Updating historic buildings with modern fire security systems

Everything Old (and Fire Prone) is New Again

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.

Edgartown District Court BuildingAll 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.

Greenfell Tower fire

How to Spread Fire on the Exterior of a Building

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.

Timeline of Greenfell Tower fire12:50 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.

History Lost Due to Inadequate Fire Protection

Artifacts representing 11,000 years of history were destroyed in a recent fire that gutted Brazil’s National Museum in Rio de Janeiro. Over 20 million pieces from fields such as zoology, paleontology, and geology were consumed, including Egyptian mummies and historic artwork.

Fire destroys Brazil's National Museum

Flames from an as of yet unknown cause obliterated a scientific institution some consider the most important one in Latin America. The building, known to be vulnerable to fire, had just received approval for $5,000,000 in renovations which would have included an upgrade to the fire prevention system. While battling the fire, firefighters found two hydrants which didn’t have enough pressure to work properly, forcing the crews to draw water from a nearby pond.

Reports conflict about whether or not the building had a sprinkler system or working smoke alarms, but even those who say there was a fire sprinkler system say it was inadequate to do its job.


Fire safety for educational facilities

Back to School Fire Safety

The National Fire Protection Association reports that in the years 2011 through 2015, fire departments in the United States responded to an average of almost 5,000 educational property structure fires per year.

Back to school time is also safety tip review time:

  • Fire drills must be held at least once a month while school is in session. (Schools located in climates where weather is severe have the option of deferring monthly drills).
  • Principals, teachers or other school staff must inspect all exits daily to ensure that stairways, doors and other exits are working properly and are unblocked.
  • On the day of the drill, the emergency drill alarm should be sounded on the school fire alarm system. Make sure that everyone can recognize the sound of the alarm and knows what to do when it sounds.
  • Teachers, officials and staff should be familiar with the school’s fire protection system, including the location of fire alarm pull stations and sprinklers.
  • Every room in the school should have a map posted identifying two ways out. In schools with open floor plans, exit paths should be obvious and kept free of obstruction.
  • On the day of the fire drill, everyone in the school should participate.
  • students with specific needs should be assigned an adult or a student buddy to assist them. Fire drills are a good opportunity to identify who among the student population requires extra assistance.
  • While it’s important to make sure that students leave the building as quickly as possible, order is more important than speed when it comes to conducting a safe fire drill.
  • Once everyone has safely exited the building, they should remain outside at a predetermined location until the ‘all clear’ has been given to reenter the school.
  • Use rosters to ensure that every student is accounted for.
  • Fire drills should be held both at expected and at unexpected times, and under varying conditions in order to simulate the conditions that can occur in an actual emergency.
  • School fire drills are a model for students to use in their homes. Encourage students to practice their escape plans at home—just as they do at school.

Best Defense Fire Protection & Security has the experts you need to ensure the safest learning environment for students, teachers, and staff!

House Fire

I’m Taking You Down With Me

Fire at Chocolaterian patisserieIn the case of a fire, most people think about the damage the flames do to a structure, but don’t consider the additional damage the water used to fight the fire can do. Also, what about the costs associated with a business literally not being able to operate? What about the costs associated with production time lost and with the need to setup in a new location?

In April of 2018, the Chocolaterian patisserie in Madison experienced an electrical fire that originated in the basement and expanded up towards the roof through the wall.

Although the fire was ruled accidental, it caused $750,000 in damage that affected the Chocolaterian’s ability to generate retail as well as wholesale and online income, it also affected multiple other businesses whose only mistake was setting up shop in the same building.

Smoke and water damage ruined inventory for Vault Interiors (an interior design firm) and closed their retail location. The company will be moving to a new location in another city. Insight Counseling and Wellness had three of the four suites they rented destroyed and have since moved to a new location on the same street. Bizzy Bizzy and Dirigible Studio, creative and marketing companies, moved to other locations.

The loss of revenue would have been easily avoided if the building had been equipped with a fire sprinkler system. Though simple in operation, these systems are fantastic at preventing the spread of the fire until the fire department can arrive, often extinguishing the blaze outright, all while using considerably less water than the fire fighters are going to need to use.

Best Defense Fire Protection & Security is your best choice for fire protection and security systems – call us today!

Fire truck

Small Aquarium vs. 4-Person Hot Tub – Choose Wisely

Fire extinguishing - sprinkler vs. hosePop quiz: someone walks into your home with a small aquarium in one hand and a 4-person hot tub in the other, both full to the brim. They tell you in no uncertain terms they’re going to dump one of them out in the middle of your living room and give you only five seconds to pick which – there’s no time to ask questions, like “Why are you in my living room?!” or “How are you carrying a full hot tub in just one hand?!”

Which do you choose?

This is the same conundrum you’re facing when deciding whether or not to install a fire sprinkler system in your property.

Contrary to the myth perpetrated by movies and television, all the sprinkler heads in a system do not go off at the same time in the case of a fire – only those nearest to the fire and subjected to its heat will activate. Using only an average of 25 gallons of water per minute, a small aquarium’s worth, the sprinkler head will contain and often extinguish the fire before the fire department can arrive.

Unchecked, a fire grows exponentially when provided with all three legs of the fire triangle – heat, fuel, and oxygen. Fire fighters generally arrive 5 to 10 minutes after 911 is dialed, which is 5 to 10 minutes of the fire growing. The whole time it’s building up the heat and filling the building with toxic smoke and fumes. It will continue to grow until fire fighters can deploy a line and start hitting the fire with water at the average rate of 250 gallons per minute – a hot tub’s worth here, a hot tub’s worth over there, hot tub after hot tub after hot tub.

Contact Best Defense Fire Protection today and let us help you avoid the hot tub!

What Life Safety Features Does Airbnb Owe You?

An article in the National Fire Protection Association’s NFPA Journal discusses the challenges that arise from a huge increase in Airbnb and other short-term property rentals. How are these unique dwellings regulated when it comes to life safety systems?

The answer is a complex and not-completely-formed one.

Check rental properties for appropriate fire alarms and extinguishersThe NFPA article starts with a story about a couple renting a very-off-the-grid cabin and waking in the middle of the night to find the wood burning stove in the tiny space had started their bed on fire. Creosote build-up in the chimney that snaked from the first floor up through the second floor, passing barely a foot from the bed, caused a fire that quickly filled the air with smoke and fumes. A fire extinguisher on the property that might have contained the fire barely had any life left and the few squirts that came out were only enough to enable the renters to flee.

Airbnb reports that over 2 million renters stay in properties in 65,000 cities every night, with 4 million active listings in 191 countries. A message on their site says this is all possible because of “trust”.

However, analysis of 121,00 of roughly 600,000 Airbnb listings in the United States showed:

  • 1 in 5 didn’t indicate the property had smoke alarms
  • Almost half of the listings didn’t have carbon monoxide detectors
  • 58% didn’t have fire extinguishers

It’s troubling information considering most fire- and CO-related deaths occur in residential properties.

Part of the problem is not knowing how to classify these short-term rental properties, which simply aren’t similar enough to a hotel to be classified and regulated as one. An example is given of a 15 unit building renting out all 15 spaces through Airbnb, essentially creating a hotel while bypassing all the rules for one. The trouble is further exacerbated by the wide range of rental arrangements, from a single bedroom rented out in a family home to the rental of the entire property.

Until clear answers for short term rental regulation are discovered, the wisest course of action is to educate both renters and hosts about the importance of fire safety features, including smoke and CO alarms. Renters should take on the burden of checking a rental property’s safety features, such as checking batteries on smoke alarms and checking the location of fire extinguishers.

Findings from a new report on fire and life-safety features in Airbnb properties

Gamewell FCI Meets the Needs

When the University of Central Florida, the largest university in the U.S., looked for a flexible fire alarm architecture that could grow with a continually expanding campus, they picked the Honeywell Gamewell-FCI E3 Series.

Honeywell Gamewell E3The project involved fitting three new dorm buildings as well as a fourth building for administration and maintenance staff. The E3 Series focuses on reliability and survivability – these life-safety systems need to keep working even when components suffer damage due to fire or tampering. They’re also intuitive to use, minimizing time spent by the university’s maintenance department.

Since code and university standards require both fire / smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors in any sleeping area, combination units were installed which can sense both. This simplified the system and maintenance. Also, HVAC control was integrated as well, shutting down air flow in case of fire to prevent the spread of smoke.

Responding to the preference in the mass notification system for voice alerts as opposed to loud alarm horns, the E3 Series uses pre-recorded audio messages to notify occupants and direct them to the nearest exits. A microphone on each control panel can also be used to broadcast additional voice instructions in real time.

Contact Best Defense and let us guide you to the perfect life-safety system. We’re your best choice!


Deadly Lessons Learned

Practically a perfect storm of a fire, the Iroquois Theatre fire in Chicago resulted in over 600 deaths, barely a month after it first opened in 1903. By comparison, the Great Chicago Fire that occurred 30 years prior, destroyed over 3 square miles of Chicago and left 100,000 homeless was responsible for half as many deaths.

Important lessons learned from Iroquois Theater fireAt the time of the theater fire, in 1903, the risks of fire were well understood. Deadly blazes during the 1800’s and the creation of taller and larger buildings had prompted invention of safety measures like fire escapes and fire sprinklers. The Iroquois Theatre was billed as “Absolutely Fireproof”, indicating that fire danger was a concern and fire safety could be used as a selling point.

Theaters, filled with flammable scenery and props, were understood to have unique risks and were usually built with a safety curtain the could be lowered between the stage and the audience to contain a fire to the stage. In addition, special doors would be added to allow smoke and heat to escape through the roof above the stage. This combination turns the state into a chimney, prompting a draft upwards and out which sucks fresh air in through the open exit doors and protecting the inhabitants.

However, the theater’s smoke doors were fastened shut, causing the smoke to flow sideways and out through the very exits people were trying to use. In addition, the fire curtain hadn’t been tested and got stuck when personal attempted to lower it. After the fire, chemical tests on the curtain showed that its mixture of wood pulp and asbestos wouldn’t have even been fire proof.

The list of issues is long. Exit doors opened inward and were held shut by the crush of people trying to escape. There were no exit signs and the exits were concealed (sometimes by flammable curtains) or locked. The building contained no emergency lighting and the full house lights weren’t turned up during the fire, leaving the venue dim. There were doors which were purely ornamental; 200 people died in a passageway that wasn’t an exit. Even some of those that managed to find an exit from the multi-story building still succumbed when they encountered incomplete fire escape ladders and stairwells, leading to at least another 125 deaths.

Despite a local fire department captain touring the theater a few days before it opened and noting there were no fire sprinklers, no alarms, no telephones nor water connections, the theater opened as it was. The fire warden for the Iroquois told the captain nothing could be done as the theater’s owners would just replace him as warden if these deficiencies were brought up.

In the century since the Iroquois Theatre fire, so much has been learned about life-safety systems like fire alarms and sprinklers. Contact Best Defense today and let us show you how we can radically increase the likelihood of escaping a fire and decrease your property damage.


Updating a Fire Alarm System – Kind of Like Changing a Tire While Driving

How do you update an antiquated fire alarm system in a 600,000 square foot senior living facility without disturbing the 450 residents? You call Best Defense Fire Protection & Security.

Updated fire alarm system at Tudor Oaks Senior LivingThe extensive renovation involved the overhaul of two separate fire alarm systems that covered seven wings that include apartments, assisted living and a skilled-care nursing home. The original system was old, with no available parts, and didn’t meet current code requirements.

Best Defense designed a solution utilizing a Honeywell Farenhyt IFP-2000 fire alarm control panel as well as smoke detectors and horn strobes through the facility and carbon monoxide detectors in all apartment garages. The 12-member Best Defense team installed more than 875 horn strobes – any of those in sleeping areas had to have 177 candela.

“Oftentimes we get a large count on our horn strobe appliance, but it’s not very often that I have to have 190 of them at 177 candela and an overall total of over 890 strobes,” Best Defense owner Carter Rierson says. “But the IFP-2000 really came in handy for this project. The benefit with this panel is the intelligent power expanders — the RPS-1000 — which supply about 150 amps of power. That’s huge for a fire alarm system.”

The system was designed and built to consider alerts to other parts of the large building. “The benefit of doing this is that oftentimes the hazard isn’t just the fire,” Rierson says. “When you’re evacuating people in their 80s at 2 a.m., when it’s very cold, you’re creating more of a hazard than leaving them in the building if the fire isn’t directly in their area.”

The installation also included an access control system, a telephone entry panel, CCTV cameras, a new paging system, as well as a Cellevator elevator-monitoring product for emergency voice communications in the 12 elevators.

Administrators at Tudor Oaks, which is owned by American Baptist Homes of the Midwest, are pleased with the system and are especially impressed with Best Defense’s deft ability to work around the residents, says John Marek, general contractor and owner’s representative of John Marek Inc.

“We couldn’t have the fire alarm or any other life-safety system down for any period of time because this is a healthcare and assisted living facility with several hundred people living here and 150 employees,” he says. “So, Best Defense built around them and integrated all the life-safety systems. After those were up and running, they put in the new system and it integrated seamlessly.”

Contact Best Defense Fire Protection & Security and discover for yourself why we’re the best for your residential or business project! We have service and support available 24/7 and offer free estimates!