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




Let’s begin this month’s Hot Topic with the results of the June 1992 survey on burglar bars. Twenty people responded, with the following results:

  1. Do the existing model building and fire code provisions handle the issue of burglar bars adequately? Yes 0 No 17
  2. Should burglar bars be prohibited entirely? Yes 4 No 14
  3. Are “push-button” magnetic releases acceptable? Yes 15 No 3
  4. Is the addition of a smoke detector release (tied directly to the burglar bar) necessary? Yes 14 No 3
  5. Should burglar bars be permitted only in fully sprinklered buildings? Yes 6 No 14
  6. Should burglar bars be operable from the exterior of the building with the use of a fire department rapid entry type key? Yes 13 No 5
  7. Do “fixed” (nonoperable) burglar bars greatly outnumber operable burglar bars in your jurisdiction? Yes 15 No 5

Thanks again for your participation.

Now an update on the refrigerated storage column from August 1991. A recent fire in a cold storage warehouse in San Antonio yielded some lessons on smoke removal in these buildings.

A propane-powered floor sweeper. Fire spread from this piece of equipment to the adjacent 20-foot pallet racks.A PPV unit was positioned at this vent hole to blow air down into the cold-storage warehouse. Note the many layers of insulation that had to be cut throught.Damage to adjacent pallet racks. Although in-rack sprinklers were in close proximity, they did not operate.A view through the rack to the vent hole opened by firefighters.

(Photos by author.)

While cleaning the floor of a frozen food warehouse, a propanepowered sweeper caught fire in an aisle. The fire spread to pallets of food on the adjacent racks next to the sweeper. The fire department was called quickly and responded from a firehouse a few blocks away.

Arriving firefighters quickly extinguished the fire, even before the preaction sprinkler system had a chance to operate. No sprinkler heads were fused (not even in-rack heads nearby), and the detection system did not receive an alarm condition.

Besides an icy floor, firefighters were faced with a fairly thick smoke condition in the warehouse. They cut a vent hole in the roof and directed positive-pressure ventilation units through exterior loading dock doors in an attempt to move the smoke out of the vent. This procedure proved unsuccessful. They could not force the nonbuoyant, very cold smoke out of the vent hole even with multiple PPV units in operation.

They then decided to “reverse” the operation—to force air in the vent hole and out of the loading dock doors. They took a PPV unit to the roof and set it up to blow air into the building. The “reverse” operation was successful. After several minutes, most of the smoke was removed from the building. The warehouse owner was given the tasks of removing the minor residual smoke from the building and awaiting the arrival of the health inspector, who had been requested by the fire department.

The search for new, more efficient, and readily available energy sources for automobiles has taken on a new dimension. Besides the “normal” fuels such as gasoline, diesel fuel, and propane, another material has been added—compressed natural gas.

Compressed natural gas already is being used by buses. Thus, it is only natural that automobiles be powered by this common material.

My office recently received a set of plans for a new single-family home. We normally don’t review singlefamily homes, but I wanted to see this one. I wanted to see the natural gas “fueling station” in the two-car garage.

Essentially, the two cars to be stored in the garage arc powered by natural gas. A compressor receives natural gas from the service piped to the house and subsequently “pumps” it through hoses attached to the vehicles’ natural gas tanks. A “fill up” usually takes several hours (overnight) because of the compressor’s limitations.

One compressor manufacturer indicates that a “quick-fill” system soon will be available. It appears that this rapid-fill system will use tanks to store the gas, similar in principle to a fire department’s SCBA cascade system.

What will they think of next?