March 1, 2022

Fire Protection & Maintenance in High-Rise Construction

Fire is something we all fear and respect and is the biggest threat to our homes and families. Although we fear fire, we fight it like an enemy. Residential and commercial structure fires have been fought by firefighters since the dawn of the bucket brigade. The science behind sizing up a structure fire and devising an attack plan is cookie cutter to most modern fire departments. In the case of a fire in a high-rise building, the factors that surround the situation present an immediate danger to life and health for a few reasons that differ from residential firefighting. Building construction plays a big role in how the fire evolves because of available flow paths and open corridors. Stairwells and elevators act as chimneys that vent the fire, allowing hot toxic gasses to build, off gas, and ultimately flash on higher levels of the building. The lack of egress poses a major difference in high-rise fires compared to residential fires. The lack of ability to simply get out fast results in fatalities in high-rise fires. Lastly, simple fire protection measures that can buy time and save lives like fire sprinklers are often ruled out in high-rise construction as a cost saver. Two separate case studies below show that no matter the year the incident occurred, we are still lacking the fire protection measures needed to save lives in high-rise fires. In addition, if the fire protection equipment is in place, it’s the lack of annual maintenance that presents the same threat as not having it at all.

On Saturday, February 23, 1991, a fire broke out in the One Meridian Plaza in downtown Philadelphia. The building which was built in 1973 stood 38 stories tall (492 ft) and consisted of commercial offices which were under constant construction. The building was not protected by fire sprinklers except for the 30th floor. The 30th floor was occupied by Cablevision who insisted on protecting their employees and paid out of pocket to have fire sprinklers installed. The fire at One Meridian Plaza burned for 19 hours, killing three firefighters, and completely consuming eight floors of the building before it was finally extinguished by ten activated fire sprinkler heads on the 30th floor. On the morning of January 9, 2022, a high-rise fire killed seventeen people, including eight children, at the Twin Parks Northwest, Site 4, high-rise apartment building in the Bronx, New York Cit. Forty-four people were injured, and thirty-two with life-threatening injuries were sent to five different borough hospitals. The building was not protected by fire sprinklers and lacked the necessary annual maintenance needed to keep on the fire protection tools that were in the building. The need for NFPA 25, Inspection, Testing and Maintenance was just as significant 31 years ago at One Meridian Plaza as it is this year in the Bronx NY fire. Fire sprinklers save lives, but if they are not maintained the chance for catastrophic failure in time of need exists.

The NFPA 25 Standard for the Inspection, Testing, and Maintenance of Water-Based Fire Protection Systems is considered the baseline for exactly as its title states—a guideline for inspecting, testing, and keeping up with maintenance for water-based fire suppression systems. By abiding by this code, fire incidents have the chance to be resolved quickly and effectively and allows for confidence that the fire protection equipment will function as designed when the need is presented. All the codes and standards that the NFPA have created are “living documents”, meaning they need amendment regularly to stay effective with current conditions.  Because of this, the NFPA as a standard setting body, must regularly update its materials to be able to offer the public with the most up-to-date information and strategies for staying safe. Updates to any of the NFPA’s standards and codes usually come out once every three to five years, only after a rigorous process of reevaluation that may take up to two years to complete.

Since the inception of NFPA 25 in 1992, Authorities Having Jurisdiction (AHJ’s) have been performing standardized routine inspections of fire prevention systems and components. This may include but is not limited to fire sprinklers, fire pumps, valves, pipes, and everything in between. These inspections usually are a face to face two-person evolution consisting of the AHJ doing the inspection and the property manager or owner. The industry standard of doing inspections on site and face to face has shifted gears to compensate for the Covid 19 pandemic. While the maintenance and testing component of NFPA 25 is still a face-to-face interaction for obvious reasons, the “new normal” has moved to doing inspections remotely.  NFPA 25 code is mandatory and absolutely must be followed for safety reasons. Failure to do so could directly lead to loss of life and property.  Although NFPA 25 is mandatory, it is not mandated by OSHA. Instead, NFPA 25 is specifically required by the International Fire Code, also known as the IFC, and referenced in the International Building Code, also known as the IBC. Both the IFC and the IBC are baseline codes that the International Code Council created for individual states to adopt into their laws. The bottom of the line is that businesses and facilities need to investigate their local laws and do deep research on what they absolutely need to have at the very minimum to protect their employees and tenants.

Fire protection is the installation of equipment that works to put out fires and save lives. To put it simply, think of fire alarms, water-based fire protection such as sprinkler systems, fire suppression systems, fire extinguishers, and anything else that helps alert and stall the progression of a fire. There are two broad categories of fire protection systems, active and passive. Active equipment takes physical action against the spread of fires and smoke. Passive equipment focuses on static building modifications that prevent fires from spreading further. It’s a best practice to reference the appropriate standards that the building needs to be code compliant. When thinking about fire sprinklers and active fire protection equipment we immediately visualize the components that are customer facing like the actual fire sprinkler heads. What is not often considered is the back end of the system like the fire pump, fire department connection, control valves, hangers and braces, and piping. These components are the backbone of the system and cannot be neglected. Whichever fire protection measure fits into the need of the building it is essential to keep in constant contact with the local fire protection contractor and schedule a site visit at least once or twice a year to stay both compliant and battle ready should a fire break out in the building.



March 1, 2022

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