THE FIRE WALL AN ESSENTIAL IN CROWDED BUILDINGS
The following are extracts from a paper read by H. J. Porter at the recent convention of the Dominion Association of Fire Chiefs:
A wall of brick or other fire-resisting material dividing the building vertically from cellar to roof into two sections with a doorway on each floor leading from one section to the other closed by a fireproof door, thus making practically two buildings of one with a fireproof connectioin between them on each floor. In case a fire should occur on any floor of one section notification would be given on the fire signal system of that section and all the people who might be in danger, instead of having to go downstairs, through or past the fire to escape from it, pass horizontally away from the first and going through the doorway in the fire wall into the adjoining section they would close the fireproof door after them: thus creating a barrier against the fire and developing a refuge in which they would be perfectly safe and where they could stay indefinitely, or from which they could descend to the ground at their leisure by the stairs, or the elevators, which, being in perfectly normal condition, because unaffected by the fire, could be used as they are ordinarily and without haste or excitement.
This is simply adapting the principle of the water-tight bulkhead of the ocean steamer to a new set of conditions. It developed the “sectional building” and provided it with what has since become known as “horizontal exits” which supplements the “vertical exits” in the smoke-proof tower and the unsafe outside fire escape altogether. The principle, which my experience had demonstrated, is that a stairway will serve as a practical and safe exit facility for only a very small number of people at one time, and then only under normal conditions. It is not generally understood but it is a fact nevertheless that from 15 to 20 people per floor is all that any stairway can accommodate safei^ and for that number of people there should be two stairways remote from each other so that if one would be cut olT by the fire the other would be available. In descending stairs it is necessary for people to have a vacant step before them to tread upon. As soon as the number of people who use a stairway at one time exceeds those who would fill every step, congestion occurs, and even with a less number when they crowd together, as they do under emergency conditions, their descent becomes difficult and even impossible. I do not think that stairways have been accorded their proper share of blame for the casualties which have occurred on them. The blame is usually laid upon the crowd which is charged with losing its control and getting into a panic. On the contrary, a panic on a stairway is the direct result of condition of stairway congestion. When the end of the play at the theatre is approaching you say instinctively “let us get ready and start before the crowd.” Tnat is because you know that if you become one of the crowd, your progress will be slow, but you do not stop to consider that it is the limitation of capacity of the stairway which will impede the progress. Why do some of the boys and girls at the factory wash up early so as to be ready to go as soon as the whistle blows, while others wait and take their time, arranging to leave about ten or fifteen minutes later? They tell you “to avoid the crowd.” They realize that they will be delayed by the slow descent of the large number of people which crowd the stairs when all get on at once. So the former want to get away in advance and the latter want to wait till the rush is over to avoid being jostled and incommoded. It is the inadequacy of the stairway to accommodate the crowd which is the cause of the trouble.
The only other means of egress from the upper floors of buildings are elevators, but as the elevator shafts serve as flues for flames and smoke in case of fire the heat warps the runways and puts the operating mechanism out of service and the smoke prevents the operator from remaining at his post, they have never been entered in the catalogue of exit facilities. In fact, although occasionally a venturesome and loyal employe is found who will run his elevator until it can no longer be operated, still there are so many unfavorable conditions militating against this means of egress staying in commission any great length of time that it cannot be relied upon and it would not be considered humane to try to enforce service of this kind. The possibility of elevators giving out between floors is also great and their occupants might then be suffocated to death or roasted alive in the cage. The fire wall by confining a fire to a specific section of a building enables the occupants of that section, who would be a small proportion of all in the building, very readily and within a minute to obtain a refuge in an adjoining section where all the exit facilities are in normal condition. The people, then not being hurried, if the building is a low one, could use the stairways when they wished to descend, and if the building is high, the elevators being the only means of exit for people of average physique, would be available. The only conditions under which elevators can be depended upon in fire emergency are those developed when they are protected by a fire wall and that protection must include the operating mechanism as well, so that a fire on one side of the fire wall cannoa affect anything on the other side in any manner whatsoever. In addition to all this there is another advantage which the fire wall offers, viz., that as a fire would be confined to the section of the building where it originated, it would damage or at the worst destroy that section only instead of the whole structure and therefore the property loss would be materially lessened and the fire insurance rate would be greatly reduced on this account. It will be seen therefore that on account of the inadequacy of stairways and other similar exit facilities all buildings in which there are crowds are dangerous. All low office buildings with wood interior construction are dangerous and the more people there arc in them, the more congested the exit facilities will become in case of emergency and the less will be the likelihood of escape from them. High office buildings of the type erected ten or fifteen years ago with steel construction but with wood floors and doors and window frames and filled with wood partitions and furniture and the accumulation of business supplies and papers are dangerous. All factory buildings with their inflammable contents and crowded occupancy aie dangerous. A fire drill can be instituted in a low factory building, where the whole building is occupiel by only one tenant and will be more or less effective depending upon whether each floor has several separate and independent smoke-proof stairways leading to the ground so that the streams of people coming from the various floors will not collide.
Department stores, particularly those with open rotundas in their centers, are probably the most dangerous buildings in existence today. A fire in one of these large stores, starting_in the inflammable materials which arc exposed everywhere, would spread upward and involve all the floors at once and the crowds which would congest the elevators and stairs could not effect their escape and there would result a holocaust which would put a whole continent in mourning. Hospitals, asylums and institutions whose inmates are blind, ageu, crippled, babies, and otherwise helpless, come in this category of dangerous buildings. These people could not move about without assistance and there would not be a sufficient number of attendants available within the short time allowed by a fire to insure their escape. The best safety measure which architects had been able to suggest for the rescue of these people in case of fire is a steel cylindrical chute with a hcliclc slide inside of it like the “down and outs” at pleasure parks. It was proposed to throw the patients into these and let this slide down to the ground where they would be cared for somehow or other. This means of escape is not in general use. Dormitories of large private schools and colleges and recitation buildings of all schools where many pupils are gathered cannot be emptied rapidly under emergency conditions. 1’his situation has been more or less recognized by boards of education having public schools under their jurisdiction and they have installed fire drills, which are frequently repeated with the idea in mind that when a fire would occur everyone would know what to do and no time would be lost in making an orderly exit from the building.
Theatres, especially the smaller ones used for moving picture shows where the aisles and stairs are narrow, are dangerous even when these places are on the ground floor. A panic, from a flash in the film booth or a match head setting fire to some one’s clothing, will develop a jam in the aisles which will cause injury and even fatalities. A design substituting for longitudinal aisles transverse aisles leading through fire walls is no wperfccted as safer. Hotels, apartment buildings, club houses, tenements, and private residences are, generally speaking, fire traps owing to the inflammable nature of their contents and their inadequate exit facilities. Even the latest and very highest type of these buildings which are fireproof, when their contents get on fire become so filled with smoke that their inmates arc overcome before they can escape and their only chance of rescue is by the firemen who have risked their lives searching for them and recovering them if possible before life is extinct. Many old buildings of the types which 1 have mentioned have brick walls in them already, which can be changed to fire wa’ls at slight expense and thus the safety of their inmates can be greately enhanced and the additional benefits to which I have referred can be secured. There are certain of these buildings which lend themselves very readily to this treatment. For instance, institutional buildings, such as asylums, hospitals, etc., which started small and have had additions added to them, are of this type. I am myself now instituting changes involving lire walls in over one hundred such buildings in order to make them safe for their helpless occupants. In case of fire those who arc bedridden can be wheeled on their beds through the fire walls without disturbing them in any way. Trustees of such buildings who realize the responsibility which they must assume ought to be anxious to adopt this measure to insure the safety of their wards. People will have to become educated to the fact that stairways are not safe exit facilities for crowds in high or even low buildings. People will have to learn to depend upon elevators in high buildings instead, but elevators to be depended upon must be in a safe section of the budding such as is provided by a fire wall. In other words, the fire wall is an essential and the sooner the authorities recognize that fact the less frequent and serious will be the results of fires in buddings where many people are assembled. Naturally there arc customs which will have to be changed to accommodate its introduction, but they are not difficult to change and as soon as people realize that if they want real safety, they must adopt the only real safety measures which has been offered, they will not hesitate to take the necessary steps to secure it.
With the ideas disseminated which I have outlined, there ought to be a steady advance in the direction of incorporating the fire wall principle in the design of all buildings and the use of fireproof materials in their construction. A building of this design and construction can be readily and safety emptied within a minute with practically any occupancy which it might possess and no matter what its height might be. This will be the ideal building of the future.