Leaky Standpipe at Fire Spurs Milwaukee Building Dept. Action
Milwaukee Journal photo
Milwaukee Sentinel photo
After Milwaukee fire fighters found an outside standpipe unusable at a major downtown office building fire, city officials launched a pressure-test program for all such standpipes.
The first day of testing revealed that 10 out of 11 standpipes were seriously defective. One was in such poor shape that it will probably have to be completely replaced. Periodic visual inspections had not found the faults.
The fire at which the standpipe failed broke out in a six floor office suite of the seven-story Caswell Building about 8:15 a.m. last Jan. 21. Many of the 80 occupants were rescued by fire fighters. Although no fatalities occurred, 20 persons were injured and several civilians remained in critical condition overnight. Major damage in the five-alarm blaze was confined to portions of the two upper floors.
The seat of the fire was near an alley fire escape, which had the standpipe alongside. The fire escape was 50 feet from the hydrant to which first-due Engine 1 hooked up. When fire fighters tried to use lines from this standpipe at the sixth floor landing, pressure was inadequate for fire streams. Officers reported water escaping from numerous leaks in the pipe. With manpower fully committed to rescue operations, fire fighting was delayed almost 10 minutes until more hose could be dragged up the escape to bypass the useless standpipe.
Later, Milwaukee’s building inspector (whose office has handled all fire inspection work since 1968 when the fire prevention bureau was abolished by the Common Council) stated that visual inspection only three months earlier had uncovered no standpipe defect. Furthermore, he suggested that if there had been excessive leakage, it was perhaps because fire fighters had not seen to it that lower level valves were closed. Owners of the Caswell Building asserted that the structure was “in good condition.”
Such comment subsided quickly when on the day after the fire Milwaukee Fire Chief William Stamm staged a public test at the scene for representatives of the news media and the building inspector’s office.
“Why, it leaks like a sieve,” exclaimed one radio news director as water sprayed out over the alley from a “hole” in the pipe at the fifth floor level.
Besides that major break, at a joint where pipe supports were welded to the escape, there were bad connections on the second and third floors, plus a leaking valve at the fifth floor. Pressure at the sixth floor was only about 45 psi instead of the 115 it should have been.
“This just proved our point,” Stamm commented.
Milwaukee’s standpipe ordinances date back to the 1880s and some of the standpipes are almost as old. Subject to corrosion, vandalism and neglect, their condition can be expected to deteriorate at an ever-increasing rate.
Crash program launched
Because of the condition so dramatically demonstrated at the Caswell Building, the building inspector launched a crash program to pressure-test the city’s more than 300 outside standpipes. With fire department help, the work began on Jan. 28 with critical installations at a number of hotels and hospitals.
Each pipe was subjected to a 150 psi test for five minutes—and all but one failed miserably. Some, spraying water from defective valves on several floors, would have been more effective as outside deluge or sprinkler systems than anything else.
This phase of testing was therefore abandoned. The building inspector instead began issuing orders to building managements to hire outside firms to conduct more extensive tests. Defects must be corrected within 90 days.
Under a December 1973 ordinance, newly installed standpipes must be pressure-tested every five years. However, the old pipes are not covered. Officials have now asked that the law be changed to add such coverage. Clearly, visual inspection alone is not enough.