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.

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