High rise fires in Chicago are bringing to life the deficiencies of the life safety law and need for fire sprinklers.
High-rise buildings present unique challenges when it comes to the area of fire safety. In most buildings, those inside will only need to travel down a flight or two of stairs to get to safety, if they have to travel down any flights of stairs at all. In a high-rise building, however, people might need to travel down several flights of stairs to get to ground level and out the door.
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Even so, there are many misconceptions about high-rise building safety that, once disproven, will make the issue much more clear. Here are six fire safety tips for those living and working in high-rise buildings.
1. Stairways Stay Safe
The first misconception when it comes to high-rise building safety is that even the stairways will be dangerous during a fire. In reality, high-rise buildings are designed to be as fire resistant as possible, and this especially extends to the buildings’ stairways. Most high-rise fires end up becoming contained to one specific apartment or floor while the stairways remain unaffected. As a result, an individual’s top priority when faced with a high-rise fire is to seek the nearest stairway immediately.
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2. Be Sure to Call 911
One common mistake that people make in cases of high-rise fires is assuming that someone else has already called 911. It’s far better to assume that someone has already called and then call anyway than to assume someone has called when they actually haven’t.
This way, you can potentially prevent the spread of the fire and even help others who might be trapped. If you’re calling on a cell phone, you can even call while making your way to safety.
3. Don’t Panic
Your first instinct will likely be to leave immediately. While this is understandable, it isn’t always the safest thing to do. If you know that a fire is burning and are about to leave your apartment, feel the door with the back of your hand. If your door feels warm or hot to the touch within five seconds, this indicates a dangerous fire condition in your corridor. You’ll want to get a wet towel and seal the cracks in the door where the smoke is entering into your apartment and inform the authorities of the situation as well as where you’re located. Try to breathe normally and stay calm; staying calm during an emergency can save your life and the lives of those around you.
4. Move Quickly but Safely
Natural human instinct will make you want to run out of your apartment as soon as possible, but there are certain steps you should take before leaving. If your apartment door is not warm or hot to the touch, it’s safe for you to crack open the door and check for the presence of smoke in your corridor. If the corridor is safe, you should alert everyone on the rest of your floor of the presence of the fire. You should close your apartment door without locking it and then carefully make your way to the nearest stairway. Under no circumstances should you use the elevators.
5. Know Your Building
No two high-rise buildings are alike. It’s important that you learn the layout and fire safety plan in your building before you find yourself in a dangerous situation. There will most likely be fire hose adapters and fittings located somewhere within your building as well as fire extinguishers, exits, and stairways.
Knowing your building can be the difference between life and death. Maps and other information should be available in all high-rise buildings, and this will give you the opportunity to study the layout of your building so that you’ll be better prepared should a fire safety issue arise in the future.
6. Stay Fire Safe
The key to fire safety is having a proper contingency plan, being prepared, and having the ability to stay calm even in a stressful situation. No one is ever expecting a high-rise fire, but there are things that you can do to ensure that you are as prepared as possible for one. This way, you can notify the authorities, alert others in your high-rise building about the fire, and get to safety.
If you take the necessary steps toward preparing for the possibility of a high-rise building fire, you will be that much more able to respond appropriately should the situation ever occur. Being prepared and vigilant are the keys to fire safety.
Alfonso Gonzalez is a freelance writer based in Malibu, California. He spent 25 years in the construction industry, working roofing, plumbing, electrical, and more before retiring. In his free time, he likes to work on home repair projects.
Honolulu -- The Honolulu City Council has postponed needed actions to move a bill forward that would require fire sprinklers in older high-rise buildings. Recently, a 36-story high-rise fire killed three people in Honolulu. The high-rise did not have fire sprinklers.
Council members made the decision to wait for more information from the Honolulu Fire Department before making a decision. They did, however, hear from apartment owners on fixed budgets who said they would rather live with the risks than pay to retrofit fire sprinklers.
Councilwoman Kymberly Marcos Pine is concerned about the homeless population and the possibility that it could increase if homeowners can't afford to retrofit. "My concern is we have some of the highest homeless population per capita, and it's never a good thing if we have a government mandate on people. So how can we solve this problem that we all agree needs to be solved without hurting people?"
Right now, Honolulu has a law that fire sprinklers need to be installed in all buildings built after 1975. To approve the bill that would add fire sprinklers to newer builds, Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell wants to find a way to make fire sprinklers more affordable to low-income homeowners.
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Writer: Sarah Block, Marketing Director at The Moran Group
On October 10, 1996, an electrical fire ignited at 30 Rockefeller Plaza at 4am, surprising an early morning television show taping and causing the cancellation of several shows.
At 3:59am, a civilian called 9-1-1 after seeing smoke billowing from a window on the fifth floor. Fire crews arrived, and came straight to the security station at the front desk. The arriving firefighters asked question after question, wondering where the fire was, how it started, what was the building layout. However, security crews had no idea that a fire had ignited in the building. No alarms went off. No one evacuated. No smoky tendrils drifted to the first floor.
The complex was made up of three buildings: one, a seventy-story structure; two, a sixteen-story structure; and three, an eleven-story structure. The buildings were solidly built with masonry exterior, concrete interior structure, and terra cotta tiles inside. The complex was classified as a mixed-occupancy with high-rise provisions, according to NFPA 101.
The fire started in the fifth floor electrical room, and moved through to five different electrical rooms. Because of the need for more and more electricity in a building with this type of unique need, the electrical cabling continued to be added and added without removing old cabling. It was squeezed tightly, leaving no clearance between cables or the I-beam. The burning cables burned through the electrical insulation and this caused a large flow of current to surge through to other electrical rooms, catching five different rooms on fire.
The fire took four hours to control due to several hindrances. Renovations were taking place during this fire and electricity was cut off to the fifth floor. This cut off the smoke and fire alarms on that floor as well. They never went off. The odd layout of the complex also made fighting this fire difficult. First responders reported that the building's security were little to no help with reporting the layout of the building. The smoke and multiple fires also led to a difficult fight.
Luckily, the building had very few people inside because of the hour. All occupants were able to evacuate safely.
NFPA and fire crews investigated this fire and found that the fire ignited and spread because of poor decisions. There was inadequate circuit protection, lack of adequate space for electrical conductors, unprotected vertical and horizontal penetrations, no fire sprinklers on upper floors (where fire occurred), lack of smoke detection in area of fire (turned off), confusing building layout, fire alarm failure, and multiple points of origin. If the electrical system was thought out more clearly, this fire wouldn't have started and it certainly wouldn't have caused five separate fires.
In the end, twelve firefighters were injured, five civilians were injured, and the property damage was in the millions from smoke, water, and electrical damage.
After a fire, the building owner's goal is to get occupants back into their building as fast as possible. A major television network was forced to relocate to New Jersey for a period of time while the building got the electricity back in order and renovated. In trying to do this quickly, cabling was run through holes made into fire barriers. If another fire were to occur, this would negate the barrier and allow the fire to spread. In addition, while the electricity was being fixed, unattended candles were being used, and stairways were propped open. It appears no lesson was learned.
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Written By: Sarah Block, Director of Marketing & Education
A property fire is devastating in many ways. When a fire sparks in a residential property, there is the potential for a loss of life, property, and insurmountable financial costs. In one event, a property owner and his property manager were hit with all three when a fire started in fifty-nine year old Harry Simpson's apartment and moved quickly. It destroyed the building, the neighboring building, and killed Simpson; Robert Thomas, 31; Bernice Suerez, 33; and Jermaine Allen, 37. Thomas' mother filed a lawsuit against the property owner, property manager, and the city of Schenectady. The lawsuit claims that all three parties were aware of dangerous and hazardous conditions of the building. That building also happened to be inspected the day before the fire. The inspector found that the only issue was an expired fire alarm system certification.
That is just one of many examples of property managers getting sued due to a fire in a residential building that they manage. Keep tenants safe and protect the property by truly understanding the property's residential population and become familiar with fire hazards and how to prevent them.
Common Residential Fire Hazards & Their Remedy
The most common causes of residential fire are cooking, smoking, heating, and electrical issues. Preventing fires first starts with ensuring the building is safe.
To prevent smoking-related fires, have a property rule that bans smoking in and around the building. While not everyone may comply, if the rule is in the tenant lease, it releases the guilt from the property if a smoking-related fire ignites. It will also attract tenants who do not smoke, so the odds of a smoking-related fire go down.
To prevent heating and electrical related fires, regularly inspect heating equipment and chimneys. Resolve any issues that come up in inspections.
As a property manager, it's important to know the city's fire and building codes. Generally, project managers can find those codes on the city website. If not there, the local building department will have a copy of the codes. It is to a property manager and tenant's benefit to be vigilant about keeping up with codes. Property managers will save on code citations and keep the property and tenants safe.
To conduct a fire and safety inspection, follow this checklist.
Make sure every unit and common area has working fire and smoke alarms in all required areas.
Look for flammable materials near heaters.
Look for faulty wiring.
Check clothes dryer vents for lint build up.
Inspect heating sources.
Make sure each unit's kitchen has a working fire extinguisher.
Inform tenants of important fire safety information.
Understand the Best Communication for Your Tenant Population
Tenants hold much of the responsibility when it comes to fire safety. To inform tenants of important fire safety information, project managers need to know who their tenant population is. Are they at a higher risk for fire-related injuries? Do they require a unique form of communication, so they fully understand the information?
According to the NFPA, the populations that are most likely to die in a fire are immigrants, older adults, young children, people with disabilities, and low-income families. Tom Lia, executive director of the Northern Illinois Fire Sprinkler Advisory Board said, "Individuals in high-risk categories may have trouble comprehending a fire and may not be able to escape a fire on their own." Property Managers need to communicate the best way possible for their audience.
Immigrants and non-English speaking citizens might be difficult to communicate with because of a language barrier and fear of persecution. Property Managers will make better progress communicating with this population by approaching local organizations that work with immigrants and refugees. Property Managers can work with the organizations to plan a fire safety seminar in an environment their tenant feels safe with a language they understand.
Elderly populations are at a very high risk for dying in a fire. Every year, an average of 1,000 people over the age of 65 die in a fire. That number is three times higher in populations over eighty. Property Managers should conduct fire safety seminars in community centers or another social setting. If a property has a high elderly population, it should be equipped with all proper fire protection. Fire sprinklers are essential to contain a fire in case a resident is unable to escape unassisted.
Residents with physical, mental, or sensory disabilities are one of the greatest risk populations for fire. Property Managers should inform their residents where safety devices are located and help them understand an escape plan. Additionally, special fire protection equipment can be used. Smoke alarms with a vibrating pad and flashing lights could help people with sensory disabilities. An additional measure is a flashing fire alarm located outside the building; this could help inform neighbors to a fire.
Fire Safety Tips for Property Managers
Require tenants carry rental insurance.
Encourage tenants to report issues, even if it doesn't affect them.
Document everything. Take pictures before and after a tenant moves in/out. Document all rules in the lease.
Know fire and building codes; conduct inspections before a tenant moves in and document.
Ban indoor smoking
Inspect heating/chimneys and consider banning space heaters.
If you allow space heaters, make sure they are three feet from any combustibles and post safety tips.
Don't allow cords beneath rugs or carpets.
Inspect electrical wiring
Install and regularly test smoke/fire detectors
Prohibit cooking on balconies.
Post clear evacuation procedures.
Provide kitchen fire extinguishers
Property managers can protect their tenants, property, and themselves by making fire safety a priority. By clearly communicating fire safety rules and tips verbally and in writing, property managers have some control over the uncontrollable.
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Written by: Sarah Block, Director of Marketing & Education
It was bitterly cold on December 30, 1903 in Chicago. Mothers and their children were occupying their time with the theater on their winter break, and the biggest show was "Mr. Blue Beard" at the Iroquois Theater. The show was so packed that with only 1,600 seats, the theater packed in an estimated 2,100-2,300 people with standing room only seats. An additional 400 people were backstage, creating a packed house for the matinee show.
Soon after act two was set to begin, those that survived the next fifteen minutes were outside in fifteen degree weather searching for their loved ones among hundreds of corpses stacked in an alley.
Mr. Blue Beard was playing at the newly opened Iroquois Theater. It opened for the first time just five weeks earlier, boasting a "fireproof theater" in advertisements. Architect Benjamin H. Marshall wanted to make a fireproof building. He studied a number of fires, noting what went wrong. He tried to make every provision possible. He had 25 exits added, so the theater could be evacuated in 5 minutes. He added an asbestos curtain to block a stage fire from the audience. Yet, with the rush to open before the holidays, many building elements that would have made it virtually fireproof were still being added or were cut short.
The theater was the best in the country. Marble, plate glass, mahogany, and gilding adorned the interior with 60-foot ceilings in the foyer. The theater was widely considered the most efficient, convenient, and safe of the time - that is, until the investigation turned up some unsavory behavior.
Days before the theater opened, Fireproof Magazine toured the theater and noted the "absence of an intake, or stage draft shaft; the exposed reinforcement of the arch; the presence of wood trim on everything and the inadequate provision exits." The fire inspector was warned about these inadequacies, but ignored them.
"Mr. Blue Beard" was starting its second act when the wiring in a light sparked and caught some gauzy drapery on fire. In the theater in the early 1900s, fires were common. The stagehands grabbed a fire extinguisher and tried to extinguish it themselves without thinking much about it. However, the fire extinguisher was a "kilfyre" extinguisher, used for chimney fires at residences - not enormous theaters. Kilfyre extinguishers worked by "forcibly hurling" the contents within the extinguisher onto the fire. It was inadequate, unable to reach the fire that was near the ceiling, and the fire continued to spread.
Within a few minutes, the audience could see the fire. Someone shouted "fire!" in an overcrowded theater, which caused mass panic. "Shouting fire in a crowded theater" is a common phrase used as a synonym for saying something that could cause mass panic. In fact, in 1913 someone falsely shouted fire in an Italian hall and caused a mass panic that killed 73 people. In 1902. Over 100 people died at the Shiloh Baptist Church when someone misheard the word "fight" for "fire" and a mass panic caused a stampede. Shouting fire at the Iroquois Theater had the same effect.
Within a few minutes the fire had grown so big only a fire hose or fire sprinklers could extinguish it. However, there were no fire sprinklers or fire alarm boxes. The automatic ventilators were never completed, so smoke was filling the auditorium. There also was no escape. The exit signs were turned off so guests wouldn't be distracted and the doors were locked to avoid crashers. The only fire protection in the theater at the time was an asbestos curtain that was meant to block the fire from reaching the audience. An actor in the show, Eddie Foy, shouted for the curtain to be let down; however, it got stuck on some wiring for a flying scene coming up in the second act. The curtain came down to a few feet before the floor, partially blocking the audience. However, as it turned out, the asbestos curtain wasn't fireproof. It was made of cotton and other combustible materials and went up in flames with everything else.
Within eight minutes, two explosions occurred and nearly 3,000 people tried to make their way through locked doors and unfinished fire escapes. Hundreds of people tried to escape through a fire escape that led to a hundred foot drop into an alley. Painters at Northwestern University's new dentistry school saw what was happening and rigged together a ladder and a few wooden planks to try and help people cross into the next building. About twelve people were saved by traveling across the makeshift bridge. An unknown number of people fell to their deaths while attempting to cross the bridge. Hundreds of corpses were piled in that alley later on, so an official count of deaths from falling was never known.
Because of the lack of a fire alarm box, a stagehand who escaped needed to run around the block to a pull box and alert firefighters to the fire. When firefighters arrived, it appeared nothing was wrong. It took fifteen minutes for smoke to be seen from the street. The firefighter tried to open the theater door and finally found what was wrong. Piles of bodies were jamming the door closed. Firefighters used a pike pole to pry bodies from the door, so they could open it.
It only took about fifteen minutes for firefighters to extinguish the fire, but it took five hours to carry the dead out. By the end of the fire, 572 people died in the fire with 212 being children. Following the fire, the death toll went to 602 from people who succumbed to injuries.
The next day, newspapers dedicated pages to name the known dead after medical examiners spent the entire night trying to identify them. Mayor Carter Harrison Jr banned all New Year's Eve celebrations and closed night clubs for the night. On January 2, 1904, the mayor instituted an official day of mourning.
An investigation followed the tragedy, and what was found was astounding.
• Two roof vents that were supposed to be added to filter out smoke and gas were nailed shut to keep out snow and water. Anyone who didn't die from the fire would die from suffocation.
• Management bolted the doors shut to keep non-paying customers out. This trapped all of their patrons inside the burning building.
• The asbestos curtain was mostly made of cotton and other combustibles.
• The 25 exit doors only opened in, so when people fell in front of the doors, the doors became jammed.
• The patrons in the balcony seats were locked in so they couldn't sneak into better seats.
• The fire escape was never finished and went to nowhere.
• The fire alarm box was never installed.
• The exit signs were turned off during the show.
• The fire inspectors took bribes in the form of theater tickets to overlook code violations.
With 602 dead Chicagoans, the city was in an uproar and wanted someone to pay. Throughout the next few years, several people were charged with crimes - including the mayor. However, all were dismissed based on technicalities except for one pub owner who was convicted of grave robbing.
This fire inspired several new regulations and one invention.
• Exit signs must always be on.
• Exit doors must push open, not pull in.
• Inventor, Carl Prinzler, was supposed to be in the audience that day, but couldn't go to the show. He was haunted by the tragedy and decided to do something about it. He worked with Henry DuPont to create a mechanism that would allow a door to open in an emergency, even if it's locked. That mechanism is called the panic bar, and is still used today.
The Iroquois Theater fire has shaped not only Chicago, but the entire theater industry. One traveling stagehand said, "I've taken several shows in Chicago venues. I've always been impressed with the attention that the local crews pay to fire safety, in all the venues in that city. A few years ago I took a big show into the Ford Center, which I did not realize was standing on the footprint of the Iroquois [Theater]. One of the local stagehands gave me this book which kept me up all night reading it. I used to wonder why in Chicago, before the house opens to the public, all the ushers go to their assigned exit, open the door, and practice yelling, "This way out!" After reading this book, I now wonder why that only happens in Chicago."
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When a 32-story high-rise in the center of the financial district quickly turned into a towering inferno, it showed just how important fire protection truly is. As it so happened, that building was undergoing an extensive fire protection renovation that had not yet been completed. The fire caused $72 million in damage to the building. Fire sprinklers reduce property damage by 70% on average and extinguish the fire in less than half the time it takes for fire crews to arrive in many cases. So, if the fire protection had been completed, it is fair to say the outcome would likely have been different.
In 1979, the eighth tallest skyscraper was built in Madrid, Spain within the financial center of the city. The Windsor Tower boasted 106 meters and 32 floors. At the time it was built, fire protection measures were lacking, so, to meet new building code, the Windsor was undergoing fire protection upgrades on February 12, 2005, when a fire detected on the 21st floor destroyed the building.
The 32-story concrete building with reinforced concrete core had a two-way spanning 280 MM waffle slab supported by the concrete core, internal RC columns with additional 360 MM deep steel I-beams, and steel perimeter columns. Floor by floor, fire protection was being added to the building, starting at the bottom floor. The three year project included fire protection to the perimeter steel columns using a boarding system, fire protection to the internal steel beams using a spray protection, a sprinkler system, and a new aluminum cladding system. At the time of the fire, the fire protection for all floors below the seventeenth were close to complete, except floors 9 and 15. The gaps between the cladding and the floor slabs had to be sealed with fireproof materials still. In addition, the fire stopping to voids and fire doors to vertical shafts were not fully installed and the fire sprinklers were just beginning to be installed.
The building was adopting an open floor plan concept, so fire compartmentation could only be done floor by floor. Vertical compartmentation couldn’t fully be achieved because of the lack of firestop systems in floor openings and between the original cladding and floor slabs.
The fire started on the 21st floor of the Windsor Tower at midnight. It spread quickly, first driving up to the 32ndfloor and then traveling down to the 2nd floor – all within 1 hour. With no fire stops yet installed, the fire easily devoured the building.
Firefighters arrived soon after midnight. It took 24 hours to extinguish the blaze. This fire was named the worst fire in Madrid’s history.
The fire was originally thought to have been started from an electrical short-circuit; however, police discovered that a door was forced open. Additionally, amateur video footage shows what appears to be people moving throughout the eighth floor, below the fire. Other video footage shows lights inside the building, after it was thought that the lights went out. It is still unclear what the true cause of the fire was.
It took 24 hours to completely extinguish the fire. The fire caused $72 million (pre-renovation) in damages.
Following the fire, it was determined that the following factors lead to the rapid growth of the fire:
· Lack of effective firefighting measures, such as automatic fire sprinklers.
· Open floor plan.
· Failure of vertical compartmentation measures in the façade system and floor openings.
· The fire protection on the existing steelworks below the 17th floor had been completed, except for the 9th and 15th floors. When the fire moved to the unprotected floors, the columns buckled, but did not cause a collapse.
The Windsor Tower fire acts as an excellent example of why high-rise fire protection is an absolute necessity. If the fire protection was completely installed at the time of the fire, it is likely that the fire would have been contained to the floor of origin, greatly reducing the amount of damage to the building.