The High Rise Buildings Most at Risk
U.S. fire departments respond to thousands of structure fires in high-rise buildings every year. These cause deaths, injuries, and millions of dollars of direct property damage, which is why high-rise buildings that are not adequately protected and alarmed for fire incidents pose a real risk to residents.
At the same time, research indicates that high-rise buildings generally have better fire protection than buildings that are lower than about seven stories, which, ironically, makes them safer than other buildings if there is a fire. This is, of course, a direct result of successful fire protection engineering that includes the design of effective fire alarm systems for high-rise buildings.
But some high-rise buildings appear to be more at risk than others.
Research on high-rise building fires undertaken by Marty Ahrens, manager of Fire Analysis Services at the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), involved fire incidents in the U.S. between 2009 and 2013 and data logged into the National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS).
For the purposes of this research, high-rise buildings were defined as those with seven or more stories above ground. This is roughly the same as the NFPA’s Life Safety Code that defines “high rise” as 75 feet or 23 meters in height from the lowest part of a fire department vehicle access to the floor of the highest story of the building that can be occupied.
Published in November 2016, High-Rise Building Fires shows that five types of property accounted for 73% of the high-rise fires U.S. fire departments responded to during this period, though the vast majority were residential:
- Apartment buildings or multi-family housing (62%)
- Hotels (4%)
- Dormitories (4%)
- Office buildings (2%)
- Facilities that care for the sick (2%)
The research also indicates that both fire-resistive construction (fire resistant covered steel or concrete) and automatic fire protection equipment is more common in high-rise buildings that have fires than in any other buildings of the same property use that have fires. Because of this, the fire death rate and average losses were found to be generally lower in high-rise buildings than in other buildings of the same property use. Additionally, high-rise buildings were found to make better use of wet pipe sprinklers – 81% versus 61%.
New York City’s Local Law 26 (see under Fire Protection for High Rise Buildings below) defines the height of buildings as the vertical distance from curb level to the highest point of flat roof beams or the point of the gable at its average height.
Local Law 26 also covers sprinklers, and amendments made to the legislation in 2004 made automatic sprinkler systems mandatory for all buildings 100 feet in height or taller, or more than six stories, that are classified for business use.