By Arthur Gager, PE
New buildings are larger than their predecessors. This includes large arenas, high-rise laboratories, and multi-family residential structures. These buildings are more reliant on active and passive fire protection systems. Larger buildings also typically have a more complicated approach to life safety. A significant amount of time and money is invested into the design and construction of a building. After a building is constructed, improper maintenance and/or post-construction modification of its life safety features over time often erodes their effectiveness and lessens the intended level of protection. Periodic inspection, testing, and maintenance (ITM) of life safety systems is key to keeping systems up-to-date and ensuring the protection of occupants, property and reputation.
While codes have progressed over the years to address new hazards and provide a well-documented level of safety, notable factors in recent significant losses of life and property due to fires in buildings are related to poor maintenance of fire protection and life safety systems, not to poor design or construction.
Fire And Life Safety Concerns
There are many headlines of fires associated with new construction practices. These practices could include very large wooden buildings, exterior wall materials, and/or energy storage systems. New standards, such as NFPA 241, NFPA 285 and NFPA 855, have been created to address these new hazards. New codes and historically accepted design principles provide a significant level of safety. In addition to new construction practices, a common factor associated with significant fires is life safety systems being impaired.
Four examples of fires with significant loss of life that were attributed to poor maintenance are below:
- Warwick, RI (2003) – Station Nightclub fire in which 100 people died and 230 were injured. Overcrowding, pyrotechnics, and blocked egress routes were attributed to the deaths.
- New York City, NY (2017) – Apartment fire in which 12 people died and 14 were injured. Defective smoke detection and stairway doors not closing were attributed to the deaths.
- Elizabeth, NJ (2020) – Furniture store fire in which five people died. An exit being blocked attributed to deaths.
- New York City, NY (2022) – Apartment fire in which 17 people died and 44 were injured. Fire doors not closing was attributed to the deaths.
Maintenance Of Life Safety Systems
Over the years, codes have become more reliant on fire protection systems for life safety purposes. This reliance includes increased egress travel distances in fully sprinklered buildings, decreased compartmentation in buildings provided with atrium smoke exhaust systems, and increases of hazardous materials in buildings provided with additional compartmentation. This reliance can be justified when considering the effectiveness of such systems. For example, out of the approximately 3,800 annual civilian deaths due to fire in the United States, approximately 1% occur in buildings protected throughout with an automatic sprinkler system. This reliance is contingent on the systems working correctly.
It is important to understand life safety systems and that such systems can be active or passive.