At a recent conference on building protection systems sponsored by the fire protection engineering profession, Chief Ron Coleman stated that we have to build bridges between the fire protection engineering profession and the fire service. He further stated that oftentimes the fire service doesn’t know how to handle the systems within the building. Weil, there may be some underlying reasons for that sometimes being true.

The protection of high-rise structures and, more important, their occupants was “pushed for” in this country more than 15 years ago in New York City. An innovative fire chief named John O’Hagan, appalled by the highrise fire experience in South America and Korea and by some national fire records, pushed for the enactment of a model high-rise fire protection law —Local Law 5. Since then misunderstanding, oversophistication, entrepreneurial interest, code trade-offs, noncommunications of service and manufacturing interests, and lack of hands-on training and readable manual support have helped create the nightmare addressed by this conference.

System standardization. New York City has the greatest number of protection systems installed in any municipality in the world. The law has mandated many alarm companies into business. The result is that every response district has manuals with reams of pages that describe the operation of that particular system in that particular building. There are many different computer displays and operations. How many different systems are in your district? Do you have a “handle” on all of them?

Sensitivity. The automatic alarm rate in municipalities is staggering. They even have added another reason for alarm rather than to build up a false alarm record. Some metro sections have gone so far as to establish a fine for unnecessary response to an alarm caused by a system and not a condition. Testing laboratories have pinned it to noncompatibility of system components—even though they say a list of thousands of compatible products has been developed, manufacturers tend to ignore it. Fire response personnel in these overtaxed areas are at “burnout” mentally, morally, and sometimes physically.

Personnel expertise. Buildings reaching hundreds of feet into the air and “shelving” tens of thousands of people daily are usually where these systems are located. A personal liaison with responding services usually is mandated to be on duty at all times. Go in and talk to one! Ask the questions that you need to ask at the time of alarm! You’ll be amazed at some of the answers. They can run from “I don’t know” to “I just pull this here little handle and pick up this phone” to a non-English, rapid, over-theshoulder retort as the security guard hurries from the lobby.

These information sources, unfortunately, are assigned, designated, by the security service in the building. Another error. With responsibility for so many people in such a sophisticated construct, these liaisons must be “experts” dedicated to the function, not merely designated.

Building systems. The buildings are designed to operate with the alarm circuits and usually do just that in validation or certification tests. Here’s where dialogue and a mutual respect for fire operational concerns in the real world of fire should come from the engineers/designers. Elevator emergency circuits return all to a lobby floor and a fireman’s service has put them under manual control. But in most of the United States these circuits are allowed to be bypassed by security personnel who are too tired, don’t understand the complexities and evacuation responsibilities of an alarm activation, are just too busy, or are too used to faulty alarm transmissions to take the stairs. They bypass the protection circuits, take the elevator to the floor indicated, and thereby restore all normal circuits to the elevators in use.

If that’s not enough, exposed control circuits within the elevator shafts’ become useless and erratic with the slightest amount of water exposure.

Standpipe systems have flow reducers that put nozzle pressure within the capabilities of the untrained civilian who may operate it. However, the valves prevent the fire service from ever operating at the pressures they need or setting up an auxiliary supply to the system. This was a major factor in the Interstate fire in Los Angeles and the high-rise disaster in Philadelphia.

Auxiliary hose stations, designed for “first-aid” hoselines, have valves installed that are made of aluminum. It’s apparent that the engineer/designers do not know of the tremendously high temperatures generated by 40,000 square feet of fire and that a melted valve puts an “open pipe” in the water system at the point where it is needed most.

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Fire service members. Sure, our fire prevention and protection specialists can know these systems, but do they respond in the evenings when the office is closed? Who on the response team knows the system as intimately? If your answer is “everyone,” you have no problem and represent an infinitesimal percentage of the nation’s fire response service.

Training. Go to the buildings. Get your hands on the floor plan layouts. Do they serve your purpose or are they simply a reduced copy of an architect’s drawings? Are they available at all?

Stretch a hoseline to an upper floor. How long did it take? Where are your logistics? Where are your relief crews? Where are your backup streams? How did you get there? How will you get there in a real emergency? Where is your water supply? What pressures are supplied? How do you start and run the internal fire pump?

Use the elevators. Use them again. What will you do if they fail or become erratic? Do it! Stop relying on the fire service members simply reading about it.

Know how you want to control the air-handling systems. Where are the controls? What does the panel look like and what can it tell you?

Use the communication systems— yours and theirs. Test the floor stations, the stair locations, and the elevator connections with the available portable phones. Set policy, operating procedures, communication, and knowledge for your whole department.

Cooperation. Build those bridges that Coleman was talking about. Without your input, you know nothing at the wrong time. Building management personnel will put less emphasis on fire emergencies simply because they don’t see them or you and because security is an everyday job.

Sure, we need bridges to experts, but experts shun those they consider not in their game. Become an expert in your profession and then demand cooperation from the others

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