History of Building Construction and Changes Related to Fire Safety & Prevention
History of Building Construction and Changes Related to Fire Safety and Prevention
Major Cases in the United States That Have Led to Changes in Fire Safety and Prevention in Building Construction
Though numerous tragic fires have contributed to our current Fire Safety and Prevention measures, a few cases dominate our country's collective memory in the establishment and refinement of the "Life Safety Code."
Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire
One hundred years ago, government did not exert much safety control over business, so the types and extent of fire safety were freely controlled by employers (Pinkerson, 2011). For example, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, employing hundreds of immigrants and was insured for fire damage to benefit the owners but had little concern for its workers (Pinkerson, 2011): Triangle arbitrarily provided 27 buckets of water to extinguish fires, doors that were either locked to prevent employee theft or opened inward, an elevator that was inadequate for the weight of many individuals, and fire escapes that were also insufficient for a great number of people escaping fire at the same time (Yaz). In addition, the fire department itself amazingly did not have fire ladders and/or hoses that could reach the highest floors of the Factory (Pinkerson, 2011). On March 25, 1911, the combination of careless fire safety measures and overcrowded conditions led to one of the most tragic fires in U.S. History. As approximately 275 employees, mostly women with the average age of 19, left work for the day, a fire broke out (Yaz) in the Factory. With an inadequate amount of water to douse the fire, fire ladders and hoses too short to reach the Factory's upper floors, locked escape routes, doors opening inward that trapped onrushing employees attempting to escape, and an elevator and fire escape that collapsed under the weight of many panicked would-be escapees (Rosa), many trapped individuals simply jumped to their deaths. In all, 146 employees were killed in the fire (Rosa).
The resulting outrage initially had little or no effect: the owners of the factory were tried for manslaughter but were acquitted (Yaz) and actually financially benefited from the fire due to their fire insurance (Pinkerson, 2011). In addition, the Factory owners were sued by 23 surviving families, who eventually received approximately $75.00 each (Rosa). Fortunately, the outrage was sustained and as a result: New York state established "The Factory Commission" to examine the causes and possible improvements; this commission, in turn, established the "Fire Prevention" arm of the New York City Fire Department. Setting about to prevent a similar tragedy in the future, the "Fire Prevention" arm required: doors that open outward (Pinkerson, 2011), no blockage of escape routes; multiple fire exits, clear paths to exits; the building must have firefighting equipment, employees must be trained in the use of that firefighting equipment and floors too high for Fire Department ladders must have sprinklers and portable fire extinguishers; each place of employment must have a written and posted fire escape plan and employees must be trained to use those escape plans by fire drills; the employer must maintain and control all work areas that are potential fire hazards. Following New York State's suit, other states eventually established these fire safety measures and the measures were eventually adopted by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration as a Life Safety Code (Flannery Associates, 2008). A byproduct of that outrage and initial disappointing results was the strengthening of unions such as "The International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union" and expanded its influence to affect not only fire safety but also fair wages and dignity for employees. Finally, "Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition" was established to honor the Triangle victims and also to keep close tabs on worker safety because it believes that proactive fire safety measures are still needed (Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition, 2011).
b. Cocoanut Grove Fire
On November 28, 1942, the Cocoanut Grove Nightclub of Boston, MA, caught fire. Built for a maximum occupancy capacity of 460, the nightclub contained approximately 1,000 occupants and had no sprinkler system, the wall and ceiling decorations caught fire quickly and the fire then spread quickly, many windows and doors were sealed shut, the exit doors swung opposite the flow of panicking patrons trying to escape the fire and the main exit was a revolving door. As a result 492 people were killed attempting to escape (Office of the Vice President for University Operations, the University of Texas at Austin, 2009). A direct result of this fire is further refinement of the "Life Safety Code" established after the Triangle Fire (Flannery Associates, 2008), paying closer attention to "use groups" and related fire safety, fire prevention and building codes for: "building height and area, type of construction, built-in fire protection systems, and means of exit systems" (Flannery Associates, 2008).
c. MGM Grand Fire
On November 21, 1980, a smoldering, undetected fire at the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino killed 85 people and injured an additional 700 due to "83 building code violations, .design flaws, installation errors and materials that made the fire worse" (Command Safety, 2010). The MGM Grand fire directly led to further NFPA "Life Safety Code" requirements: "stairwell doors must now remain unlocked on the inside of the stairwell so that people can get from the stairwell back to guest room floor" (Command Safety, 2010), OR "stairwells doors may be locked but they must be constructed to automatically unlock when the building's fire alarm system activates" (Command Safety, 2010), OR " hotels may use selected re-entry, in which there may be no more than four intervening floors between unlocked doors and signs must be provided to direct occupants to the floors with unlocked doors" (Command Safety, 2010).
2. Fire Safety and Prevention in Building Construction Codes and Construction Practices Impacted by Forensic Analysis from September 11, 2001 Terrorist Attacks
The forensic analysis of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks has been pointedly criticized. For example, "Contrary to federal and state laws concerning crime scenes, the debris from WTC was never subjected to a forensic investigation...Thus, the most crucial physical evidence to reveal the causes of the collapse of the towers was intentionally and illegally destroyed without public examination" (Firmage, 2006). Nevertheless, the 911 Commission and others revealed and are responding to some of the most distressing failures of 9/11.
One of the significant problems for emergency responders was the inability to locate and track each other within the towers (Pennwell Corporation, 2003); consequently, "Being able to locate and track emergency responders in structures is one of the most significant challenges facing us; it has been defined as the number one priority of the ERT advisory group,'" according to Colonel Jim Ball (U.S. Air Force, Ret.), consultant to the ERT program (Pennwell Corporation, 2003). In response to that problem, technologies are being developed that will allow responders to see through the structure's walls and communicate with each other. Called "3-D responder locator systems," the devices were still in development in 2003 (Pennwell Corporation, 2003). In addition, due to the towers' shocking collapse, the various commissions are trying to increase structural integrity of buildings by developing performance criteria for building codes, standards, tools and a practical guide for construction firms to avoid the "progressive structural collapse" we saw in the two towers (Pennwell Corporation, 2003). The commissions are also developing practical guidance on increasing steel and concrete structures' fire resistance (Pennwell Corporation, 2003). In addition, during the attacks, the towers lost power and communications, generators were shut down for safety reasons and the elevators stopped (National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, 2004). In at least partial answer to this problem, the commissions are looking into the possibility of building "protected" elevators to be used by firefighters if stairwells…
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