|Annapolis Mansion Fire 2015
In 2016, there were 475,500 were structure fires in the United States. These fires caused 2,950 civilian deaths, 12,775 civilian injuries, and $7.9 billion in property damage.
There was one fire death in the US every 2hrs and 35 minutes each day (including non building fires). NFPA
The US fatality rate is 9.13 per 1 million residents
There were 343 fire deaths in Germany in 2015 (Feuertrutz),
The German fatality rate is 4.14 per 1 million residentsUS fire codes for building design and construction are stringent, but are they always applied?
How about the many old buildings built long before the current codes went into effect? What about abandoned buildings occupied by the homeless who heat themselves with whatever provides warmth? What about slumlords who don't keep up with codes and don't get caught by inspectors? What about tenants and owners who disable smoke detectors because they go off every time they fry anything in the kitchen? What about those of us who read those highways signs that when you reset the clocks you should also check on the battery of your smoke alarm (now obsolete)? What about drug abuse which lets parents sleep through the alarms until it is too late to rescue their children? Or smokers dozing off and their cigarette setting the sofa on fire? Extension chords, old building wiring, not UL approved holiday decorations? Candles that were left burning, dryers that ignite the dust that was never cleaned out of the filte,r or the flue crusted with creosote igniting with fire escaping through a cracked liner?
|6 children perished in this Baltimore fire in January 2016
All of the above can cause a fire in any country.
The frequency in which these causes result in fire is recorded by the insurance industry. Clearly, the more impoverished, the less educated and the mre disinvested a community is, the higher those incidents. Which likely explains the the more than double fatality rate in the US compared to Germany better than building codes.
But make no mistake, even the wealthiest in the biggest new McMansions are not immune as the catastrophic fire in a big Annapolis house showed in 2015 when a burning Christmas tree set the home ablaze so fast that everyone inside perished. As fire experts will explain, most fire deaths are not from flames but from occupants being incapacitated by the odorless carbon monoxide emanating from combustion which makes victims unable to respond before they even know there is a fire.
|New smoke detectors with sealed batteries
The Bronx apartment fire is the latest catstrophic fire on everybody's mind this Friday: 12 people died, apparently because of a kitchen fire started by a small child on the first floor. When the resident fled, she left the door open turning the stairway into a chimney from where the fire spread upwards. New York's walk up apartment buildings have no sprinkler and with 5 stories fall below the high-rise rules.
The London apartment fire in a highrise was worse than any highrise-fire in the US in recent memory and governments here were quick to point out that such a fire would not be possible under US regulations. The UK fire appears to have been a combination of not having sprinklers, poor egress and highly flammable insulation used for a recent retrofit of the facade. It isn't entire certain that the same insulation panels have not been used here. Some older highrises here don't have sprinklers or sufficiently wide egress stairs either.
Why recapitulate all this, as if there weren't enough bad news already? Because almost every death from building fires is preventable if minimum safety rules are obeyed, starting with the design and construction. The review of construction documents for permits shouldn't be seen as a nuisance where one should finesse the process in some way to avoid cost, certainly not when it comes to life safety.
And finally, there are the new Maryland rules about smoke detectors which go in effect this January 1st, i.e. on Monday! Surely those are once again seen by many as another over the top regulation by regulation-happy legislators.
|Carbon Monoxide: The silent and odorless killer
Here is what it says (some of the linked text is repeated below):
- Replace battery-only operated smoke alarms with units powered by sealed-in, ten-year/long-life batteries with a “silence/hush” feature.
- Upgrade smoke alarm placement in existing residential occupancies to comply with minimum specified standards. These standards vary according to when the building was constructed.
- The deadline for compliance with the new law is January 1, 2018.
Any smoke alarm whether hard-wired or battery-powered that is older than 10 years has to be replaced.
The date of manufacture, while sometimes hard to locate, should be printed on the back of smoke alarms. If no manufacture date can be located, the alarm is likely outdated and should be replaced to comply with the regulation.
In existing homes, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) only requires a smoke alarm outside the sleeping area and one on each level of the home. However, it also recommends that existing homes be equipped with at least the same number of smoke alarms required in new homes which includes smoke alarms present inside all sleeping rooms. The department’s position is consistent with the recommendation for new home construction.
|Smoke detector placement
New construction (individual homes and apartments etc.) requires an AC powered smoke alarm with battery back-up in every bedroom, in the common area outside of the bedrooms and on every other level of the dwelling unit, with all of the required smoke alarms being interconnected.
That is difficult to achieve in older homes without opening up ceilings or even walls. Therefore:
- For homes constructed before 1975, the new law allows smoke alarms that are battery-operated but the units need to be sealed, long-life smoke alarms equipped with a hush feature. No more 9V replaceable batteries!
The trigger point for the new requirements is January 1, 2018.
A big hole in the law is that one and two-family dwellings units are exempt from the State Fire Prevention Code in the sense that fire authorities have no legal right of entry into individual occupied dwellings to verify that smoke alarms are present and operational. But homeowners will be obligated to act under the law if they sell or rent out their homes:
- The residential property disclosure form provided to the purchaser of specified single-family residential real property must include whether the smoke alarms (1) are over 10 years old and (2) if battery-operated, are sealed, tamper-resistant units incorporating a silence/hush button and use long-life batteries as required in all Maryland homes by 2018.
- Landlords of one-and two-dwelling units must upgrade battery smoke alarms to new, 10-year sealed battery units. They cannot rely on the tenants for that.
The most effective fire death prevention is a sprinkler system. Sprinklers are now required for all dwelling units in Maryland and no fire deaths have been reported in any unit that had sprinklers.
However, sprinklers are relatively expensive and not easy to retrofit.
The second most effective fire death prevention method is a functioning smoke alarm. They are dirt cheap in comparison to any kind of damage are fire can cause. In fact, many fire departments hand them out for free.
|Thursday night apartment fire in the Bronx: 12 people died
New Year is a time of resolutions. Complying with the news laws about smoke detectors is a resolution easy to keep. Once a fire is raging and insurances, police and lawyers ask questions afterwards, it is too late.
Happy New Year!
Klaus Philipsen, FAIA
Due to travel these articles will be less regular in the coming weeks. Please look also for updates on the compendium blog here.