Fire Traps

Bill Coffin


August 1, 2018

high rise construction fire risk

On April 8, more than 200 New York City firefighters and emergency service personnel responded to a fire at Trump Tower, a 58-story high-rise building with commercial use on the lower floors (including the headquarters of the Trump Organization) and 263 residential units on the upper floors (including the three-floor ­penthouse that is the private residence of Donald and Melania Trump). The NYFD declared the fire an accident, caused by multiple overloaded electrical power strips in the 50th-floor apartment of Todd Brassner.

By the time firefighters reached the apartment, it was almost entirely ablaze. Six firefighters were injured fighting the fire, and Brassner died shortly after being rescued. While the fire had a tragic outcome, it could have been far worse as none of the residential units at Trump Tower have automatic fire sprinklers that most likely would have reduced the damage, if not extinguished the blaze entirely, before it caused loss of life.

This is merely one recent, headline-grabbing example of the potential danger of high-rise buildings that are not properly protected against fire risk. Last year, three separate and widely reported incidents each underscored the fire risks that come with high-rise construction.

On June 14, 2017, the 24-story Grenfell Tower apartment building in London caught fire due to a malfunctioning refrigerator on the fourth floor. The flames quickly spread to the exterior of the building, which had been renovated in 2016 and retrofitted with combustible aluminum composite paneling. The fire engulfed the building, killing 71 people and prompting a national conversation in the United Kingdom over building safety, construction standards and fire codes.

On July 14, 2017, a fire broke out on the 26th floor of the 36-story Marco Polo condominium building in Honolulu, Hawaii, which was also not equipped with sprinklers. The fire spread to the 28th floor, causing more than $100 million in property damage, killing four people and injuring 13.

And on Aug. 3, 2017, a discarded cigarette butt in a potted plant at the 86-story Torch building in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, started a fire on the 26th floor that eventually spread to the top of the building, damaging  38 apartments. A similar fire had broken out on the 51st floor of the same building in 2015. In both cases, however, there was no loss of life because, while the exterior of the building was combustible, the interior was equipped with sprinklers.

In all these examples, combustible exterior construction and/or a lack of automatic fire sprinklers combined to cause damage, and in some cases fatalities, that could have been prevented with the right risk management measures. Indeed, a recent white paper by FM Global about the Grenfell fire cited 10 prominent high-rise fires from around the world since 2010. Half had automatic fire sprinklers and resulted in no fatalities. The other half were without sprinklers and four out of five buildings suffered fatalities.

In the case of Trump Tower, the building was completed in 1983, before New York required that all new construction include automatic fire sprinklers. In December 1998, however, a pair of deadly apartment fires in the city claimed seven lives (including three firefighters). Both buildings lacked sprinkler protection. In response, Mayor Rudy Giuliani signed a law in March 1999 requiring new buildings with four or more residential units to install sprinklers in common hallways and all residential units. The law also applies to existing residential buildings that undergo renovations that cost 50% or more of the building’s value. That left older buildings, such as Trump Tower, off the hook for sprinkler retrofitting. At the time, Trump himself and other building owners complained that, at $4 per square foot, retrofitting all residential construction would be prohibitively expensive.

“We know fire sprinklers would have made a difference in this fire and that a life could have been saved and injuries to firefighters prevented,” said Shane Ray, president of the National Fire Sprinkler Association (NFSA), in a public comment about the Trump Tower fire. According to the NFSA, there are tens of thousands of buildings across the United States that, like Trump Tower, enjoy grandfathered status when it comes to national, state and local fire sprinkler requirements. As these buildings age, their fire risk only increases.

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) considers any building that is at least seven stories tall (roughly 75 feet) to be a high-rise. Thousands of buildings around the world fall into in this category. According to NFPA statistics, from 2009 to 2013, there were some 14,500 reported high-rise fires each year in the United States alone. Together, these fires caused some 40 civilian deaths, 520 civilian injuries and $154 million in direct property damage annually.

At present, there is no central database for determining which buildings have been retrofitted with sprinklers and which have not, said Derrick Sawyer, a retrofit specialist with the National Fire Sprinkler Association. Sawyer has launched a project to get fire marshals across the country to report how many high-rises in their municipalities need to be retrofitted with sprinklers, and is personally spearheading a major effort to survey the city of Philadelphia. “There are more than 300 buildings to check out, and we have to go to them one by one,” he said. “And this is just one city. We have to the same thing in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles and so on. It’s a really daunting task, but until we do it, we can’t talk about the average cost of retrofitting across the country because nobody really knows.”

Sawyer said that the cost of retrofitting a high-rise ranges from $2 to $7 per square foot, but even that is hard to pin down. “It depends on a lot of factors,” he said. “Are you using steel or PVC pipe? Is there any asbestos present that will have to be remediated? That’s an additional cost. Does the building already have standpipes [water pipes that provide access for fire hoses and other fire suppression equipment] installed? If you’ve got standpipes in, then you’re already halfway done. Also, in what area of the country is your building? Labor costs vary widely; if you are retrofitting in a city with a heavy union presence, the cost goes up.”

The Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat notes in its 2017 Year in Review that more buildings 200 meters (about 650 feet) or taller were completed in 2017 than in any other year. At present, there are more than 1,300 200-meter or taller skyscrapers worldwide, with Asia leading the way in high-rise and supertall (300 meters or taller) construction. Firefighting difficulties begin in earnest around 19 stories (about 60 meters), which is the upper limit of fire truck ladders. As the number of high-rises proliferates around the world, fires are only going to occur more frequently. The question is whether building owners and their tenants will continue to accept substandard fire suppression practices.

For Robert Solomon, divisional director of the NFPA, the key to assessing high-rise safety is to look at when the building was built. “If it was built before 1980, you have a relatively high chance that the building was built under a fire code that did not require high-rise sprinklers,” he said. “Different jurisdictions have implemented retrofit laws to take effect by certain dates.”

Solomon noted that most large U.S. cities have passed some kind of retrofit law, giving building owners between eight and 12 years to protect their building with high-rise sprinklers or face penalties and fines. “When municipalities pass a retrofit law, the idea isn’t to pass the law on a Friday and expect you to complete sprinkler installation by Monday,” he said. “You can spread out that cost over an extended time period. Most building owners will be doing upgrades during that time anyway, so you can fold in the sprinklers with that and do it in phases.”

high rise risk regulation

Still, resistance to retrofitting from Trump and other building owners is hardly unique. A major legislative battle is currently underway in Florida over high-rise fire codes, especially for residential condominiums. Roughly a decade ago, the legislature set a 2019 deadline for all high-rises to be retrofitted with sprinklers, and while a handful of building owners have already complied fully, Solomon said that many are fighting the law, hoping either to beat it in court or banking on a change in lawmakers to those who will eliminate the deadline.

“Florida pretty much got its commercial high-rises fully sprinklered, so the battleground is on the residential side, mainly from homeowners and condo associations pushing back because retrofitting will displace them during the retrofit, or because of the cost,” he said. “The irony is, the people these retrofits are meant to protect are the ones fighting it. Sometimes with fire codes, you take two steps forward and one step back. In Florida, it’s like taking one step forward and two steps back.”

When confronted with those who do not see the value in high-rise sprinklers, Solomon cited the 1991 Meridian Plaza fire as the ultimate case study. In that incident, a fire broke out on the 22nd floor of the 38-story Meridian Bank building, a commercial high-rise in Philadelphia. As firefighters entered the building, they realized too late that there was a problem in the pressure-regulating valves in the building’s standpipe system, so fire hoses only got a fraction of the water pressure needed. Three firefighters were subsequently trapped in a stairwell and died. Due to firefighters’ inability to control the blaze and concerns that the structure would collapse, the building was evacuated. The building was unsprinklered, except on the 30th floor, where the tenant had required that the building owners install fire sprinklers as a condition of its lease. Once the inferno reached that floor, the sprinklers activated and stopped the fire. It took only nine sprinkler heads to stop the entire conflagration. The Meridian fire illustrates not only how well fire sprinklers can stop a fire, but also that even if a building is not fully sprinklered, individual tenants can have sprinklers installed as a matter of their own risk management.

But sprinklers are only part of the equation. The other issue is the presence of combustible cladding. Ideally, exterior building materials should be rated for four hours of fire safety to prevent the rapid spread of fire, but many buildings—such as the Grenfell Tower and the Torch—opt to cut costs and go with cheaper exterior cladding built with aluminum compounds or other materials that burn easily. This, said Christopher Wieczorek, Ph.D., vice president and manager of international codes and standards for FM Global, is a major problem.

“What a lot of people don’t realize is that typical building codes and requirements are intended for life safety only and not property protection,” he said. “After an event, if the last occupant safely evacuates and the building collapses, that building is considered to have been built to code.” That offers little comfort to commercial property insurers facing total losses in high-rises, when even partial fire losses can easily cause hundreds of millions of dollars in insured damage. For example, a fire in 2015 in another Dubai skyscraper resulted in some $800 million in property damage and another $400 million in lost revenue, ultimately sending regional fire insurance rates skyrocketing. For risk managers as well as insurance carriers, getting a building built right the first time is paramount. There are currently no retrofit solutions for high-rise buildings that have opted for combustible exterior cladding, for example, other than an extremely costly tear-down of the entire exterior.

Thus, the fire-safety discussion should ideally happen early on in a building’s design and construction phase. “These decisions need to be made up front rather than during a retrofit afterwards,” Wieczorek said. “We want to take these actions above and beyond the current code, use noncombustible materials, and be sure to have the building fully sprinklered, instead of having to retrofit. The cost of a loss is much higher than using proper materials at the beginning of your design.”
Bill Coffin is a freelance writer and former editor in chief of Risk Management.