On Monday April 9, just two days after a major fire destroyed an apartment in the Trump Tower in Manhattan, another fire was reported in Edgewater, New Jersey. The commercial building affected by the incident included a car wash, an automobile repair shop, a restaurant, a dance studio and a health spa. Thankfully there were no human casualties, but the building suffered major damage - firefighters required two hours to control the flames.

Many girls were trapped in the dance studio, located in the 2nd floor. At first they were being rescued through a balcony using ladders, but the situation became chaotic as the flames grew: the ladders were knocked down accidentally and the girls started jumping from the balcony. Although nobody at the building suffered life-threatening injuries, five people had to be taken to the hospital for medical attention. Neighbors and bystanders were rescuing the girls in the dance studio before the firefighters arrived.

Recent incidents like this one and the Trump Tower fire reveal how vulnerable buildings are in New Jersey and New York. Local Law 26 of 2004 requires all high-rise office buildings in NYC to be equipped with automatic sprinklers by July 1, 2019, but residential and small commercial constructions remain vulnerable.

Preventing Fire Incidents with Automatic Sprinklers

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As you might recall from physics classes, hot air rises. When a fire breaks out, this happens even when flames are still small, so hot air gathers near the ceiling. Automatic fire sprinklers have either a glycerin-filled ampoule or a metallic latch with a low melting point - both are designed to break open when exposed to heat. As a result, only the sprinklers above the affected area activate, which brings two benefits:

  • The fire is contained when the area affected is still small, minimizing the damage caused. In the USA, the average residential fire causes over 20 times more damage when the affected area does not have sprinklers.
  • The localized action of automatic sprinklers also minimizes water damage, since only the area affected by fire is showered.

The requirements for automatic sprinklers and all other fire protection measures are described in the New Jersey Uniform Fire Code,  which is in turn part of the NJ Administrative Code (Title 5, Chapter 70). The equivalent document for New York is the NY State Fire code, and there is also a specific NYC Fire Code. However, the fire protection measures introduced by these codes are not retroactive in most cases, which leaves older buildings with a lower degree of fire protection. Normally, when a fire code is updated, the new requirements only apply for:

  • New construction
  • Existing buildings that undergo a major renovation

Fire protection codes are very demanding in New York and New Jersey, especially in NYC, but there is a reason for this. Recent incidents reveal how fast fire can spread indoors, and uncontrolled flames can have drastic consequences given the high population density in NY and NJ.

Concluding Remarks

Fire codes and their associated laws are sometimes frowned upon by development companies, since they make project approval more complex, while adding significant costs. However, these measures are necessary to guarantee indoor safety, and at the end of the day they can be considered an investment: the cost of fire protection is just a fraction of the economic loss when fire destroys a building completely. In addition, reliable fire protection provides a benefit that cannot be quantified in dollars - it saves lives. Finally, consider that insurance companies charge reduced premiums for properties with automatic sprinklers.

By working with qualified design engineers, you can ensure the fire protection systems in your building are code-compliant and reliable. This speeds up project approval and building permits, and you can finish construction earlier.

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