Staying safe in non-sprinklered buildings

March 15, 2012 - When a fire breaks out, not having a fire sprinkler system can prove deadly.

That was the case in a fire at a Chicago high-rise building in January. When a young female resident rode the elevator to her 12th-floor apartment, she unknowingly entered the dense smoke resulting from a fire that had started on her floor and was immediately overcome by toxic fumes and heat. She died of smoke inhalation.

This Lake Shore Drive building was not bound by certain upgraded fire safety regulations included in the National Fire Protection Association's Code 101, which require buildings built after 1975 to stop elevators in the case of a fire. The building also lacked a fire sprinkler system.

The incident highlights the gravity of neglecting fire safety planning and the importance of including sprinkler systems in residential buildings.

"You have to fend for yourself in a non-sprinklered building," said Tom Lia, executive director of the Northern Illinois Fire Sprinkler Advisory Board. "In a sprinklered building, you can sleep well knowing that the system is ready, willing and able to work 24/7."

For building managers on the fence about whether or not to install a fire sprinkler system, Lia says the benefits outweigh the costs - and sometimes, the costs are lower than the price of workaround alternatives, such as compartmentation. A fire compartment is an area within a building that is safeguarded by fire-resistant construction, such as automated fire-resistant doors and firewalls.

"A lot of building owners in Chicago spend more money on alternative devices than if they just installed fire sprinklers right away," said Lia. "With fire sprinklers installed, there are numerous code trade-offs that allow builders to reduce the number of firewalls and other features, particularly when building new construction."

United States Alliance Fire Protection (USAFP) works with buyers using fixed-cost contracts and time and materials contracts to find water sprinkler solutions that fit varying budget sizes.

Whether or not you have a fire sprinkler system, the elements of an effective fire safety plan include: an adequate water supply with hydrants and water mains; a certified fire pump; a water standpipe system to deliver water to firefighters; a first-aid kit; fire extinguishers; and escape ladders.

For residents living in non-sprinklered buildings, practice these safety precautions:
• Know your building's evacuation plan, stairways and exits
• Have an escape plan
• Never use an elevator during a fire
• Stay low to avoid excess smoke inhalation
• If you can't escape your building, seal off your residence and alert fire officials of your location

For more information about effective sprinkler systems, contact Rodney Turner at (847) 816-0050.

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