Why Passive Fire Protection Isn’t Enough

Chicago Skyline

In the recent I-Team report, Chicago Fire Department spokesman Larry Langford again clarified the central problem with the concept of passive “compartmentation” as the primary fire protection strategy in a high rise building. His suggesting that detection alone provides sufficient warning for egress and reliance on fire-rated construction to confine the fire to the unit of origin is outdated technology. Passive fire protection may work in theory, but in this case even a 32-year old personal trainer could not manage to escape serious harm. Thankfully rescue came in time.

Despite legacy, “over-built” fire-rated construction, a fire today within a typical residence in one of those pre-1975 high rises contains a synthetic fuel load from furnishings and other contents that greatly accelerates room temperature rise in a fire (due to far greater plastic content than contemplated 50+ years ago). Mr. Langford’s implication that some sort of long lag time might exist between smoke detection and a rise to 165F for sprinkler actuation does not align with current fire test data. What is factual is that one fire sprinkler would immediately suppress the fire and cease further production of hot, toxic products of combustion.

So why not bring old buildings up to current technology? The list of fatal high rise fires in Chicago is well documented and substantial. The argument against fire sprinkler retrofit has always focused on value. Building owners have long argued that the cost is irreconcilable with the benefit. Many convinced their own tenants to believe the same when they tossed around undocumented construction costs as if they were true.

Another avenue used to avoid the expenditure was Chicago’s one-off Life Safety Evaluations. Ostensibly these were contrived to intentionally under value the score of a fire sprinkler system relative to the national standard and prop-up the value of less expensive alternatives. Of course this has nothing to do with real fire dynamics and we have already seen further fire-related injuries in buildings that have already passed their life safety evaluations without fire sprinklers.

Is it just the capital outlay and shelter from legal culpability that creates the impenetrable obstacle to making our high rise buildings a safer place to live? Would your cost benefit calculus shift if you were the person in the room of fire origin? There is a new alternative. The recent Tax Cuts and Jobs Act passed into law at the end of 2017 creates a huge financial advantage for building owners to “do the right thing” for tenants that want to live in high rises. Under the new law any sprinkler system installed after September 27, 2017 in an existing commercial or residential (apartment, not condo) structure, will be able to be fully expensed as a capital improvement. (Better act soon since this law expires at the end of 2022). So, now the property owner will be able to immediately write off the full cost of the sprinkler system. That means an approximate 40% reduction in the total cost.

NOW is the time to make the difference in Chicago high rise living before we are forced to accept a completely preventable “room of origin” fire fatality.
For further information, please visit: http://highriselifesafety.com/ and https://www.usafireprotectioninc.com/sprinkler-retrofit.php