High-rise fire losses can be prevented or reduced, say experts, if public and private sectors work together
There is no mystery of preventing fires in high-rise buildings or keeping losses down when they do occur, say four fire safety experts inverviewed by the Monitor in the wake of the MGM Grand Hotel fire in Las Vegas, Nev. But to apply the methods available, many of them relatively inexpensive, requires cooperation between government and the private sector, the experts say:mSkip to next paragraph
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The result of sucn cooperation in utilizing available, practical means would be the saving of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of lives each year in the United States, they agree.m
Interviewed were Donald Flynn, a former fire chief who is executive director of the International Association of Fire Chiefs; Robert Barr, a former county fire marshall who now works for the private, nonprofit National Fire Prevention Association; David A. Lucht, a professor at Worcester (Mass.) Polytechnic Institute, the only school in the US that offers a master's degree in fire safety engineering; and Jim MacDonald, a fire safety expert with the Travelers Insurance Companies of Hartford, Conn.m
Although they differ on exactly where to place the most emphasis, these experts are in general agreement that the following steps can tremendously upgrade fire safety:m
* Widespread use of sprinklers, especially in kitchen and storage areas.m
* Getting rid of outmoded safety codes which may not be applicable to high-rise hotels and office and apartment buildings.m
* Installing in buildings internal communications systems which can be put under the control of the local fire department so workers or guests can be told exactly what to do when a fire breaks out.m
* Including special smoke shafts and/or "fire refuge zones" with independent air supplies as part of a building's initial construction -- or adding them to existing structures (at much higher cost).m
* Having more colleges provide advanced degrees in fire safety, to help bring fire safety engineering and prevention up to an acceptable level.m
Here are some of the questions put to the experts, and their answers:m
Mr. Flynn, are sprinklers the best means of stopping the spread of fire?
We know that sprinklers as an automatic built-in-fire protection device work. And we know that an early alarm system -- smoke or heat alarm -- and the opportunity of warning people early enables them to safety exit. We knowm that these things work. It's not a matter of testing some unproven system or device.
Will be tragic hotel fire in Las Vegas spur new few safety efforts?
Unfortunately, the whole history of progress as far as fire safety is concerned is reactive, responding to a current holocaust, as in the current situation. Examples come to mind with the Beverly Hills night club fire in Louisville, the Coconut Grove fire in Boston, the circus fire in Hartford, and so on. All of these show reaction immediately in response to them. However, six months from now probably few will be aware that there was an MGM Grand Hotel fire. So the point is that we know that automatic sprinkers as a built-in fire protection device work. We know that an early alarm system works.
Would the establishment of special high-rise fire department inspection units help, as may soon be tried in New York City?
Certainly, that's one response to the problem. But because of the manpower crunch you have to use existing people. You take existing companies of fire combat people and this is not an enforcement situation like a policeman, but rather a familiarization with buildings so they can respond to fire in them in a better way.
Also, perhaps more importantly, they can point out to the owner some of the conditions that are hazardous. These are positive suggestions and recommendations and voluntary as opposed to negative enforcement methods through punitive sections of fire safety codes, and done with existing manpower. If you can encourage owners or managers to comply for the sake of their employees or their occupants, obviously that's the better way to go than forcing them to do it.