The fire of the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris made news throughout the world. Though the walls and vaulted ceiling are made of stone, the peaked roof was a forest of timbers over 800 years old. That old, dry wood and the large volume of open space was the ideal recipe for a raging inferno.
A former New York City fire chief, in talking about historic churches built in a style similar to Notre Dame, said, “These cathedrals are built to burn. If they weren’t houses of worship, they’d be condemned.”
Churches built with buttresses or flying buttresses (architectural elements which push back against the way walls want to sag outwards) have a high chance of failure during a fire. The flames quickly attack such an open-spanned construction, most of which don’t have fire sprinkler systems in place and provide plenty of fuel. The large, high, open ceilings let fire, heat, and smoke travel easily.
To add to the power of the conflagration, church fires are more likely to be caused by arson. According to a Pew Research Center analysis, about half of U.S. church fires in the 20 years leading up to 2015 were intentionally set. Since arsonists tend to use some sort of accelerant, such as gasoline, these fires will have a big head start against responding fire crews.
The good news is there’s a growing trend of old churches getting fitted with fire sprinklers. The Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston, a church dedicated in 1875, has added new sprinkler and fire protection systems as part of a renovation. Christ Church in Philadelphia has an open-headed deluge sprinkler system installed on its steeple, a wooden fixture built in 1754. In case of a fire, about 30 sprinkler heads on the spire’s surface open up and covers the steeple in a literal deluge of water. And St. Patrick’s cathedral in New York City, built in 1878, installed a sprinkler system during recent renovations and coated its wooden roof with fire retardant.
Even all 19 museums of the Smithsonian, housing 155 million historic objects and specimens, have been retrofitted with sprinklers.
When protecting the irreplaceable (the timbers in the roof of Notre Dame were from 5,000 oak trees that were 300 to 400 years old when harvested – trees of that stature no longer exist in France) fire sprinklers make such simple sense, containing fires and preventing their growth, if not outright extinguishing the blaze even before first responders arrive on scene.
A burning cigarette thrown into the garbage chute. Nineteen dead.
Boarded up windows. 209 dead.
Mattress fire from smoking. 55 dead.
Dropped cigarette. 119 dead.
In just 12 fires occurring in the United States in the 1940’s, there were 791 deaths. This particular list includes many hotels, a night club, two hospitals and even a circus.
It’s a painful way to learn lessons, but this spate of fires prompted President Harry Truman to call for a national conference on fire prevention. As a result, priorities in building design were changed from an emphasis on the protection of property to an emphasis on the protection of life.
On December 7, 1946, the Winecoff Hotel in Atlanta, Georgia, suffered a fire that killed 119 people … in a building advertised as “absolutely fireproof.” Unfortunately, what the claim was referring to was the ability of the building to withstand a fire, be repaired, and put back into service.
These fires brought lively debate about legislation that would enforce new fire code requirements onto older properties, something which previously had been regarded as an unconstitutional taking of property. However, these fires highlighted problems such as unprotected stair openings where the intention of the stairwell as a means to escape a fire was perverted into a path for smoke and flames to rise and spread. The means of egress only became a way to spread the fire.
The Winecoff Hotel fire was a fantastic example of multiple flashovers serving to spread the fire to each successive floor as heat rose through the stairwell like a chimney. It was also the direct reason for a new prohibition of transom windows in guest rooms, which were a perfect path for smoke and flames to move through.
The NFPA’s Building Exits Code of 1927 already called for the placement of multiple, protected exits. President Truman’s conference brought about revisions allowing the code to be incorporated as law. This decade of fires also led to the adoption of tests used by Underwriter Laboratories to determine the potential of various building and decorative materials to be fire hazards.
It is to be hoped that by carefully studying the tragedies of the past, we can avoid those of the future.
“There are no new lessons to be learned from this fire; only old lessons that tragically went unheeded.” -Percy Bugbee, president of the National Fire Protection Association
Remembering the Our Lady of the Angels Fire
60 years is an eternity in the world of technology and modern thoughts and practices. It comes as no surprise that a school fire in December of 1958 resulted in the death of 92 students and 3 teachers. How could they have learned, that long ago, all the lessons that we use to design safe buildings today?
As it turns out, they already knew.
The knew that stored combustibles were a fire hazard and shouldn’t be stored in great quantities.
… that stairwells needed to be enclosed and separated from the building with fire doors.
… that the building should be constructed out of materials that were fire-resistant.
… that transom windows (typically windows above doors which allowed light and air through) created dangerous routes for the spread of fire.
… that fire sprinkler systems effectively contained and even outright extinguished fires.
… that concealed spaces, such as those between ceiling panels and the roof, created hidden routes in which the fire could travel.
… that heat and smoke detectors, which would activate fire alarms and were directly connected to the fire department, detected fires before anyone had noticed them.
… that fire alarms, when activated on time, gave building inhabitants the time needed to get to safety.
… that early reporting of a fire, such as through a fire alarm, gave fire fighters the time they needed to arrive on the scene before the fire was out of control.
They didn’t heed the lessons from other deadly fires before them.
At Our Lady of the Angels School in Chicago, the building was under a 1905 ordinance that was written well before a number of fire protection engineering advancements. The updated 1949 Chicago Municipal Code took those lessons into account, but only applied to new construction. This new code called for construction using non-combustible materials and buildings to be equipped with sprinkler systems, enclosed stairwells, and fire doors, among other advancements.
Instead, the building and stairwells were wood and plaster, the classroom ceilings were made of flammable cellulose fiber tiles, and every classroom had a glass transom window above the door. The classrooms themselves, like many at the time, were overcrowded with about 60 students in each.
What fire protection systems the school had in place were negligently inadequate, if not ridiculous in hind sight. There was no sprinkler system nor smoke detectors. There were fire extinguishers, but oddly enough they were mounted on the walls six feet above the floor! In a year where the average male height was 5’ 6”! The fire alarm? A plain, un-labeled electrical switch, also six feet off the floor. Fire hose racks and accompanying valves? Six feet off the floor. The only conclusion I’ve been able to come to is that it was a primary concern that the elementary-age school children be prevented from messing with this equipment, that somehow a false alarm was worse than preventing the loss of life.
… that heat and smoke detectors gave early fire warnings
The fire started in a cardboard trash container at the bottom of a stairwell in the basement. It smoldered there for 30 minutes, unnoticed.
… that fire-resistant building materials should be use
Flames quickly spread to the wooden staircase, fueling itself off the varnished woodwork.
… that stairwells needed to be enclosed and separated
Heat, smoke, and gases blasted up the stairwell as quickly as if in a chimney. They were stopped from entering the first-floor hall by fire doors, but the second floor had none.
… that concealed spaces create hidden routes for the fire
Students and teachers were almost immediately trapped by toxic smoke and super-heated gases in the hallway, as well as by flames above the classroom ceilings.
… that fire alarms give building inhabitants time to get to safety
One of the first teachers to know about the fire ran to the principal’s office, as the principal was the only one authorized to sound the fire alarm. Finding the principal absent, the teacher returned to her classroom to evacuate her students at which point she finally returned to the school and flipped one of only two fire alarm switches that served the entire school.
… that fire alarms should be directly connected to the fire department
The fire department didn’t get the alarm until 10 minutes after the fire was first discovered, 40 minutes after it had started. They were behind in the fight before they even arrived on the scene. Fire fighters had to break through a locked, seven-foot iron fence that closed off the school’s courtyard in order to erect ladders against the building and even then, with the second-floor sills 25 feet off the ground, most of the ladders were too short. They became desperate and started just pulling students through the windows and dropping them to the ground, figuring the risk of injury was better than the certain death of the smoke and flames. Fire fighters reported seeing the white shirts of the children turning brown from the heat.
In the end, 92 students and 3 teachers died.
26 students and their teacher died from smoke inhalation alone, untouched by fire, in a single classroom.
A coroner’s jury inquest as well as an NFPA report both cited inadequate fire detection and alarms, poor housekeeping and poor fire evacuation practice and called the school a “fire trap.” Following the jury’s and the NFPA’s assessment, the mayor and city council retroactively amended building code to require automatic sprinklers in all schools with wooden floors and 2 or more stories tall as well as other changes.
The fire motivated the Los Angeles Fire Department to conduct a series of tests investigating school fires in buildings with open stairwells. It was found only complete sprinkler systems were successful in limiting the spread of the products of combustion and in extinguishing or at least containing the fire. This includes tests using partial sprinkler systems, fire curtains, and roof vents.
The tests also emphasized that smoke was the most serious threat inside a building during a fire.
After the Our Lady of the Angels fire, nearly 70% of all communities across the United States initiated fire safety improvements. These included mandatory fire exit drills, more inspections, fire-resistant construction, and the installation of fire alarms.
More importantly, there was a change in attitude. Prior to this fire, there had long been a debate between municipal officials and public safety advocates on whether or not government could demand existing buildings to conform to newer regulations. It turned out that school systems, as part of locally-controlled school districts and supported by local taxpayers or, in the case of private and parochial schools, financed through private funds, were among the last classes of public buildings to accept this new mindset.
It’d be a shameful testament to the memory of these children to fail to learn from past mistakes.
It sounds like a joke, but on January 15, 1919 – 100 years ago today – there was a flood of molasses in Boston that killed 21 and injured 150. Buildings were ripped from their foundations, railroad cars were shoved off their tracks, and several city blocks were left flooded to a depth of two to three feet.
The flood came from a massive storage tank that was improperly designed and poorly built. 50 feet tall and 242 feet in circumference, the tank held 2.3 million gallons of molasses. It was built with walls 10% thinner than were specified and assembled with poor materials. Thousands of rivets held it together, all installed in a rushed manner with no inspection and overseen by a person who had no technical, architectural, nor engineering experience. The tank, once built, leaked immediately and was painted brown to conceal the site of molasses oozing down its sides. Modern studies show the tank walls were only half as thick as they should have been for one of that size and made from brittle steel.
It sounds baffling that there should be a tank holding 2 million gallons of molasses for any reason. The viscous fluid is a byproduct that comes from refining sugarcane or sugar beets into sugar and not only can be distilled to produce rum, it can also be converted to ethanol and used in the production of munitions. The tank was built in 1915, one year after World War 1 broke out.
Two days prior to the disaster, warmer molasses had been added to the tank, topping it to near capacity, which had multiple effects. First, this addition to the cold, thick molasses already in the tank created a fermentation process that produced gas. This gas collected in the near-full tank, increasing pressure against the walls. Second, the warmed contents were more viscous than they otherwise would have been. When the tank structure failed, this allowed the spilling fluid to spread further and more quickly than it otherwise would have, in a wave as high as 25 feet and moving at 35 miles per hour.
The disaster took place in Boston’s North End which was very congested at the time with 40,000 people in just a square mile of space. It was an extremely busy commercial neighborhood along an equally busy shipping waterfront. A Boston police patrolman reported he heard the sound, like that of a machine gun rattling followed by a deafening grinding. He looked towards the tank which disintegrated as he watched, spilling a huge wall of dark liquid.
The wave of molasses stretched on for three-quarters of a mile, collecting debris as it moved like a tsunami. The fluid cooled quickly as it spread due to the winter temperatures and quickly became thicker, ultimately hampering efforts to free victims before they suffocated. In addition to the deaths and injuries, the accident caused $300,000 in damage, the equivalent of over $9 million today.
The cleanup was difficult as water proved ineffective at washing away the mess. In the end, salt water from a fire-boat in the harbor was needed. Cleanup took weeks and the harbor water was brown until summer. Cleanup in the rest of Boston took longer as people unintentionally tracked molasses to subway platforms, trains and streetcars, pay telephone handsets, and into their homes. For decades after the event, residents claimed they could smell molasses on hot summer days.
After the flood, the Boston Building Department began to require that all calculations of engineers and architects had to be filed with their plans and that stamped drawings be signed. This practice became the standard all across the country. This influenced the adoption of engineering certification laws in all states and a requirement that all plans for major structures be sealed by a registered professional engineer before a building permit will be issued.
This disaster did for building construction regulations nationwide what the subsequent Boston disaster of the Cocoanut Grove nightclub fire died for fire code laws.
From our great friends at the National Fire Protection Association:
Do you like helping out in the kitchen and cooking up tasty snacks for your friends and family? Preparing yummy treats can be lots of fun, but it’s important that kids who like to cook know how to be safe in the kitchen. These tips can help you figure out what you’re old enough to do on your own—and when it’s time to ask an adult for help.
Getting Started: Before you get cooking, you need to get a grown-up’s permission. If you plan to use a recipe, look it over with a grown-up first to decide what you can do on your own and what you need help with. And once you get started, never be afraid to ask for help. Even the best chefs rely on their assistants to help them out in the kitchen.
Helping Out is Fun: From mixing up cake batter to cutting shapes out of cookie dough, helping out a grownup in the kitchen can be lots of fun. So, if you’re not old enough yet to cook on your own, not to worry; being the chef’s helper is the most important job in the kitchen.
Cooking for All Ages: All kids are different—and a grown-up should always decide what is safe for you to do in the kitchen—but here are some guidelines that you can use.
Kids aged 3 to 5 can:
Get ingredients out of the refrigerator
Measure and mix ingredients together in a bowl
Pour liquids into a bowl • Wash fruits and vegetables off under cold water
Use a cookie cutter to cut shapes out of cookie dough or sandwiches
Lick the cake batter off of a spoon (yum!)
Kids age 6 to 8 can:
Use a butter knife to spread frosting, cream cheese, peanut butter or soft cheese
Stir ingredients in a bowl
Set the table
Kids age 9 to 12 can:
Begin to follow a recipe
Use electrical kitchen appliances, such as a microwave oven, when a grown-up is present
Use a grater to shred cheese and vegetables
Turn stove burners on and off and select oven temperature when a grown-up is present
Help plan the meal
Make a salad
Kids aged 14 and over can:
Operate the stove or oven without an adult present
Heat food up in the microwave without an adult present
The holidays and all the chaos that comes with them once again loom on the horizon. Soon our brains will be overwhelmed by an onslaught of holiday commercials, the stress of shopping for gifts, and the hecticness of family gatherings.
One piece of information we hope isn’t lost in the hubbub is that cooking fires are the number one cause of home fires and home injuries. Keep that in mind as your kitchen becomes Mission Control as you prepare food for friends and family.
What you should know about home cooking safety
Be on alert! If you are sleepy or have consumed alcohol, don’t use the stove or stove top.
Stay in the kitchen while you are frying, grilling, boiling, or broiling food.
If you are simmering, baking, or roasting food, check it regularly, remain in the kitchen while food is cooking, and use a timer to remind you that you are cooking.
Keep anything that can catch fire — oven mitts, wooden utensils, food packaging, towels or curtains — away from your stove top.
If you have a cooking fire
Just get out! When you leave, close the door behind you to help contain the fire.
Call 9-1-1 or the local emergency number after you leave.
If you try to fight the fire, be sure others are getting out and you have a clear way out.
Keep a lid nearby when you’re cooking to smother small grease fires. Smother the fire by sliding the lid over the pan and turn off the stove top. Leave the pan covered until it is completely cooled.
For an oven fire, turn off the heat and keep the door closed.
Cooking equipment is the leading cause of home fires and fire injuries, causing 47% of home fires
66% of home cooking fires start with the ignition of food or other cooking materials
Stoves account for 62% of home cooking fire incidents
Unattended equipment is a factor in 33% of reported home cooking fires and 43% of the associated deaths
Frying dominates the cooking fire problem
Thanksgiving is the peak day for home cooking fires, followed by Christmas Day and Christmas Eve
Over 80% of fire deaths occur in the home. Home fire sprinklers can save lives and property from fire. They respond quickly and effectively to fire, often extinguishing the fire before the fire department arrives. Only the sprinkler closest to the fire will activate, spraying water on the fire.
Home fire sprinklers save lives and property. In many situations, a family who has survived a fire will also have their “home” to live in and enough of the items and space in their home to continue living their lives as they did before.
The cost of a home fire sprinkler system in a new home averages $1.35 per sprinklered square foot totaling an amount similar to what is spent for carpet upgrades, paving stone driveway or a whirlpool bath.
A home fire sprinkler system can reduce the homeowner’s insurance premium.
Fire departments typically use roughly 10 times as much water as a fire sprinkler would use to contain a fire.
Fire sprinklers are environmentally friendly. They can reduce the amount of water run-off and pollution, fire damage by up to 71%, and water usage to fight a home fire by as much as 91%.
Cigar smoke or burnt toast will not activate a fire sprinkler. Only the high temperature of a fire will activate the sprinkler.
A home fire sprinkler system is easy to maintain. Just inspect your home to make sure the sprinklers are not blocked by something that would prevent the water from coming out such as paint and be sure the main control valve is never turned off.
Home fire sprinklers are effective in cold and warm climates. Guidelines have been created for the proper installation of systems to avoid pipes freezing. A home fire sprinkler system should be winterized the same as you winterize a domestic water supply.
Don’t forget …
If moving into an apartment or condominium building, make sure common areas and individual apartments are sprinklered.
If building a new home or remodeling an existing home, consider installing a home fire sprinkler system.
More than 2,500 people die in home fires each year.
If a home fire occurs, the risk of dying decreases by about 80% when the home is equipped with a fire sprinkler system.
Source: NFPA Public Education Division
Contact the professionals at Best Defense and let us show you how we can protect the lives of those you care about and the property you worked hard for!
Emergency exits that wouldn’t open. An unreliable smoke detection system from the 1980’s. A lack of audible and visual fire alarm signals. Faulty emergency lighting.
All of these were to be found in the 161-year-old Edgartown District Court building on Martha’s Vineyard. Conditions were so bad, the fire chief ordered that the building be closed … that, or court officers patrolled the hallways every 15 minutes, conducting fire watch tours.
Which is exactly what they did until upgrades were made and the patrols could be stopped, according to an article from National Fire Protection Association Journal.
Many American courthouses were built in the 19th and 20th centuries. Nothing in their design or construction includes the robust fire and life-safety protection systems we expect and count on today, such as fire sprinklers and modern fire alarm systems.
Due to the love of these old buildings, many communities have chosen to preserve and update the structure rather than erecting a new, modern facility. There’s a pride and dedication to the structures, many of which are the grandest building in a town in which the work of local artisans was employed. The courthouses are often prominently located, their presence a symbol of community pride.
In Texas alone, there are 242 county-owned historic courthouses that were built 50 or more years ago and are still in active government use. Architects have had to figure out how to update these buildings while maintaining its historic look. It’s also important to remember that these facilities house the archives of the community: paper files for birth, marriage, and death records, so easily destroyed by fire.
Some clever solutions to this problem include discreet, fire-resistant curtains which drop down to close off an atrium in which a smoke evacuation system couldn’t be installed, recessed sprinkler heads, retractable emergency lighting, and transparent frameless exit signs. In one case, a fire sprinkler head was placed in the center of a decorative ceiling rosette, causing it to appear more a part of the interior design and less a piece of hardware.
There are a number of changes planned for the 2019 edition of NFPA 914 – Fire Protection of Historic Structures, including removing the word “Fire” from the title. In a day where concerns about active shooters and other threats are being considered, the code will be expanded to cover a wider array of dangers.
The Greenfell Tower was a 24-story building in London, designed and built in what is called the Brutalist Style. This architectural style flourished from the early 1950’s until the mid 70’s and is comprised of raw concrete or brick in a blunt layout and lacking ornate features.
It doesn’t sound like the sort of building whose exterior could be completely engulfed in flames in 30 minutes but that’s exactly what happened on June 14, 2017. The blazed burned for 60 hours and required the efforts of 250 firefighters to bring it under control. It was the worst United Kingdom residential fire since the Second World War and resulted in 72 deaths, 70 others injured, with an additional 223 escaping the conflagration.
Starting two years before the fire, a major renovation was started, part of which was the addition of a new composite cladding to the building’s exterior. The cladding’s purpose was to help heating and energy efficiency and to soften the look of the tower’s rough exterior. This material was composed of two aluminum sheets bonded to a flammable polyethylene core, chosen because it saved approximately $385,000 on the $12 million renovation.
A fire in 2009 which spread unexpectedly quickly due to exterior cladding and caused 6 deaths prompted fears about the potential for other fires, however no urgent actions were taken by the government. Another fire, also spreading quickly due to external cladding, took place in 2016.
The Greenfell Tower suffered from other concerns. Residents attempted to bring to the attention of the building’s management company as well as local government details such as firefighting equipment at the tower that had not been checked for up to four years, including on-site extinguishers which had expired. They never received a reply. In addition, the building had only one stairwell and one exit, as United Kingdom regulations do not require a second. Also, building corridors had been allowed to fill with a variety of obstructions and debris, such as old mattresses.
One year before the fire, an independent assessor highlighted 40 serious issues concerning fire safety that were deemed to require immediate action, however by October the assessor contacted the management company to inquire why over 20 of the issues hadn’t been tackled. Then in November, the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority served the management group with a “fire deficiency notice” which required action by May 2017.
Very early in the morning of June 14, 2017, fire from a refrigerator broke out on the 4th floor.
12:50 BST (British Summer Time) – fire breaks out shortly after midnight
12:54 BST – fire department called, first crews arrived six minutes after alarm
1:07 BST – responders enter the apartment
1:09 BST – fire had reached external cladding by erupting out of apartment window
1:14 BST – fire fighters start attacking the initial fire. A fire fighter outside tried to prevent the spread but the spray of water couldn’t reach higher than the 4th floor. The cladding’s manufacturer recommended not using the material on a building taller than 3 stories – the Greenfell Tower was 24 stories tall.
By the time fire fighters had the initial fire under control, flames were advancing quickly up the building.
1:29 BST – a rising column of flames had reached the roof and the fire was out of control. Other residents who had called the fire department were told to stay in their rooms, which is standard policy for a fire in a high-rise building relying on the assumption the fire can be contained in one area. Also, as part of this policy, the building had no central fire alarm system which could warn all residents to evacuate.
The fire burning on the cladding spread horizontally and re-entered the building through other windows
1:30 BST – the single stairwell became filled with smoke, making it difficult for residents to escape without help from fire fighters
5:00 BST – the building was still burning. All residents up to 10th floor had been rescued, but firefighters had not been able to get any higher than the 20th floor. Only 2 people escaped from the two highest floors
13:14 BST – fire brought under control
The fire prompted massive investigations into other potential fire risks of buildings covered with cladding, as well as criminal investigations against the building’s management company. Plans are to demolish the building by the end of 2018.