Fire & Life Safety (Focus on Preparation and Prevention)

High-Rise Fire Safety

High-rise buildings have been in the news a lot in recent years. Several fires in the Middle East, London and North America have called attention to the need to closely monitor the installation of materials used to construct these buildings. Many campuses here in North America own or have operations in high-rise buildings that were built prior to the stringent requirements now in place for fire prevention. Newly constructed high rises have interior and exterior walls that are constructed to withstand the passage of heat, smoke and flame. Occupants have options to move horizontally or vertically to safe areas. Because many of our high-rise buildings lack many current fire safety features, it is important to closely monitor what activities take place in these tall buildings as well as have a robust inspection program to ensure that fire safety features are maintained and, if compromised, quickly identified and repaired.

Monitoring High-Rise Structures

Monitoring the type of activities and occupancies permitted in high-rise structures is critical to reducing fire risk in these structures. All codes limit the location and quantity of hazardous materials in high-rise buildings. If you see labs or chemical storage above the fourth floor, review quantities of materials — there are significant reductions in the amount of material permitted.

Reviewing storage and materials stored near the windows will also help reduce impacts of fire. Heavy fuel loads along the curtain wall may cause extension of fire to upper floors by way of window failure.

Review the occupants that typically use these buildings. Researchers changing scope may see an increase or decrease in the age of people in the building. Children and senior citizens may impact evacuation time or may be impossible to evacuate in time of emergency. Occupants blocking open fire doors will have tremendous impact on the ability of people to evacuate and add to the spread of smoke and fire.

Modern High-Rise Construction

The goal of modern high-rise buildings is to keep a fire confined to the compartment or floor on which it originates. Older buildings may not have all the features in place to achieve this goal, or these features may be compromised during constant renovation.

Key features to control the spread of fire and smoke include:

  • Smoke-proof exits: These keep smoke out of the stairwells, allowing for added time for occupants to evacuate.
  • Fire sprinkler systems: These provide early fire suppression and greatly increase the chances of confining a fire to the compartment of origin.
  • Fire alarm systems: Occupants may obstruct smoke detectors or notification devices, resulting in delayed detection or notification of a problem.
  • Fire-resistive walls, floors and ceilings: Inspecting these features is difficult but necessary. When the integrity of these features is compromised, smoke and flames can move from one floor to another, severely compromising the life safety of individuals on additional floors.
  • Fire doors and shutters: Doors that are damaged, don’t positive latch or are removed will contribute to the spread of smoke and flame. A comprehensive inspection program for fire doors and assemblies is vital.

There are additional requirements related to the physical fire safety components of a high-rise structure. The items identified here were included because there is a high rate of noncompliance.

Perform Reviews

Any time you renovate a portion of a high rise you must also review and update the building’s Emergency Action Plan and file those revisions with the local fire official. In addition, many jurisdictions require all high-rise buildings to contain a binder with up-to-date floor plans, locations of fire protection equipment and records of acceptance testing. If exit routes change, facilities staff should contact campus safety staff to retrain occupants and conduct drills to train occupants on new routes.

For more information about high-rise fire prevention contact your local fire official; for third-party inspections and evaluations, Underwriters Laboratories is a great reference. If you lack trained resources in-house, reach out to these organizations to get assistance to ensure you are conducting inspections of the critical life-safety features of high-rise buildings.

This article originally appeared in the September 2017 issue of College Planning & Management.

About the Author

Mike Halligan is the President of Higher Education Safety, a consulting group specializing in fire prevention program audits, strategic planning, training and education programs and third party plan review and occupancy inspections. He retired after twenty six years as the Associate Director of Environmental Health and Safety and Emergency Management at the University of Utah. He frequently speaks and is a recognized expert on residence hall/student housing fire safety and large scale special event planning. He also works with corporate clients to integrate products into the campus environment that promote safety and security.

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