USFA Reviews Two Apartment Fires that Affected Elderly Residents

The United States Fire Administration (USFA) today released a technical review of two high-rise apartment building fires that caused deaths and injuries to the buildings’ elderly residents. The review compared the Westview Towers fire, in North Bergen, New.Jersey, with the fire a few months later in the Council Towers Apartments in St. Louis, Missouri. According to the review, the presence of medical oxygen and the lack of automatic fire sprinkler systems contributed to the spread of the fires.

“Identifying and promoting the best preparedness and response practices is one of the many ways Homeland Security, through FEMA, helps protect lives and property,” said Michael D. Brown, Homeland Security Under Secretary for Emergency Preparedness and Response. “This report offers valuable insights that will help prevent deaths and property loss in the future, especially in high-rise apartment buildings and residential buildings with many elderly residents.” The USFA is a part of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The USFA review recommends that fire departments provide public education for special-needs populations who use supplemental medical oxygen to emphasize safe handling and storage of oxygen cylinders. A program to place placards in a conspicuous location to alert firefighters that medical oxygen is in use is also recommended.

Other lessons cited in the report include:

–Automatic fire sprinkler systems, especially in high-rise buildings, are an effective form of protection for life and property. Fires in both buildings would have been relatively minor had sprinklers been in place;

–Large-scale incidents in high-rise buildings require a significant commitment of personnel and equipment. Pre-incident planning is one of the best ways to identify those resources that will be required before they are needed;

–Large-scale incidents also demand the use of an incident management system and an accountability system;

–Public education programs designed to teach the elderly to exit when a fire occurs and to call 9-1-1 from a safe place are vital. Elderly occupants who try to fight a fire may lose their lives.

“These two fires caused four deaths and more than 100 injuries among a population especially vulnerable to residential fires,” said U.S. Fire Administrator R. David Paulison. “These two fires teach us many lessons, but perhaps the most obvious one is the importance of automatic fire sprinkler systems, which would have turned this major tragedy into minor incidents.”

USFA develops reports on selected major fires, usually involving multiple deaths or a large loss of property. The objective reviews are intended to uncover significant “lessons learned” or new knowledge about firefighting or to underscore ongoing issues in fire service. USFA, which has no regulatory authority, sends an experienced fire investigator to the community after a major incident after conferring with local fire authorities.

The Westview Towers Building in New Jersey had 22 stories, 296 apartments, and 400 mostly elderly residents. A fire in a couch spread and created extensive smoke. Rescue efforts and attempts to extinguish the fire proved difficult. About 80 firefighters responded to the incident. Four residents died, including a 90-year-old woman who perished on her apartment balcony.

Thirty-two people, including seven emergency responders, were transported to the hospital.

The Council Tower Apartments Building in Missouri was 27 stories tall, with 150 apartments and 160 residents. All told, 150 firefighters would respond to the incident with 40 pieces of apparatus. While there were many injuries, none of the residents died or were seriously injured. One firefighter was permanently disabled.

The cause of both fires was unclear, but smoking was suspected as a factor.

To obtain a copy of the report go to:

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