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Chicago Sun-Times Article 7/03


Sprinklers just the start in keeping buildings safe from fire

By Dr. W. Gene Corley, Senior Vice President, Construction Technology Laboratories, Skokie, IL; Team Leader, World Trade Center Building Performance Study

As we approach the second anniversary of the World Trade Center disaster, there is ample reason to reassess the state of fire safety in newer buildings where Americans work, live, shop, learn and play. Why? Because many building codes that establish fire safety standards are based upon the mistaken assumption that sprinklers virtually never fail, and that fire-resistant construction materials can, therefore, be minimized or eliminated.

Virtually everyone agrees that sprinklers save lives and property. However, the National Fire Protection Association, a fire safety watchdog group, has collected data that show that sprinklers do not operate approximately 16 percent of the time. The figure is based on a 10-year study of more than 8,000 commercial and industrial fires in the United States.

Despite the risk of failure, there is a trend for model codes to rely increasingly on sprinklers, while reducing requirements for fireproofing, fire-resistant doors, dampers and other fire and smoke barriers. At the same time, municipalities are considering adopting codes that allow buildings to be constructed taller and wider, with more open, flexible space.

While many view fire barriers as costly excess, firefighters and other emergency responders see them as life savers. In essence, the more fire- and smoke-resistant construction products that are designed into a sprinklered structure, the less likely it is that it will collapse during a fire.

Those who doubt the need for fire-resistant construction need only look at the results of the World Trade Center Building Performance Study, which I oversaw in the aftermath of 9/11. While the World Trade Center disaster was an extraordinary event involving impact trauma that the buildings' designers never envisioned, the sprinklers there were overwhelmed. However, the additional fire-resistant construction is believed to have helped reduce the death toll by delaying collapse of the twin towers.

Evidence of the vulnerability of sprinkler systems in somewhat more conventional fires can be seen in Buildings 5 and 7 of the World Trade Center complex. Building 7 is not believed to have been seriously impacted by the collapse of the towers; Building 5 did have some severe damage from falling debris, but much of the building was undamaged. Both buildings had sprinkler systems. Yet, Building 7 and a portion of Building 5 collapsed from burnout fires. The sprinklers in Building 5 were overwhelmed by the intensity of the fire; and there was either no water supply or insufficient water to combat fire and prevent collapse of Building 7.

Based upon these findings, it is clear that the fire protection provided by the sprinkler systems alone did not stop the fires. However, the built-in fire protection delayed their collapse, allowing occupants and emergency responders to evacuate both buildings.

Why is this important now? Because almost precisely two years after 9/11, New York City is gearing up to adopt a new building code--the International Building Code. Regrettably, the new code relies even more extensively on sprinklers at the expense of fire-resistant construction materials.

In fact, the international building code's requirements for fire-resistant construction are drastically lower than what building codes required two to three decades ago. In addition, it allows buildings to have more stories, more open space, narrower stairwells, longer distances to an exit, and fewer exits than is permissible under other codes. Consequently, unless the code is amended, it will place occupants, firefighters and other emergency responders at greater risk than ever before.

The issue has implications extending well beyond the city's five boroughs. If history holds true, amendments made to the international building code in New York City will be carefully scrutinized by other jurisdictions across the country.

Fire safety cannot be an ''either-or'' proposition. Buildings for which sprinklers are appropriate should also have fire-resistant construction for better fire protection. Anything less puts occupants and emergency responders at risk, and is, therefore, unacceptable.