Virus Spread Shouldn’t Facilitate Fire Spread

At this point in history, Corvid 19 AKA the Coronavirus needs no introduction nor explanation. The entire world population is going through their collective days, trying to figure out how life needs to change to stay healthy.

However, it’s important to to remember the other safety protocols we’ve established and not set those aside. Just because the virus is here, now, doesn’t mean other hazards aren’t waiting their turn around the corner.

From the National Fire Protection Association:

Don’t Compromise Fire Safety While Responding to Coronavirus: Keep Fire Doors Operable

As incidents of the coronavirus have continued to climb in the U.S., you’d be hard-pressed to get through the past couple of weeks without hearing reports of its spread. All of this is understandably generating conversation and concern among all of us.

While no one knows what the true extent of the virus or its impact will be, it’s clear that everyone is thinking hard about ways to implement preventative measures for keeping safe … [read more]



Fire Free Happy Holidays

The first electric light was invented by Humphry Davy in 1802, who connected wires from a battery to a piece of carbon. The carbon glowed, though too brightly for practical use, and didn’t last very long.

It would be 76 years before Thomas Edison filed his first patent for Improvement in Electric Lights in 1878 and another 50 years before electric Christmas lights became a standard part of holiday decorating in the 1930’s.

And while we picture many Christmas traditions as having been passed down from ancient times, most are more recent inventions. Santa Claus sprang to live in the early 1800’s and the decorated tree was introduced to Britain by Queen Victoria’s husband in 1841. In 1856, President Pierce set up a tree in the White House and by the 1870’s, one could purchase a fresh cut tree at Washington Square Park and ornaments for the tree at Macy’s.

Old Christmas LightsIt was one of Edison’s employees who first showed off a Christmas tree illuminated by electric lights, but until General Electric offered pre-assembled kits of lights, having a string of bulbs on your tree was something only the wealthy could afford. An electrician would have to be hired to wire up the ole Tannenbaum in the parlor, costing as much as $3000 in the currency of today. However, even 24-bulb pre-wired strands GE started offering in 1903 cost $12 – the equivalent of $184 today.

Eventually, electric lights became the norm, much to the relief of insurance companies who had gone so far as starting to refuse to pay for house fires started by Christmas tree fires. Candles wired to Christmas tree branches might have looked pretty, but I’m pretty sure a drying fir is a fantastic source of fire wood.

Today, only the foolish would still use real candles and modern LED Christmas lights are cool and safe. However, the NFPA reports that U.S. fire departments still respond to nearly 200 fires started by Christmas trees every year. These fires, while rare, can be serious. They’re also easily avoided.

Make sure your new Christmas tree is fresh. Running your hand down a branch might have a few needles fall off, but if quite a few drop, the tree might be dry and you should select another

Also, get a fresh cut on the trunk of the tree, a half inch or so. This prevents the trunk from having scabbed over, which prevents it from drawing water.

Keep your tree freshly watered and keep it away from heat sources. Even a sunny window can cause a tree to dry out.  A study from the University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point recommends getting the tree in water as soon as you get home and watering it ever day. The study recommends a quart for each inch of diameter of the trunk. At a minimum, the water line should be above the base of the tree and never drops below.

The NFPA also recommends lighting trees only with a label of a recognized testing lab, and making sure you’re using bulbs rated for outdoor use if you’re decorating outside the home. Replace strings of lights that have broken cords or loose bulbs and turn them off before leaving home or going to bed.

And please don’t use any of that 1950’s tinsel made out of lead!


Fire Safety for Dogs reminds us that over 1,000 house fires a year are started by pets and that over 500,000 pets die in house fires each year. While the thought of a fire strikes fear into the hearts of every person for many reasons, losing your dog to such an event is one of the most terrifying things to consider.

How Do Dogs Start House Fires?

There are several ways that dogs can start fires. Being aware of these common occurrences can help you take steps to prevent it from happening in your home. Below are some problem areas when it comes to dogs starting fires:

  • Stove Knobs:The most common way that dogs start fires is by jumping up to see what might be on the stove, accidentally turning on the knobs with their paws when they do. Use stove knob covers, or remove your stove knobs when you leave your home to prevent your dog from turning them on.
  • Candles:Candles and dogs don’t mix. They can so easily be knocked over or run into by an active dog. Tails can catch fire, too, creating a very easy way to spread flames throughout your home and injure your dog. Use flameless candles to avoid this completely preventable situation.
  • Space Heaters:Your dog can start a fire easily with a space heater by knocking something over into it or leaving one of his toys right next to it. He could also get burned if he gets too close. Make sure that you don’t leave your dog unsupervised around a working space heater, ever.
  • Fireplaces:Curious dogs may want to inspect the dancing flames of a fireplace. They could toss their toys into it or reach in to investigate and spread embers or flames around. Keep the fireplace secured, and supervise your pet when it contains a fire. Extinguish the fire before you leave your pet alone around it.
  • Loose Wires and Cords:Look around your home periodically, and secure any loose wires or cords that you see.
  • Curious Puppies:Be sure to confine young dogs when they are going to be unsupervised. Sometimes it’s hard to foresee the trouble a puppy might cause when he is alone. A dog crate works great for this purpose.
  • Glass or Metal Water Bowls:Sunlight that shines directly into a glass water bowl could heat any wood surface beneath it and start a fire. Although this is a fairly rare occurrence and most commonly occurs on a deck, if you use glass water bowls, keep them out of the sunlight and off of wood surfaces. Metal bowls have the potential of reflecting a focused ray of light onto wood siding, as well, potentially starting a fire.

Dog Fire Safety

In addition to decreasing the risks of your dog actually starting a house fire, employing a few safety tips can greatly increase your canine pal’s chance of survival if a fire does occur for any reason.

  • Keep Your Dog Near the Door:If you confine your dog to a crate or small area when you leave the home, do so near a door or accessible window. This will make it easier for firefighters to find and rescue your dog if there is a fire.
  • Keep a Collar on Your Dog and Store Leashes near All Exits:If a fire occurs when you are home, you want to be able to secure and lead your dog out very quickly. Once you get outside, having him on a leash will keep him from escaping and becoming lost in the chaos. But, just in case, make sure your dog always has updated ID tags on his collar so he can be found more easily if he does happen to get away.
  • Use Identification Stickers on Your Home’s Windows:Stickers such as these, labelled with the number of dogs present in your home, help alert firefighters that there are pets to look for inside.
  • Make Sure You Have Enough Smoke Detectors and That They Work:In more than 1/3 of human deaths caused by house fires, there were no working smoke alarms in the home. The National Fire Prevention Association recommends the following with regards to smoke alarms:
    • Install one inside every bedroom, outside each sleeping area, and on every level of your home.
    • Test all smoke alarms for function once a month.
    • Replace all smoke alarms every ten years.
  • Sign up for an Alarm-Monitoring System:A monitoring system that is connected to the smoke alarms in your home can increase the chances that your dog (and you) will live through a house fire. The systems will alert your local fire department immediately if your smoke alarms go off. The earlier the firefighters arrive at your home, the more help they can be.
  • Train Your Dog:You can use clicker training to teach your dog to stay away from open flames. Start by using non-lit candles, fire pits that don’t have fires in them, or fireplaces that aren’t in use. Once your dog reliably steers clear of these items, you can light them, but keep your dog on a leash during training sessions around them. You can also work to desensitize your dog to the sound of a smoke alarm because some dogs will hide if they hear one, making them less accessible for rescuing from a house fire. Start with noises that are much softer, giving your dog treats and praise when he remains calm upon hearing them. Gradually work up to louder noises until he doesn’t react fearfully to the smoke alarm noise.
  • Have an Emergency Plan:It’s important that you and your family have a plan in case the smoke detectors in your home go off. Every member of the family should know that they are to leave the home as quickly as possible by the nearest exit, and they should stay out of the home until it is verified that it is safe to return. An adult may be designated to bring the dog outside with them if it is safe to do so. If a fire occurs and you can’t find or don’t have time to get your dog, leave an outside door open and call to him, trying to sound calm.

General Fire Information

In order to decrease the risk of house fires to the safety of you and your dog, it is important to be aware of the most common ways that fires start in homes so you can mitigate or eliminate as many as possible. The following information is from the National Fire Prevention Association, where there is great information about fires:

  • Candles cause many house fires, and these are especially common on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day.
  • Cooking is an extremely common way that fires begin. Leaving a stove or oven unattended is never a good idea.
  • Electrical fires can be caused by faulty wiring or electric cord problems. Don’t overload outlets or extension cords.
  • Home heating can cause fires that are most common from December through February. This may be due to space heaters or faulty furnace wiring. Make sure that your furnace is checked out periodically, and use extreme caution with space heaters.
  • Smoking in the home is the leading cause of fire deaths in the United States. These fires occur most often when someone falls asleep with a lit cigarette, cigar, or pipe.
  • Dryers are a big cause of house fires. Keeping the lint trap clean and the vent free of debris is extremely important.
  • Medical oxygen is a source of house fires when it is exposed to a spark.
  • Christmas trees can catch fire when they become dry and a spark from an overloaded extension cord ignites them. January is the most common time for Christmas tree fires to occur. It’s important to keep your tree watered, unplug the lights when you are not home, and get rid of the tree once it’s dried out.

House fires are terrifying, but with a little planning and attention to detail, you and your dog can have the best chance of surviving one.

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Solving the Coverage Problem

Solving the Coverage Problem

Bi-Directional AmplifierEmergency Radio Communication Enhancement Systems (ERCES) were first introduced in the 2009 International Building Code. The ERCES requirement was established to address the performance of emergency responders’ portable radios
inside buildings because building construction, building size, construction features, and other elements can absorb or block radio communications.

If a building does not meet the required signal strength (-95dBm), the only effective solution is the installation of a signal booster (BDA).

Today’s codes and standards, like the IBC 2015 Section 916, IFC 2018 Section 510, NFPA 72 2010, NFPA 1221 2016, and UL2524, require all buildings to have approved radio coverage for emergency responders within the building based on the existing coverage levels of the public safety communication systems of the jurisdiction at the exterior of the building.

Concrete or metal construction, larger buildings, and underground structures have a negative impact on the in-building signal strength required for reliable communications. Buildings that use low-E glass windows will attenuate the signal from public safety radio systems. Many design professionals are not aware of the ERCES requirements. If ERCES is not referenced on a building submittal, the fire official should immediately notify the building official and design professional, in writing, that the ERCES must be evaluated. If the existing radio coverage has not been maintained, then ERCES must be provided.

How to determine if a BDA System is beneficial to your building?

Typically performed by specialized FCC GROL certified technician and some fire department radio personnel, a RF Survey is accomplished by measuring the Downlink/Uplink signal strengths in decibels-milliwatts (dBm) using special measuring devices. Results are submitted to AHJ to determine if a BDA is required or if a waiver is appropriate.

Solving the Coverage Problem

Why are the BDA’s Best Defense provides unique?

The Farenhyt Series Class B Bi-Directional Amplifier is a high-gain, high-power, band-selective signal booster that has been specifically designed from the ground up for UL2524 In-building 2-Way Emergency Radio Communication Enhancement Systems, NFPA and IBC/IFC standards compliance, to be the best choice for public safety and other mission-critical applications.

  • Single portfolio suits any application across the U.S. with all Public Safety frequency bands supported; various models available for UHF, VHF, 700 MHz, 800 MHz, and multi-band
  • All-inclusive and fully-integrated BDA with UL2524 In-building 2-Way Emergency Radio Communication Enhancement Systems listing, CSFM listing, NFPA 72 2010 Edition, NFPA 1221 2016 Edition, and IFC 2018 compliance
  • Integrated dual power supply and battery charger with intelligent battery monitoring to cut costs and space
  • Wider bandpass allows the use of a single BDA to cover multiple sub-bands
  • Built-in Farenhyt Addressable Monitor Modules save wiring and installation costs
  • RF resiliency, oscillation prevention and automatic uplink squelch support for safe operation and non-interference with public safety radio system
  • Modular design for easier troubleshooting and field component replacement


What are NFPA’s requirements for annunciator at FACP or is FACP monitoring adequate?
A dedicated annunciator panel must be located in the fire command center or other location designated by the AHJ. The BDA status must also be monitored by the building’s fire alarm system.

Does the Building Code require BDAs for Police and Fire Departments?
The code requires coverage for Emergency Responders. The AHJ will determine which Emergency Responder agencies need to be included in the system. Generally, it includes Fire, Fire Mutual Aid, Police and EMS.

Who determines what public safety agencies are to be supported under the provisions for “Emergency Responder Radio Coverage”?
The AHJ will determine which agencies will need coverage.

How does a system designer or system engineer determine what frequencies are to be supported?
The AHJ is required to maintain a document of technical information specific to these requirements.

Where multiple agencies are required to be supported, is each agency responsible for accepting or approving their respective system, or is that the sole responsibility of the Fire Official?
It is usually the fire marshal (AHJ) who provides the technical specifications and information on permitting and testing procedures and requirements for the jurisdiction.

What skills, education, or experience must a technician have to install, commission, and service a BDA system?
This depends on the jurisdiction, but typically FCC GROL or approved equivalent and manufacturer certification.

How does one determine whether existing radio coverage is adequate, or justify whether an Enhancement System is warranted?
A RF Survey must be performed. Typically performed by specialized FCC GROL certified technician and some fire department radio personnel, a RF Survey is accomplished by measuring the Downlink/Uplink signal strengths in decibels-milliwatts (dBm) using special measuring devices.

The survey can be determined before the building construction starts with a signal survey on the building site followed by software-simulated radio propagation modeling. This results in heat maps that show predicted signal coverage levels.

Results are submitted to AHJ to determine if a BDA is required or if a waiver is appropriate.

What is the difference between the two BDAs: Class A Channelized vs. Class B Band Selective?
Each BDA amplifies a specific frequency range or bandwidth.

Class A Classification

  • Bandwidth less than 75 KHz categorizes the BDA by the FCC as Class A.
  • BDAs that can amplify multiple <75 KHz channels are called Channelized Signal Boosters. The disadvantage is that they introduce signal delay, which in turn introduces signal distortion in signal overlap areas. They must be used with caution under special consideration.

Class B Classification

  • Bandwidth higher than 75 KHz categorizes the BDA by the FCC as Class B.
  • Class B amplifiers are more common and can cover all channels within 800 and 700MHz public safety bands at the same time.
Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

Trapped By Fire

In 1900 and 1901, a ten-story concrete and steel building went up in the New York neighborhood of Greenwich Village. At the time, the building was known for its so-called fireproof rooms. After a horrible tragedy that killed 146 people, testimony by Fire Commissioner Rhinelander Waldo before the State Assembly stated, “There may be fire-proof buildings, but their contents are not.”

In 1910, a fire broke out at a garment factory in Newark, New Jersey. 25 women died and another 40 were injured. In response, FDNY Fire Chief Croker said, “This city may have a fire as deadly as the one in Newark at any time. There are buildings in New York where the danger is every bit as great as in the building destroyed in Newark. A fire in the daytime would be accompanied by a terrible loss of life.”

Chief Croker also gave testimony to the Board of Alderman in regards to the potential for calamitous fire outbreaks. He cited a lack of fire sprinkler systems, fire drills, and exits in addition to poor housekeeping, and locked and blocked exits.

Triangle Shirtwaist FactoryIn 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Company factory occupied the top three floors of the building. As we’ve seen in other fires, the business was a perfect fire waiting for a match.

The building only had two stairways, with exit doors that opened onto each floor inwards. The Triangle Shirtwaist Company routinely locked one set of doors to direct leaving employees to the other stairwell so they could be checked to make sure they weren’t stealing garments or fabric.

The building’s fire escape was narrow and passed by the iron shutters of the building’s rear windows. When opened, the shutters swung out and blocked the path of the fire escape.

While there were standpipes in each stairway with a house line at each outlet, fed by a 5000-gallon water tank on the roof, there were no fire sprinklers. Water-filled buckets were scattered on each floor.

Each floor consisted of a 125 foot by 125 foot open layout, with no interior walls that would hamper the spread of fire. In addition, as there were no rules against it, the floors were overcrowded with workers and a lot of work tables.

In addition to conditions ripe for a homicidal fire, the two owners of the factory were rumored to be of the belief that a fire and an insurance policy payout was a way to help their bottom line when fearing their competition would undersell and ruin them. Max Blanck and Isaac Harris developed a reputation for being the “victims” of after-hours fires in their factories in which unsold inventory caught fire and became large insurance checks.

As quitting time approached on Saturday, March 25th, 1911 there were about 500 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory workers spread across the 8th, 9th, and 10th floors of then-called Asch Building. Less than an hour later, 146 of them would be dead. A survivor would recall a blue glow coming from beneath a table, from a bin where 120 layers of fabric were stacked in preparation for cutting. Flames then rose from the bin and ignited the tissue paper patterns that hung from the ceiling, which spread the flames across the room. The factory manager saw the fire spread and saw workers throwing buckets of water on the blaze, but they weren’t effective. The ignited tissue paper floated about the room, setting fire to table after table.

The Fire Marshal would later conclude that the likely cause of the fire was the disposal of an unextinguished match or cigarette butt. Although smoking was banned in the factory, workers were known to sneak cigarettes. Although Blanck and Harris were associated with four previous, suspicious fires at their factories, arson was not suspected in this case.

As the fire spread, a worker on the 8th floor called the 10th floor to warn them, but couldn’t get ahold of anyone on the 9th floor. The fire department was not called. The delayed alarm was calamitous. The efforts of employees to extinguish the fire were completely ineffective and the fire continued to grow. Valuable time which could have been used to evacuate the factory was lost. By the time the fire department arrived   , the conflagration had complete control of the 15,000 square foot 8th floor, had extended to the 9th floor and, within 10 minutes, had completely control of the 10th.

Had a basic fire sprinkler system been installed, it not only would have controlled if not outright extinguished the fire, but would have also transmitted an alarm which would have notified the fire department.

As the fire burned, what was bad became worse.

The two elevator operators on duty tried to make as many trips as they could, squeezing twice the car capacity into each elevator as they made trips back and forth. Smoke and flames burst into the open metal cages of the cars as they passed the lower floors on the way to the 10th. Eventually, workers jumping into the elevator shaft to escape the heat made a crushing pile on top of the cars that prevented them from working.

Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire escapeThe narrow fire escape was overcome by the weight of fleeing workers and collapsed, dropping 25 people 100 feet to the ground below. Some of them, their clothes and hair on fire, crashed through a skylight into a basement below, starting a fire there.

In desperation, people started to jump from the windows, 80 feet or more above the sidewalk and pavement below.

In 1911, the fire department of New York City was considered as having the most modern firefighting equipment. However, almost all of their vehicles were horse-drawn and the fire fighters themselves had no self-contained breathing apparatus, no fire-proof gloves, and their protective gear included only a helmet, a rubber coat, and rubber gloves.

Arriving fire fighting crews were able to use high pressure hoses to spray water all the way up to the 10th floor, however their tallest ladder could only reach as high as the 6th. They caught as many people as they could in life nets, however they ripped from the tremendous force they had to endure (a fire captain calculated that the force of a single body coming from a height of 9 floors was 11,000 pounds – life nets were generally considered good only for catching someone from 6 floors up or lower) and caught fire from catching victims with their clothes on fire. Workers would appear at the windows and get pushed by those behind them or would jump in pairs or groups – the life nets could not work under such conditions and eventually they were ordered put away so no one else was tempted to jump.

The fire hoses themselves were entangled by the number of fallen bodies, which had to be cleared away before hoses could be shifted or moved. The fire fighters themselves were in danger of being struck by falling bodies.

Of the 146 people who died, approximately 52 jumped, 50 burned to death on the 9th floor, 19 died jumping into the elevator shaft, and 25 when the fire escape collapsed.

Barely more than a month later, the Factory Investigating Commission was formed and traveled around the state to interview officials and observe conditions in factories. The investigation resulted in the New York State Labor Law. This sweeping legislation covered all aspects of labor in factories, including: exit doors must open outwards, exit doors cannot be locked, fire sprinkler systems are required, fire drills are required, mandated rubbish removal and housekeeping, and fire escapes.

In addition to the commission and the Triangle factory fire, the FDNY formed the Bureau of Fire Prevention. One of its first acts was to print 20,000 “No Smoking” signs in English, Italian, and Hebrew to be distributed to factories throughout New York.

The owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company were indicted on charges of first and second degree manslaughter. Since the jury felt it wasn’t proved they knew the exit doors were locked, they were acquitted. They were found liable for wrongful death during a civil suit and were made to pay $75 per deceased victim (approximately $2000 in 2019). Their insurance paid them $60,000 more than their reported losses – about $400 per casualty.

Two years later, Blanck was once again arrested for locking the door in his factory during working hours. He was fined $20.

Cancer is Killing Firefighters

Cancer is Killing Firefighters

Transcript from Today Show video: Cancer is Killing Firefighters – Toxins Found in Burning Materials

We see them at their most heroic, racing towards danger when everyone else is trying to escape.

And we honor their sacrifice when they lose their lives to the flames.

But in firehouses across the country, more are dying – not from the fires, but from a silent killer: cancer.

Captain Stefani: “You don’t know from one day to the next who’s going to get sick.”

Retired Captain Tony Stefani started the San Francisco Firefighters Cancer Prevention Foundation in 2006, after his own battle with the disease.

Natalie Morales: “How many friends have you personally lost from cancer?”

Captain Stefani: “Way too many. Out of the five of us that contracted transitional cell carcinoma in this firehouse, two of us are still alive.”

The numbers are shocking. Stefani’s foundation is currently working with 96 active and retired firefighters battling various forms of cancer. But, in San Francisco, more than 300 have been lost since the early 2000’s, and departments across the country are facing similar grim statistics. The job has always been dangerous, but why have cancer rates risen so high?

Researchers say today’s fires are different. Modern building materials and household goods contain fire retardants, plastics, and petroleum products made up of chemicals and when they burn they create toxic gases that seep into a firefighter’s body.

Chief Nicholson: “We’re working in a toxic soup when we go to a fire.”

Chief Janine Nicholson is a breast cancer survivor, something she shares with 15% of female firefighters in the San Francisco Fire Department – that’s 25% higher than the national average. While cancers in women firefighters have not been studied as much as those in men, studies are under way to determine the link between toxins and breast cancer.

Chief Nicholson: “I’ve often said there is a cancer sniper in the fire service and it’s not if, it’s not when, but what colleague of ours is going to be the next one to come down with cancer.”

Firefighter uniforms, known as turn-out gear, do protect from heat and flames, but not from chemical particles and gases the uniforms absorb. And when the body heats up, the risk increases dramatically.

Chief Nicholson: “If my body temperature rises five degrees, the absorption rate in my body goes up 400%.”

A statement from the American Chemistry Council, which represents major chemical companies, says firefighters face toxic fumes regardless of what materials are used.

Stefani and other firefighter advocates are calling for increased regulation on chemicals used in common household items and building materials. In the meantime, the San Francisco fire department is taking measures to reduce the risks, like installing special washing machines to extract particles from fire gear. And firefighters that once slept with their gear nearby, not store it away in lockers near the station floor.

Stefani says the once macho firehouse culture is changing, too.

Captain Stefani: “When I was on the job over that 28 year period, believe it or not, I probably only cleaned my stuff a few times. Firefighters always wore their turnouts, their jackets and their pants, filthy.”

Now, firefighters hose each other off after every blaze and exercise when they get back to the station to sweat out the toxins – simple but crucial steps to cope with a threat less spectacular than burning buildings but far more deadly.

Chief Stefani: “You look at the positive aspects of the job and you do your best to keep yourself in shape, you do your best to try and eliminate these exposures, but it’s still in the back of the mind – tomorrow am I going to be sick?”

Built To Burn

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.

Left: exterior sprinkler deluge system, Christ Church, Philadelphia. Right: Cathedral of the Holy Cross renovation, Boston.

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.

Changing the Mindset

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.

Daisy McCumber jumping from the 11th floor of the Winecoff Hotel fire.

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.

Learned Lessons, Forgotten

“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.

Firefighter Richard Scheidt carrying John Michael Jajkowski, Jr. from the school
Firefighter Richard Scheidt carrying John Michael Jajkowski, Jr. from the school

… 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.

Molasses Flood Alarm – Is That a Thing?

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.

Molasses tank before the flood
50 feet tall and 242 feet in circumference, the tank held 2.3 million gallons of molasses.

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 aftermath of the Great Molasses Flood
The wave of molasses stretched on for three-quarters of a mile, collecting debris as it moved like a tsunami.

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.