By Austin Regan
The recent tragic fire in the residential midtown tower known as the Strand brought to light some interesting dilemmas regarding the way fires are fought and the way buildings are designed to protect against fires.
As a highrise building, the Strand was essentially constructed of non-combustible materials. Fire rated partitions existed to protect the egress paths and separated the tenants. From all reports, the rated partitions performed exactly as they were supposed to. The fire stayed contained within the apartment where it originated. People that stayed in their apartments were safe.
Staying in place during a fire is certainly not what we professionals understand is the proper thing to do. Most of us who are not in the construction profession also have been taught to head towards the nearest exit and get out of the building. Ironically the only death that occurred during the fire was a resident who tried to exit through the enclosed egress stairs. He was overcome by smoke inhalation as he tried to descend to the street.
What was smoke doing in the stairwell? Turns out the Fire Department had the stair door open at the level where the fire was to allow their fire hose to be connected to the standpipe which rose through the stairwell. Since the stairwell had the Code mandated venting area at the bulkhead, a chimney effect was created filling the stairwell with smoke that forced a man to succumb at a floor level well above the fire.
To me the most disturbing part of the story was the advice that a NY Times reporter was given by a FDNY spokesperson if people are trying to evacuate a building. The advice was descend down the stairwell that does not have the standpipe in it. As a building designed under the 1968 Code, it most likely only required one stairwell to have a standpipe. If that building was constructed under the current Code every stairwell would be required to have a standpipe.
A contributing cause of the tragedy was the fact that the tenants were given no guidance during the fire about what they should do. Whereas a Hotel or Office Building of similar size would be required to have a fire alarm system with voice communication, multiple dwellings were exempt from this requirement under the 1968 Code. The 2008 Code requires such communications in buildings over 125 feet.
We may need to take another look at the 2008 Code’s standpipe requirements. Perhaps the hose outlets need to be located outside the stairwells to prevent the compromise of the essential means of egress. Perhaps older towers need to be retrofitted with communication systems through their intercoms to prevent needless loss of life.