California Fire Journal

America's Fire Dangerous Buildings and The Non Sprinklered High Rise
By Richard M. Patton The owners of highrise buildings like to quote fire statistics that "prove" a person is safer from fire in an office building than a baby is in his mother's arms. The overall statistics are very good. But that's only part of the story. There's much more to tell. Old High Rises are Getting More Fire Dangerous The older nonsprinklered high rises are getting more dangerous. For one thing, communication cables now extensively snake through all floors. Despite lab certifications these cables do burn. I've surveyed many high rise buildings as a fire protection engineer, and found that fire rated floor slabs were often penetrated (opened up) in nonstandard ways. Push up a lay-in ceiling panel near the vertical shaft. Often you find that large "non-sealed" holes in the shaft above the ceiling are "normal operating procedure." Thus, the shaft plus the cables became a clear path for fire spread from basement to roof. Buildings are loaded with more combustibles today, more plush interiors, more plastics, more "highly toxic gas" producing materials, more electronic gadgetry, more fire hazards than ever before. Exits are Voided Years ago, during a many decade period when the Fire Safety Establishment shunned the concept of a life safety oriented fire sprinkler system, and early fire control, and instead relied solely on building construction controls; the exit was the heart of the "fire solution." The mentality at that time was, in a nutshell, flee the fire--get out of the building when a fire occurs. Most high rises are essentially exitless buildings today. A 10-20-or 30-story stairway, at the very best, is a tortuous exit path. At worst, it is an impossible one. Has there ever been a major high rise fire (say most or all of one floor completely involved) where the interior stairways were not blocked by smoke? A high rise traps smoke about as effectively as a sieve holds water. The "stack effect" sucks the smoke into the stairways like a thirsty kid sucks soda up through a straw. Smoke doesn't just flow up the stairs either, it flows up through the entire building endangering those above the fire floor. The elevator industry got hit with legal actions after some high rise fire deaths in New York City. The occupants were trapped in the cars on the fire floors (improper controls were the cause). The industry then took the easy way out. Instead of making the elevators safe exits during a fire (technically not difficult) they maneuvered through a "national" elevator code which solved their liability problems. The code mandates that when a fire alarm operates, the elevators automatically go to the ground floor-express. Then the cars sit there until the fire enginesarrive. The elevator itself is now the safest thing in the high rise; but the people are quite another matter. When the engines arrive, those on the upper floors may already be trapped, and already tasting the smoke. Safe use of the elevators above the fire floor may be impossible at this time, because the changes needed to make elevators safe never occurred. Thus, the firemen must attempt to gain control from below as the fire works its way upward toward those trapped above. Flashover From the turn of the century up until the late 1960's only a limited number of "fire experts" were aware of the flashover phenomenon. Until I began writing about this phenomenon, explaining how it "defeated" the building code plan, it was an "in house" secret of the fire protection community for decades. Flashover is the mechanism by which seemingly solid combustibles such as office furnishing, can bum within a building in a manner similar to the way a flammable liquid flashes. (See the Patton authored article, "Pouring Gasoline on the Ceiling," available on request.) Today flashover is finally "out of the closet" and increasingly the fire services are recognizing it as the primary cause of flash fires and fire deaths in buildings. It's the Contents Fire (Not the Building Type) That Counts During the time period prior to the 1970's, fire specialists considered a building's fire potential to be a function of its basic construction. The concrete and steel "fireproof ' building was considered an "inherently safe" building. The fire specialists ignored the fire potential of the combustible contents of the building. Having made the building "fireproof' they believed there was no need to protect against the "contents fire." Thus, there was no need for an automatic fire control system. What these "experts" closed their eyes to was the potential for the furnishings to bum, just as fuel burns within a furnace; and they especially ignored the potential for the interior fire to flash so rapidly as to overwhelm the "building code fire safety features" built into the building. The history of fire in America during this century has been primarily a history of rapidly spreading (post flashover) contents fires defeating the "fireproof' box.

California Fire Journal
The high rise is merely 10 or 20 fireproof boxes, piled one on top of the other, each filled with things that can bum and flash. The penchant of the owners to believe that their own particular fireproof boxes are special, and not subject to flash fires, is more wishful thinking than reality. Fire Fighting Considerations There is one major reason why the highrise office building has so far had a good fire record--and it is not that the high rise owners have been superlative building managers, fire safety wise. In fact, many owners just flat out believe they do not have a fire problem to begin with (so why do anything unless you're forced to?). The reason why disastrous high rise fires have been infrequent is because most such buildings have been located in downtown areas of major cities where fire department manpower and equipment was enormous, and just minutes away. Today, the high rise has moved into the suburb, the windows have been sealed shut, the interior combustibility has increased, and the fire department even in the city is losing ground to urban economics. Manual control of a fire that may occur 5, 10, or 20 floors above the street is always a gamble because the firemen must approach from below the fire, and the people who are subject to dying are above the fire. Smoke still rises in a fire, and it goes up through a high rise like water through a sieve. And, when the high rise moved out of the big city core area into the suburbs, the gamble went up another notch. Somehow, it just makes sense, to control that fire automatically, before the manual control facilities are tested to the utmost. The Potential The high rise building owners are correct when they point out that about 80 percent of all fire deaths occur in the home or other residential type buildings; not the high rise office building. But, if the small but frequent fire is a legitimate concern, so also is the INFREQUENT HOLOCAUST! Do we ignore safety controls for the airline industry because most transportation deaths are caused by the automobile? There are two very frightening matters relative to the high rise office building fire potential. Number 1 is that there are 1000 to 2000 --possibly 5000-lives or more at risk to a single fire. Number 2 is that the predominant code system in the U.S. still does not adequately acknowledge the danger. The National Fire Protection Association Building Code (Life Safety Code NFPA No. 101) will allow nearly all buildings, even a new high rise to be built with no automatic control of the contents fire. This defies logic. If the building itself warrants FIREPROOFING--including from two to four hours worth of fire sheathing on the steel columns--to withstand the expected internal fire; then it would seem the people inside are worth a fire control system because the people can not be fireproofed. So, the high rise is a serious problem. Thousands of lives are at risk to a single fire and in general conditions are slowly getting worse relative to existing nonsprinldered buildings; but as of yet the fire code system has not properly identified the problem or defined practical solutions. Nor has the public been given proper and adequate information to deal with the problem. The Responsibility of the Fire Official The fire official's number 1 responsibility is to protect human life from fire. Where a serious potential for major loss of life exists, the official has two obligations, or so it would seem. The first is to inform his superiors, and especially the public of the problems. Without help from above, and support from the people, it is not possible to create the solutions needed. Without an informed citizenry, even the top men of government cannot get the job done. Government needs the support of the people to be successful. So, the identifying the problem and informing the public are the first things the official should do to safeguard the public. The second responsibility of the public official is to devise practical ways of solving the problem. Providing information as to the danger is not enough, there must be programs set in motion to eventually eliminate the danger. So, the offical should take two actions relative to the fire danger of existing high rise buildings, one is to "level" with the public, the other is to plan the corrections. Both of these actions may require the fire official to move in ways not yet sanctioned by the code system. The honest analysis of the fire problem will, of necessity, deal with the ways the NFPA code system has failed to solve the problem and even today hinders the solutions. Even though such revelations may be painful to the fire official, because of past relationships, failure to adequately inform the public would be a new negative on top of old negatives, and this could be a "prime cause" in the event of a major holocaust involving hundreds of lives. The second thing that may require the fire official to move in ways different than that currently prescribed by the codes, is the need for practical solutions to the high rise problem. All of the following are truths: 1. Nearly all existing high rises are NOT protected against the internal fire. 2. Virtually ALL such buildings have sufficient loading of combustibles so as to make the building subject to a FLASHOVER fire. The flashover fire can, and often has, 43

California Fire Journal
defeated the "building code plan" of fire safety (the compartments, fireproofing and exits). 3. A post flashover fire can and will generate enormous quantities of deadly gases that will rise rapidly upward within the fireproof building even as the exit ways are being blocked. In short, a post flashover fire has an ENORMOUS potential to kill. The solving of the high rise problem can NOT be achieved within the framework of the existing NFPA code system. For starters, the SOLUTION will require a much more practical fire sprinkler system--a fire sprinkler system not currently allowed by the codes. And the SOLUTION requires a major redirecting of the overall fire safety plan for buildings. This includes a deemphasis of the regulating of the structure itself, and a greater emphasis on a control of the interior fire. These essentials to a viable plan for correcting the problem are contrary to the motives of the current code system. So, the bottom line is this: 1. Our cities are excessively fire dangerous today. The existing nonsprinklered high rise is a primary problem. 2. Fire officials and other public officials have an obligation to initiate corrective action, including disseminating full and frank information to the public. 3. The long term solution will require a "breaking away" from the traditional code concepts which created the problems to begin with. In short, the public official cannot do his duty to the public and conceal the negatives of the code system at the same time. The corrective action requires a departure from the failed policies of the past. The Basics of the Solution All of the following will be found to be necessary to the correcting of the fire dangerous buildings of our cities, especially the high rise fire dangerous buildings. 1.The creation of new sprinkler system design parameters to make retrofit fire sprinkler systems practical. 2. Tax incentives for retrofitting, plus a tax base that sets a higher tax rate on a more dangerous building; just as a higher insurance rate is applied to the fire prone building. 3. The requiring of mandatory liability insurance coverages at adequate levels to properly compensate all those who may die or be maimed in a building fire due to the disregard of the potential of the "contents"fire. There is a potential to kill 1,000 people or more in buildings which by today's knowledge of fire behavior are "obviously" fire dangerous. 4. The creation of state or municipal insurance entities that will promote fire sprinkler protection in the event the fire insurance industry continues to orient their regulations only toward property protection, without adequate human life safety considerations. This would also create a source All of the preceding are fundamental to the broad solutions needed to rectify the fire dangerous buildings that are so common today, and to make our cities fire safe. The "starting point" for all of the preceding is for the fire official to begin the process of providing the public full and complete information on these matters, including the existence of flaws within the code system that led to the problems to begin with. This report has been oriented primarily toward the existing high rise problem because the human loss potential is particularly great for this building type. However, no fire official should take this as a reason NOT to be concerned with the problems discussed because his own town does not have structures higher than four to six stories. The Coconut Grove (fireproof construction) and the Beverly Hills Supper Club (combustible construction) show that neither construction type or building height is a guarantee that prevents loss. Every fire official and every public official owes the public one thing above all else--and that is the TRUTH about why fires continue to occur routinely and deadly in our "code design" buildings. A of funding for fire service operations. 5. Establish "ground rules" (including antitrust laws) for "voluntary code making" organizations that will create reforms and especially prohibit a "vested interest" organization from being assigned seats on the code making committees. 6. Transfer essential municipal engineering evaluation services from the Insurance Rating Bureaus to governmental, or nonbiased third party organizations. Here we are referring to "grading" and classifying water supply systems, fire department operations, etc. Today, the insurance system of "grading" the adequacy of a city's fire protection program does not properly consider human life safety needs. 7. Create nonbiased (third party) fire investigation organizations and practices. The intent here is to ensure that proper investigations will be made of fires such as the MGM Hotel and Dupont Plaza Hotel fires. Note that any organization that creates, sells or promotes the very codes the buildings were constructed to, will (when investigating a fire), tend to exonerate the code system itself from blame for the conditions that contributed to the fire spread. 8. Create independent investigatory organizations to evaluate the functions and adequacies of the private labeling or certifying laboratories, especially in relation to fires causing loss of life. Here we are especially speaking of the Underwriters Laboratory and the Factory Mutual Laboratory. Note that in event of a failure, under fire conditions, of a U.L. or R.M. listed device (which is also required by an NFPA standard) it may be advantageous to all concerned (the NFPA, U.L., F.M. and the manufacturer) to conceal this "failure" from the public. In a great many situations the public has not been properly informed relative to the failures of what is termed "standard approved systems or devices" during fires.

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