The high-rise fires, that recently have captured the attention of news media, have also triggered a progressive and positive reaction from Home Owner Associations (HOA) and residents. Indeed, the 36 story Marco Polo condominium fire in Honolulu claimed the lives of four (4) residents and caused several injuries. The building was constructed in the late seventies and not provided with fire sprinklers. To the surprise of many, we have still lots of high-rise buildings in this country without fire sprinkler systems. It’s not just Hawaii, the Trump Tower in New York City had no fire sprinkler system in 2018 when fire broke out. The Trump Tower fire had one fatality and several injuries. A more horrifying fire was the Grenfell Tower fire in London in 2017. Adding insult to injury, on top of having no fire sprinkler system, this building surprisingly had only one (1) exit and yet it was Code compliant according to standards in the United Kingdom.
Many cities with residential high-rise buildings erected in the 70s did not require fire and life safety features we routinely see in more contemporary high-rise buildings.
Minimum Requirements for High-Rises:
- Minimum acceptable egress system
- Exit stair pressurization systems
- Fire detection, alarm, and notification systems
- Fire Sprinkler systems
- Acceptable Fire Department access
- Acceptable building fire resistance
The above Homeowners Associations Dilemmais just the minimum expected features that should be provided for a typical high-rise building. There are lots other requirements such as a plan for a fire emergency and other stipulations AHJ may require. Other than for the stairs pressurization feature, all other five (5) standards are typically required for all buildings for public occupancy.
Homeowners Associations are always struggling to balance conflicting goals. These goals are generally around maintaining condominium buildings while minimizing cost increases to owners. Budgets are decided and agreed upon for routine maintenance expenses and major fire safety upgrades are not minor building expenses. These costs can amount to millions of dollars, as upgrades are generally more costly than if they were part of the original design of the building.
After learning the news of catastrophic fires in similar condominiums, HOAs first panic as they quickly realize their buildings have similar attributes and the same deficiencies as the building in the news. There are two important realizations. The first is that the buildings lack fire safety features. The second is that installing these crucial fire safety features will probably cost more than the reserves of the association. After much internal debate, the HOA and owners settle into a decision that improvements must be made. The debates are not about what needs to be done but rather about how much it will cost for each owner of the building.
Are these structures compliant
Are these structures non-compliant with regards to fire safety Most vintage buildings are generally considered existing non-complying, in order words, they are grandfathered in. Moreover, many of the vintage high-rise buildings were not required to provide many standard fire and life safety features such as smoke control, stairs pressurization, fire sprinklers, fire alarm system with voice evacuation, etc. Our building regulations have always left room for judgment decisions by the Authorities Having Jurisdiction (AHJ) At any time, the AHJ could step in if they judge a building not safe and declare the building as non-compliant.
Existing Non-Conforming: Compromise
To improve the general fire and life safety features of vintage residential high-rise building, one would have to embrace the spirit of compromise. Indeed, it would be cost-prohibitive to design and install fire and life safety features to match the level of safety provided in the plans of newly designed high-rise buildings. Most Authorities Having Jurisdiction are sensitive to the issue of technical difficulties and the financial hardship it poses to the HOAs. As such, AHJs generally agree to prioritize life safety over property protection. Fire and life safety compromises and trade-off are on a case by case basis.
Is it Enough Fire and Life Safety
Cost is always in the center of all discussions and debates of fire and life safety for a myriad of reasons but cost-cutting efforts from developers stem from the desire to increase profits.
Fire events such as the Marco Polo fire in Hawaii and Trump Tower in New York have raised many questions regarding the compliance with local regulations. Fire sprinklers are proven to be a highly effective and reliable part of a building’s fire protection system. And with potential lawsuits on the rise after events like these, there are concerns about fire safety features and questions of why fire sprinklers haven’t been implemented in older residential buildings.
Nowadays, high-rise buildings are required to have common safety features such as fire sprinklers, fire stairs, smoke control systems, a reliable water supply, and fire alarm and notification systems. According to a National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 2010-2014 survey, fire sprinklers were present in 10 percent of reported U.S. fires. The death rate per 1,000 reported fires was 87 percent lower in properties with sprinklers than in properties with no automatic extinguishing systems.
Fire accidents happen in all places regardless of the level of fire and life safety features implemented in the building. The only difference is that buildings with fewer fire and life safety features usually result in more physical damage, injuries, and casualties.
Historically, many older buildings are grandfathered by Authorities Having Jurisdictions (AHJ) allowing them to not comply with current regulations. However, AHJs often require a vintage building to comply with current regulations after a catastrophic fire that results in injuries or loss of life.
Unfortunately, fire and life safety requirements are numerous and expensive to implement in older high-rise buildings. These buildings present emergency ingress/egress challenges to both firefighters and occupants. It is sometimes mind-boggling that with all available tools and technology, so many tragedies are still occurring in this nation and elsewhere in the world.
The degree of difficulty in putting out a fire is a function of the height of the building and the level of fire and life safety features. It would seem obvious that the taller the building the more challenging it is to reach the level and extinguish it.
It may sound implausible with all the technological advances we have made; most fire service personnel do not use elevators to reach the fire floor. Firefighters prefer climbing the stairs. For decades, fire service has grown to not trust elevator systems to reach high floors. That distrust had a well-founded reason. There have been many occasions where controls for an elevator were negatively affected by fire incidents. Hence, this condition created a lack of trust as their lives depend on reliable equipment including elevators.
After the September 11, 2001 destruction of the twin towers in New York, Codes have addressed the reliability of elevators in high-rise buildings. Current regulations require that one (1) elevator be constructed in such a way that it can reliably be used by the fire service.
GrandFathering and Fire Safety Upgrades
As we say, the devil is in the details. For example, a mundane thing such as the shutting down of the ventilation when a fire condition is declared can make a world of difference in a fire situation. Indeed, we have learned long ago that adding air to a fire makes the fire grow larger and last longer. It does not take a lot of effort to equally understand that depriving a fire of air causes the fire potentially die out. Yet, that simple fact is sometimes ignored for the sake of saving money.
In the past, architects and designers have always looked to designing efficient buildings. That means there is not much thought given for future changes in regulations. It is unfortunately short-sighted. Many experienced designers have realized many things change during the life of a building. To be fair, the responsibility of anticipated safety requirement changes should not be solely on the designer’s shoulders. Indeed, all involved in the design of a new structure should accept the responsibility of the building’s future safe use.
Fires in general are statistically rare occurrences. Fires can have drastic and irreversible consequences.