remote from the fire adequate time to evacuate. Atrium design scuttles that notion by opening up the building interior, allowing multiple floors to communicate amongst each other. This radical departure from conventional building design necessitated cooperation between the designers, code officials, and fire protection engineers to develop alternative means of compliance. As noted by Kathleen Almand, NFPA's vice president of Research, Data, and Analytics, in a recent blog she wrote to NFPA staff, “These alternative means included fire sprinklers, smoke management systems, and other features which are now common in fire safety design and code requirements in high-rise structures … (Portman’s) determination opened the door for a more scientific approach toward the development of fire safety design and building codes, which has been applied to other innovations in building design.” 
The proliferation of atrium buildings in the 1970s and 1980s meant codes like the Life Safety Code needed to adapt so as to not hinder innovation, but still maintain the required level of safety for occupants. Requirements for atriums first appeared in the 1981 edition of the code as an exception to the requirement for the enclosure of floor openings. At the time, the requirements included: 
  • a minimum opening dimension of not less than 20 feet and an area of not less than 1000 square feet
  • automatic sprinklers throughout the building
  • an engineered smoke control system acceptable to the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ), with factors such as means of egress and smoke control of adjacent spaces considered
  • separation from the remainder of the building by one-hour fire barriers or glass walls with closely spaced sprinklers, with an allowance for up to three stories open to the atrium 
The 1981 edition included in Annex A prescriptive criteria for smoke removal systems, which were permitted in lieu of engineered smoke control systems. These criteria did not, however, take into consideration the anticipated fire size based on the actual fuel load, the time to egress based on the anticipated occupant load, or the physical building configuration. Fire and egress modeling was in its infancy in 1981, and the computing power needed to perform complex calculations was available only to a select few. It was a start, and it was based on the best information available at the time. 
Times have changed. Today most of us carry around more computing power in our pockets than was carried into space on the first space shuttle. Fire protection engineers today have access to powerful computational fluid dynamics fire models that can predict fire and smoke spread in buildings based on the actual building configuration and fuel load. Egress models also continue to evolve and can be used to predict where building occupants will be when the effects of fire might potentially impact a specific area.  
Because no two atrium building designs are the same, the 1988 edition of the Life Safety Code deleted the prescriptive smoke removal system criteria in favor of an engineered approach specific to the building design. In the 1997 edition, the minimum size requirements were removed, and an allowance for an unlimited number of stories to be open to the atrium was added based on a required engineering analysis. The engineering analysis was required to demonstrate that the building was designed to keep the smoke layer interface above the highest unprotected opening to adjoining spaces, or six feet (1.85 meters) above the highest floor level of exit access open to the atrium for a time period equal to 1.5 times the calculated egress time or 20 minutes, whichever was greater.
The Life Safety Code requirements for atriums haven’t changed much since the 1997 edition. Over the last 20 years, however, the tools to perform the required engineering analysis have matured, and the fire protection engineers who utilize them have gained invaluable experience. John Portman’s legacy will live on in every new atrium building. More importantly, perhaps, his legacy will also live on in the partnership between building designers, AHJs, and standards development organizations as codes like NFPA 101 continue to undergo revisions to promote, and not hinder, advancements in innovative building design. 
Thanks for reading, and as always, stay safe. 
Got an idea for a topic for a future #101Wednesdays? Post it in the comments below. I’d love to hear your suggestions! Did you know NFPA 101 is available to review online for free? Head over to www.nfpa.org/101 and click on “FREE ACCESS.” Follow me on Twitter: @NFPAGregH

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