High-rise fire losses can be prevented or reduced, say experts, if public and private sectors work together

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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:m

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

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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.

But what about upgrading codes? Don't many need overhauling -- and which are the worst?

The worst are the so-called "mini-maxi codes." In Virginia, for instance, the maximum permitted code is the state code so that the community in that state, such as Richmond or Williamsburg, which might want to exceed this minimum code, cannot do that. So the minimum state code becomes the maximum code a local community can make law.

What can hotels and office buildings do to alert people about fire safety?

Although efforts to encourage public education are valuable, I feel that in the case of a transient population, or even a permanent population in an apartment (building), people are not going to look at the back of their door or ask others (at a nonemergency time, anyway) where the nearest exit is.

Then what do you recommend, Mr. Flynn?

An internal communications system that could be under the control of the fire department. They would give instructions on how to exit or to stay in your room. One of the problems that came out of the MGM fire was that people had no knowledge of what was happening. They were not being assured or reassured as to what action to take. Their instinct was to pick up the phone and call the switchboard and, of course, that overwhelmed the switchboard. But what's needed is an independent system in all areas -- not just the bedrooms but the public rooms as well.

Mr. Barr said that many of the things Mr. Flynn recommends can't be left to the private sector to do voluntarily.m

Mr. Barr, does increased headway in fire safety have to rely on ordinances?

That's the way I feel. But as to the costs, there are alternatives that can be approached such as tax credits for installation of sprinkler systems.

Throughout the country, many communities have adopted codes calling for sprinklers and other safety measures but, like the code adopted in Las Vegas last year, they are not retroactive. Shouldn't they be?

If you want the ultimate in safety, you can say that cost is no object. But, realistically, you have to look at the cost of retrofitting, which is much higher than installing safety measures in the first place. . . . We should strive to provide the ultimate in fire safety for all occupancies. . . . But when someone looks at it (taking safety measures) in purely business terms, there's bound to be some resistance.

One of the reasons that more fire safety equipment is not "built in" to new or existing structures, said Professor Lucht, it that "the state of the art" of fire safety has not approached its potential high level.

Why is this, Mr. Lucht?

People rely on the codes. Most codes are based on experience. Each time there is a fire like this, the tendency is to go back and look at the codes again, and fix them up so that this will never happen again -- and then something else happens, and we have to go back and fix them up again. Unlike other diciplines, such as electrical or chemical engineering, fire protection hasn't reached a state of maturity. . . . But we must apply the same kind of comprehensive thought process and logic to anticipate fire problems and "design" against them. I'm looking foreward to the day when fire safety is an integral part of the building construction decision process.

Lucht and Flynn agree that two of the best fire safety engineering features that can be incorporated into new or existing construction are "smoke shafts" -- a separate shaft or an existing stairwell equipped with special fans or ventilating devices -- and fire safety zones. These, experts say, can be office , storage, or other areas already serving a useful purpose in a building which have independent air supplies and are completely insulated from possible entry of fire and smoke.m

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