Flame Spread Can Be Accelerated by Interior Finishes
There were no smoke detectors. The hall ceilings were finished in combustible acoustical tile. Tall, plastic, rubbish containers were full to overflowing, providing ready fuel to ignite the ceiling. All the rooms had transoms, most of which were open for ventilation. Fortunately, outside fire escapes had been added to the building.
An inner city multiple dwelling?
No, a dormitory on the campus of a prominent university.
I immediately wrote a two-page letter to the university expressing my concerns. They were most appreciative and said that they’ll take action. “Our safety office has looked at the acoustical tile and agrees with your recommendation that it be replaced. In fact, we hired an architectural firm to do an exhaustive study in 1973 of safety and building code deficiencies (italics supplied) in our dormitories and this item should have been picked up and corrected at that time.”
Was the architectural firm ignorant of the flame spread hazard that the combustible tile presented? Based on my experience, very likely. Or was “code” the key word? “Grandfather” clauses, which permit the continuing existence of known hazards, are common in codes, and represent the thinking of those who put property rights above human rights.
My children had attended a school where the ceilings were lined with combustible tile. When I protested this fire hazard, the principal triumphantly produced the inspection report. The only deficiency noted was a cracked glass in the occupancy sign! The fire marshal’s bureaucratic defense was that they couldn’t report anything unless it was illegal.
The spread of fire on interior finishes can be devastatingly rapid; and it’s not just the building department’s or the fire prevention section’s problem. One of the most important functions of the fire suppression forces is to make an estimate of the intensity of the fire possible in the structure. From this prediction should stem the pre-fire plan. Too often, the plan simply reads, “Engine 2 will take the hydrant, lay out, and advance a line up to and into the main entrance.” To make a proper attack plan, we must have some understanding of flame spread, more appropriately called fire growth. In this article, we will just look at ceilings. Walls and floors will be discussed at a later time.
In general, new buildings constructed under a well-planned and effective code and properly inspected have ceilings that meetflame spread requirements. However, you never can be sure.
The Hilton Hotel in Las Vegas, NV, was decorated with carpeting on the elevator lobby ceilings. An incendiary fire spread up the height of the building on the exterior. The acoustical tile ceiling of the casino in the MGM Grand Hotel, also in Las Vegas, was held up with 12 tons of flammable adhesive. Fire roared through the casino at tremendous speed.
Also, look carefully at older buildings. Combustible tile may have been installed originally or as part of an “upgrading” or rehabilitation. Don’t be fooled by a socalled fire-rated ceiling—the old tile ceiling may still be in place above it.
After two firefighters were killed, one city amended its code to require the removal of the old tile. However, in most cases, the code is silent, giving consent to leaving in place the old tile, a mass of quick burning, smoke generating, persistently flaming fuel. “Light smoke showing, probably a ballast” can erupt into balls of fire, filling the corridor and leaving “no place to hide” when a ceiling tile is displaced, admitting oxygen.
In 1963, the Roosevelt Hotel in Jacksonville, FL, was rehabilitated. The fire safety of the ballroom was “upgraded” by installing a new lath and plaster ceiling over the old tile ceiling. A fire on December 29 caused toxic smoke from the old ceiling to pollute the building through heating ducts. Twentytwo people on floors far above the fire died.
If this condition exists in your city, attack on two fronts. Demand an explanation from the building department as to why this unsafe condition is permitted. Also, plan for a serious fire and let the building’s management and occupants in on your plans. Explain to the owner of a big vital computer installation why you will have to use great quantities of water if a fire breaks out. One purpose of preplanning is to eliminate some fire problems. Few departments view pre-planning from this angle.
It’s also important to know how the tile is installed. Often the tile is installed on a wooden grid. This provides a void space above the tile where fire can rage, without necessarily showing much smoke. Try to determine the area of the unbroken void above the tile. It may be the equivalent of a cockloft on each floor. Is the old ceiling intact, or are there openings that will admit fire into the structural voids of the building? Can toxic gases spread through the building?
If the tile is glued in place, expect a fast moving fire. Sixteen people perished in the Hartford, CT, hospital fire in December 1961, one of those people being the niece of the then state fire marshal. Fire burst out of a clothes chute and roared down a corridor. The tile, glued to gypsum board, had been painted with a fire retardant, and individual tiles showed only moderate flame spread. However, a 25-foot section of ceiling, tile and all, was sent to Underwriter’s Laboratory for testing. The fire roared down the test tunnel. The glue was the key.
The Cocoanut Grove fire in Boston, MA, in November 1942 claimed 492 lives. The rapid flame spread was said by some to have been the result of alcohol from the exhaled breath of patrons. Cooler heads, however, turned to the flammable decorations. Recently I re-studied pictures of the ruins. They depict the telltale round blobs of cement that indicate that the place was lined with combustible tile. This had escaped notice during the investigation.
Sad to say, the significance of combustible interior finishes escapes many fire officers preparing pre-fire plans.
Cast your eyes upward. Examine the ceiling. Get a ladder and look above the ceiling. Don’t be lulled by elementary fire prevention propaganda that equates neatness with fire safety. There is nothing neater than a deadly combustible acoustical tile ceiling. And don’t make any field tests to determine combustibility. You may start a major fire. It’s been done.
All fire departments’ pre-fire plans should include an adequate evaluation of interior finish hazards. Does yours?