GRAND CENTRAL TERMINAL Destination: Fire Safety

GRAND CENTRAL TERMINAL Destination: Fire Safety


New York City’s Grand Central Terminal, through which more than 300,000 commuters pass daily, was the site of what could have been a major disaster last year when a fire started 75 feet underneath the station (see FIRE ENGINEERING, December 1985). Intense heat, heavy smoke, and complicated access to the fire were just some of the problems fire forces faced.

The August 27, 1985, fire -in Grand Central, the hub of operations for the Metro-North Commuter Railroad, resulted in a major rethinking and restructuring of the railroad’s fire safety procedures. In this way, the chances of a recurrence of the August incident are minimized.

Immediately following the fire, the New York City Fire Department’s (FDNY) Bureau of Fire Prevention, in cooperation with Metro-North management, conducted an extensive inspection of the 48acre terminal. Most violations (such as missing emergency exit signs, poor or inadequate lighting, obvious rubbish accumulations, etc.) were corrected immediately. At presstime, over 93% had been remedied and the remaining 7% (such as standpipe and sprinkler system repair and improvements, etc.) are in the process of being corrected. In addition to carrying out the inspection and indicating existing violations, the fire department gave Metro-North a list of recommendations for upgrading the terminal’s fire protection system.

High on the list of recommendations was the hiring of a full-time manager of fire prevention (a fire safety director according to the New York City Fire Code) and the instituting of a program familiarizing fire department members with the terminal. So far, more than 500 firefighters and officers, including deputy and battalion chiefs, have visited the facility to get a better understanding of the layout, fire protection systems, and other unique features of this building.


Siamese connections, standpipe outlet locations, and operation of the main fire pumps and back-up pumps are stressed in touring the terminal’s layout. Locations of all emergency exits as well as normal means of entry and egress are pointed out.

In order to facilitate movement of fire department units into the terminal, Metro-North provided master keys to each fire company that normally responds on the first and second alarms. These keys also allow for movement through locked areas within the terminal and prevent damage from otherwise necessary forcible entry.

The standpipe system, a complex maze of over five miles of pipe in a continuous loop system, has been the subject of considerable attention. It is supplied from city mains with in-house fire pumps maintaining 120 psi static pressure on all parts of the system. The system runs horizontally under the ground for 14 city blocks, and runs vertically the equivalent of 17 stories in some areas (10 floors below ground level at its lowest point and 7 stories above ground in the terminal building itself).

There are 10 Siamese connections located throughout the system which have all been replaced by Metro-North.

There are 360 standpipe outlets all of which have been inspected and repaired or replaced where necessary. All of the old 1 ½ -inch standpipe hose is being phased out and replaced with 1 ¾ -inch double jacketed hose with shutoff nozzles.

Smoke obscuration, a common problem at most fires, often makes it difficult to locate standpipe outlets. In the past, identification of the terminal’s outlets has been by way of a small blue light approximately 10 feet above the outlet. In a smoke condition, these blue lights are impossible to see because of their small size and proximity to the ceiling. To compensate for this, Metro-North has begun to paint columns and walls at outlet locations with a bright yellow paint crossed with two 6-inch reflective red stripes.

The standpipe problem is further complicated by the location of some outlets on the supporting columns between two tracks. If trains are on both tracks, the outlets are inaccessible. Certain key outlets are being identified for relocation to a more accessible area and platforms are being marked to indicate the position of the cutlets that will remain on the columns.

There are over 600 fire extinguishers (pressurized water, dry chemical, and carbon dioxide types) in key locations throughout the terminal. Extinguishers are frequently used on small rubbish fires, tie fires, and the like. An ongoing extinguisher recharging and preventive maintenance program is in place.

From a fire safety standpoint, rubbish management is a major consideration. The amount of rubbish is directly proportional to the number of people using the terminal. There are approximately 85 commercial occupancies located in the terminal, all of which generate rubbish that has to be managed.

Fred Palmer, general superintendent of the terminal, has initiated a garbage compactor study to address the problem. In the interim, private contractors remove garbage on a daily basis and a garbage train hauls additional trash to Croton-Harmon in suburban Westchester County where it is removed by contractors. The manager of fire prevention coordinates schedules with appropriate railroad personnel to assure that rubbish is removed expeditiously.

Fire Safety Director Dick Nagle begins his familiarization sessions with New York City Fire Department units. Each session starts with a classroom lecture in a typical passenger car.

Photos by Frank English

Building awareness tours within the station terminal follow the classroom lecture.The firefighters are conducted through all areas of the terminal structure.Combination (sprinkler and standpipe) Siamese supply locations have been painted and stolen signs replaced.

Also, homeless people congregate in Grand Central and sometimes create housekeeping and unaccountable life hazard problems. Accidental and incendiary rubbish fires in and around the terminal are often attributed to these people. The Metro-North Police Department locates and removes homeless people from restricted areas of the terminal on a daily basis. Security is currently being tightened with the installation of security gates in areas used by vagrants for access to the terminal. While these gates may reduce fire department access to the terminal, the overall impact on the fire problem should be positive.

Exterior location and operation of building service equipment. Here, ventilation fans are pointed out and discussed.The exterior of the terminal is explored for strategic and tactical considerations for a possible emergency situation.Hose outlet and extinguisher locations have been upgraded and distinctly marked. The new 1 3/4 -inch hose is being fitted with variable pattern shutoff nozzles.

A number of steps have been taken to improve communications between fire department units and railroad personnel. A hot line has been set up between FDNY dispatchers and the railroad’s chief train dispatcher. In addition, Metro-North has established a mobile command post that can be located adjacent to the fire department’s designated command post. Railroad managers can be easily identified by white hard hats, reflective vests, and official badges.

Six portable radios on the railroad frequency are available to the fire department at the command post along with terminal maps and floor plans. A radio relay system on the fire department frequency is being installed in the tunnel areas for more effective communication on fire department personnel handie-talkies.

A fire reporting protocol has been agreed to by FDNY and Metro-North. All fires, no matter how minor they may seem, are reported by the chief train dispatcher to the fire department. Depending on the situation and information received, the fire department may take the call as a “still” alarm (report of a fire that has been extinguished) with no response, or send one or more units to investigate.

Metro-North supervisory personnel and Metro-North police will meet incoming units to direct them to the incident. All requests for power removal by the fire department are handled through the chief train dispatcher’s office and relayed to the Metro-North Power Department. This will prevent trains that are carrying passengers from being stopped in a tunnel that is filling with smoke. If conditions warrant, a single track, multiple tracks, the upper or lower levels, or the entire terminal may be de-energized upon fire department request. Once power has been shut off, only the fire department can authorize its restoration.

To fulfill the requirements of Local Law 5 (the high-rise law) of the City of New York, MetroNorth has initiated plans for the installation of a sophisticated Class E fire alarm system in the terminal. A fire command station will be established and manned around the clock. Heat and smoke detectors, water flow alarms, manual stations, and two-way voice communications will be incorporated into the system as well.

There is currently no central ventilation system in the terminal. Exhaust fans are located throughout the facility and they are controlled from individual fan rooms. An engineering consulting firm has been hired to examine the ventilation problem and will be submitting recommendations.

Plans for an in-house fire brigade are underway. Brigade members will be chosen to cover each working shift so that trained personnel will always be available 24 hours a day. Brigade members will be instructed in the use of self-contained breathing apparatus, hose handling techniques, search, ventilation, extinguisher operation, and other associated duties.

One of the many emergency exits leading to the acres of tracks located under the city streets. They have been lighted and adequately marked since the August 1985 fire.

Photo by Frank English

Ultimately, brigade members will execute periodic testing and operation of the standpipe system, sprinkler system, and fire pumps. Maintenance of and repairs to the systems will continue to be the jobs of the existing work force. Tire fire inspection capacity will be greatly increased through utilization of fire brigade members.

There are numerous entrances and exits in Grand Central Terminal. In the below ground track areas, there is a system of emergency exits that lead from various truck locations to the street. Since many of these emergency exits terminate in buildings some distance from the main terminal (for example, there is an emergency exit in a hotel eight blocks north of the terminal), all exits have been clearly labeled “Metro-North Emergency Exit” and emergency lights have been installed in each one. Not only do these provide for escape, if necessary, but they also provide relatively easy access for fire department units responding to emergencies remote from the main terminal. During the fire in August 1985, one prong of the initial attack on the fire was through such an emergency exit. All of the exits are inspected on a weekly basis to insure that they are operational, properly labeled, and lit.


The storage of unused railroad cars awaiting disposal has been discontinued in the terminal. All rail equipment presently stored is either awaiting routine maintenance, undergoing acceptance testing, or being used as a support unit. For example, there is one coach that has been converted into an upholstery repair car. Upon the recommendation of the fire department, the car is being protected by a sprinkler system and permanently anchored to the siding on which it is located. The rubbish removal track and platform will also be protected with sprinklers.

As the terminal undergoes repairs or renovations, fire safety is a prime consideration. Smoke detectors, exit lights, and emergency lights are included in all renovated areas and it is expected that sprinkler protection will be extended into many terminal areas.

As Grand Central Terminal approaches its 75th anniversary, the groundwork is being laid for a state-of-the-art total fire protection system that will serve as a model for all major transportation facilities throughout the world.

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