N.Y. fire official: high-rises need stiff safety code

One man directly responsible for the safety of millions of people in the most dense forest of skyscrapers in the world says many building owners have not fully adhered to New York City's tough fire safety code.

But Louis Regusa, deputy fire chief in charge of the Fire Department's Third Division in Manhattan says that his men can't possibly make the regular inspections that the thousands of buildings need.

Nonetheless, the New York City Fire Department is not expected to let the situation smolder until tragedy strikes.

John Hart, the department's newly appointed fire chief, says he will launch two new inspection teams, one for high-rises, the other for restaurants, bars, and nightclubs. Calling the units "one of my top priorities," Chief Hart says he will place 25 civilian inspectors hired by the department last year along with "light-duty firemen" in the units.

Deputy Chief Regusa says an even stricter fire safety code is necessary as well. "We have a good code," he told the Monitor, "but we can still improve on it."

In an interview Deputy Chief Regusa said he was confident that the recent MGM Grand Hotel fire in Las Vegas, coupled with a smaller high-rise office building blaze here five months ago, would finally make "the management of these buildings stop and think and say, 'let's stop playing games,' and step up their fire safety priorities.

"We have more skyscrapers in this division in New York than in the rest of the country put together -- so many, in fact, that we can't inspect them all," he continued. "there are not enough men in this division for inspection because we have too many different types of occupancies to monitor, including nightclubs , restaurants, office buildings, and hotels. It's impossible to inspect them all on a regular basis."

For instance, the fire safety ordinance applying to hotels calls for sprinkler systems in kitchens and storage areas, he points out, but not in hallways and rooms. Deputy Chief Regusa, agreeing with some of the nation's leading fire safety experts, says that sprinkler systems are the best known means of keeping a fire on a small scale whether in a bedroom or kitchen.

Robert Barr, one such expert with the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), says that "from what we know, I don't think there's been a loss of life in a building that has had an extensive sprinkler system in working order."

Besides supporting better safety standards, what can hotel guests and office workers do to protect themselves? Chief Regusa says they should familiarize themselves with their building's fire instructions, usually posted in easy view. Unfortunately, he adds, most people seldom take time to do this.

Some fire experts say longer ladders would help save more lives (many victims in the MGM Grand fire Nov. 21 were trapped on floors too high to be reached by ladders). Chief Regusa said this approach was both outmoded and inconvenient for use on very tall buildings. He said the city had once built a 140-foot ladder -- the standard ladder for high-rise fires is 100 feet -- but it took firemen to long to reach the higher floors and the ladder was difficult to maneuver.

Chief Regusa stressed that people should never use elevators in the event of fire because (1) smoke generated on lower floors tends to shoot up elevator shafts first; (2) firemen themselves may have to use the elevators to reach top floors to put out fire there or to "vent" smoke spiraling up the elevator shafts and stairwells. Other experts say if firemen had succeeded in venting the fire at the MGM Grand, many lives might have been saved.

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