Only a few days into the year, tragedy struck in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of New York City. On January 5, a fire broke out in a 42-story apartment building. Two men who lived 18 floors above the fire tried to escape down a stairwell, but were overcome by smoke. One of them died, and the other was critically injured, a tragedy that could have been avoided if they had simply stayed in their apartment.
This tragedy shines a spotlight on a critical life safety issue: a lack of emergency communication requirements in residential buildings. This problem needs to be addressed now – before more lives are lost.
What went wrong?
During the Hell’s Kitchen apartment fire, fire fighters followed standard practice, which involved running their hose to the fire from a hydrant standpipe located within a stairwell. Of course, this left the stairwell door open, allowing smoke from the fire to rush inside. In tall buildings, a deadly chimney effect results as smoke gathers and intensifies when it rises.
The two men trying to escape their apartment through the stairwell had no idea where the fire was located. The stairwell was probably clear when they entered it. But because they were cut off from vital information, they didn’t know they should have sheltered-in-place. And while this certainly isn’t the first time such a tragedy has occurred, it’s the most recent reminder that residential fire codes desperately need updating.
What are the current requirements?
Law dictates that any high-rise building constructed in New York City after 2008 must have some kind of voice evacuation system. Whether the system enables fire fighters to communicate with residents in their own apartments, on the landing of each floor or in the stairwells, the point is to provide a means for emergency first responders to provide real time information or instructions to people during an emergency.
However, no similar legislation exists for buildings constructed before 2008. To promote resident safety, the NYC Fire Department requires all commercial residential building owners to make tenants aware they should stay in their apartments when there’s a fire within the building until fire fighters arrive or tell them to do otherwise.
To that end, many apartments have posted fire instructions on the back of each apartment door. Generally, the instructions state residents are better off staying right where they are unless the fire is in their apartment. If the fire is in the apartment and a quick effort to put it out is unsuccessful, residents should get out of there, close the door, go to a neighbor’s, call the fire department and then leave the building. For anyone else in the building, 99 percent of the time, the best place to be is in an apartment – not in the lobby, and especially not in the stairwell.
I’m sure a lot of people read these instructions – maybe when they were afraid and didn’t know what to do – and I’m sure plenty of others never read them, like most guests at a hotel. Some residents complained that the instructions ruined the beauty of their entryway. And, even in those buildings where all residents do read and understand the instructions, these emergency plans do nothing to protect everyone else in the building – such as delivery people, employees and cleaners.
How can the situation be fixed?
The bottom line is this: New legislation is needed to require all residential building owners to install some kind of emergency communication system. Such a system would enable responders to warn people, tell them the location of a fire and provide instructions. It could be as simple as an intercom or speaker system on the landings, on each floor or in the stairwell.
There are a lot of halfway measures that could make a difference. But a full, legitimate emergency communication system integrated with the building’s fire alarm system would be the preferable method by far.
Although the Hell’s Kitchen fire raised awareness around this issue, legislation is needed to ensure change, universally, throughout the city – and, potentially, the rest of the country. The mantra that residents should, more often than not, shelter in place during a fire feels counterintuitive, especially during a panicked moment, as the New York Times recently pointed out. That’s why fire fighters and other first responders need to communicate quickly and effectively with anyone in a building to offer instructions, information and reassurance.
This gap in our residential fire procedures is something we all have the opportunity to change – right now, before someone else dies unnecessarily. Contact your state and local representatives and tell them you want emergency communication systems to be required in all high-rise residential buildings.
About the Author:
Tom Von Essen is a veteran NYC Fire Fighter and the Former Commissioner of the Fire Department of New York 1996-2001.