The Editor’s Opinion Page
Skyscrapers have been around for a long time and have had a pretty good fire record. Except for a rare incident like an airplane crashing into the Empire State building, few lives were lost and fire losses were relatively insignificant. But for the new, improved skyscraper—now called the high-rise—things seem considerably different. Two fires in high-risers in New York within the past year brought death to five people and gave the fire fighters a tough time before being brought under control.
Ventilation is always a major problem at these fires in the newer high-risers since the windows are designed either not to open at all or to be opened with the greatest of difficulty. Fire fighters, in effect, have to walk into an oven, an oven that lacks a flue, and are subject to extremes of heat and smoke.
Another problem is the elevators. In the newer skyscrapers, elevators are summoned by heat sensors, and photoelectric cells control the closing of the doors. The heat sensor can bring an elevator to the worst possible location—the fire floor. After the door opens, the photoelectric cell beam is occluded by smoke and the door remains open. The five persons mentioned above were reported to have died because of this “safety” device.
The newest problem, and one that the fire chief has absolutely no control of, evolves from the type construction used. Fire, it seems, can now travel from floor to floor via the exterior walls. And air-conditioning ducts (not in the old skyscrapers) can draw heat and smoke to parts of the building removed from the fire. At One New York Plaza (see February Fire Engineering) the fire which started on the 33rd floor caused heat and smoke damage on the 35th floor. High-risers hardly deserve the title of “fire-resistive” when this can happen. “Semi-combustible,” as suggested by Bob Powers of the New York Board of Fire Underwriters, would seem more appropriate.
In this report on the New York Plaza fire, Bob also suggested that pre-fire plans should be drawn up for all buildings and that special equipment and instructions be provided for the fire fighter to operate windows, shutters, fans, elevators and air conditioning systems.
He also recommended that the total fire load of fire-resistive buildings be reduced or automatic sprinklers be installed throughout the buildings. Unhappily, architects and builders who will throw a couple of hundred thousand dollars worth of decor and abstract art (which nobody understands or appreciates) into a building cannot think in terms of life-saving sprinklers.
To our readers out in suburbia and ex-urbia who may be wondering just what good they can get out of the lessons learned in a New York high-rise, remember this:
High-risers are popping up all over the country. They don’t have to be 55 stories as in New York. They can be a new 12-story motel in any town or a 20-story dorm on a college campus way out in the country. But no matter where built or how high, they will present the same problems to fire fighters as the New York Plaza fire.