This month’s Hot Topic begins with a look at high-rises. When you think of these buildings, what comes to mind? An apartment house, a hotel, an office building? How about a high-rise “mini-storage” facility?

Recently, a nonoccupied “speculative” office building in San Antonio was converted into a mini-storage facility where individuals may rent cubicles for storage of their goods. ‘Hie cubicles van in size; most of them are a few hundred square feet or less. Permanent partitions that are less than full height separate the cubicles from each other. A wire mesh screen covers the top of each cubicle. ‘Hie height of the wire mesh allows storage in each cubicle up to seven feet, six inches.

In terms of fire protection, the following concerns were raised:

  • storage of hazardous materials;
  • appropriate sprinkler protection;
  • smoke control, specifically the blockage of tempered windows by the cubicles;
  • the weight of water on the floor, in addition to the weight of the stored materials; and
  • a maze-like corridor system.

As a result of these concerns, the owner made various fire protection improvements. The owner will upgrade the sprinkler system design density to protect “Group A” plastics, owing to the difficulty of regulating the level of fire hazard posed by the wide variety of materials that can be stored. In terms of hazardous materials (chemicals, flammable liquids, etc.) a clause in the lease prohibits such storage, and a cursory inspection by building security personnel is designed to prevent such storage.

Access has been provided to the tempered windows on each side of the building on each floor. Dead-end corridors are avoided to improve the maze-like conditions.

It is obvious that firefighters will have to preplan each floor of this building for their operations. They also will have to be especially cognizant of water runoff during firefighting operations in this building.

Here’s another one to think about: What goes on inside a medical highrise office building? Most people think of doctors’ offices where examinations are performed, diagnostic tests are conducted, and so on. How about doctors’ offices where surgery is performed and people are rendered incapable of self-preservation?

A new trend is developing where doctors are performing surgical procedures in their offices. Their office suites are fitted with operating rooms, recovery rooms, nurses’ stations—in effect, they are mini-hospitals. Obviously, implications exist for firefighters and fire prevention personnel alike.

Depending on the number of surgical patients involved, the office building conceivably could be reclassified as an “institutional” occupancy under the appropriate building code. It is important that fire prevention personnel document the types of surgeries being performed in doctors’ offices in their jurisdictions, paying close attention to those facilities where people will be incapable of self-preservation.

A high-rise mini-storage building. Firefighters will have numerous concerns for these warehouses in the sky.

Firefighters must preplan medical office buildings more carefully, especially if it is known that surgeries are being performed in the buildings. Potential rescue problems must be identified. Keep in mind that people may be recovering from their surgeries overnight.

Finally, let’s look at building codes and enforcement. After posting tremendous losses in the wake of Hurricane Andrew, the insurance industry has retaken an active role in building codes and their enforcement.

As reported in the March/April 1993 issue of The Building Official and Code Administrator Magazine, the National Committee on Property Insurance’s (NCPI) Building Code Subcommittee has been working w ith the model building code organizations and the Insurance Services Office (ISO) to develop new strategies to prevent large losses. These strategies include involvement in the code-developing process as well as in the subsequent enforcement of these codes.

One activity worth noting is the initiative to establish a building code enforcement grading system, similar to the ISO’s fire service grading schedule, with which most firefighters are familiar. It is the goal of this building code program to rate the nation’s building departments on their effectiveness in enforcing upto-date building codes. The grades determined for the various building departments would be used in the insurance underwriting process.

A preliminary “Code Enforcement Grading System Checklist” draft has been prepared. Eventually, it is anticipated that ISO field personnel will use this checklist to evaluate local building code enforcement

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