In the recent I-Team report, Chicago Fire Department spokesman Larry Langford discussed the problem with the concept of passive “compartmentation” as the primary fire protection strategy in a high rise building. In other words, he is suggesting that detection alone provides sufficient fire protection warning. 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. Mr. Langford’s implication that long lag time might exist between smoke detection and rise to 165F for sprinkler actuation does not align with current fire test data. The fact is, one fire sprinkler would immediately suppress the fire.
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 too high. Many convinced their tenants that it is not needed.
Another avenue used to avoid the cost was Chicago’s one-off Life Safety Evaluations. These were created to undervalue the score of a fire sprinkler system intentionally. It also raised the value of less expensive alternatives. Of course, this has nothing to do with real fire dynamics, and we have already seen many fire-related injuries in buildings that have already passed their life safety evaluations without fire sprinklers.
Is it just money and power that creates the 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. This creates a huge financial advantage for building owners to “do the right thing”. Under the new law any sprinkler system installed after September 27, 2017 in an existing commercial or residential (apartment, not condo) structure, can be fully expensed as a capital improvement.