This blog is a follow-up to last week’s post, NYCHigh-Rise Fire Prompts Calls for Stronger Fire Safety Legislation, by Tom Von Essen, a former New York Fire Department commissioner.
In the two months following a deadly Hell’s Kitchen high-rise apartment fire, calls have steadily increased for improved fire safety legislation in New York City’s towering residential buildings. The horrible death of one man, and the hospitalization of his partner, seems to have mobilized an entire city to action; however, what is the best way to ensure that a tragedy like this never happens again?
The beauty of modern technology is that there are countless solutions available to building owners that could help first responders better communicate with residents during an emergency. The key will be identifying the systems that are best-suited for this all-important task.
This is a huge problem for New York City. People have died and been seriously injured simply because there is a lack of regulation around residential high-rises. In many emergencies, residents don’t know what to do: shelter in their apartment? Evacuate via a stairwell? Depending on the nature of the fire (or, other emergency, such as a tornado or terrorist threat), the best course of action may vary. That’s why first responders must have a way to effectively communicate with everyone in a building — and I do mean everyone.
Strong notification systems are especially necessary for communicating to the most vulnerable members of our society, including young children, the elderly and those who with limited mobility. Some of these individuals may have very limited resources and, in many situations, aren’t able to save themselves. The more information we can give these populations to help themselves during emergencies, the better.
If new legislation does get passed, requiring building owners to install an emergency communication system, there will be a lot of businesses touting their solution as the best option. So, let’s take a closer look at how some of the technology available might perform in a high-rise, residential setting:
Paging system: One- or two-way paging is a good first step. This will enable, for example, fire fighters to notify residents about the location of a fire and advise them to stay in their apartments. However, your average PA system contains no redundant or survivable design qualities, so when the system’s backbone or devices are damaged, the system simply doesn’t work.
Digital signage: There are many options on the market for wall-mounted communication devices, many of which feature speakers, digital text and flashing strobes. These displays could be useful on the lobby of each floor and/or by stairwell entrances, to quickly tell residents (and other people in the building) what to do in an emergency. Strobes and other visual communication are especially helpful for deaf residents.
Social media integration: A building’s communication technology could be integrated with social media sites, like Twitter and Facebook, to provide emergency updates in real-time. While this is a useful tool in some cases, it shouldn’t be a primary means of communicating with people in the event of an emergency. However, social media integration provides fantastic redundancy in cases where other systems, such as one-way paging systems or phone lines, fail.
Fire alarm system with voice capabilities: In my experience, a fire alarm system with voice capabilities is going to be a building owner’s best bet for emergency communication. This technology is built around a backbone that is designed to survive for a period during a fire and still operate in intense heat. With this type of system, residents can be notified of a fire or other emergency with alarms and strobes; then, first responders can communicate with them using speakers installed in each apartment or floor lobby.
To fully solve the problem facing New York’s high-rise residences, first responders need not one, not two, but three or four effective ways to “talk to” people inside a building. A winning solution would bring all of these technology pieces together.
Of course, there is a cost involved. And, if new legislation requires the installation of communication technology in every high-rise residence, the building owner will be responsible. Consider the average cost of a system, and divide that by the number of residents in a given building; which might be into the hundreds. Then divide that by the number of days the system will be in service before in needs to be updated. The resulting price is less than a penny per person per day. And that’s the cost of a life.
I think this legislation is timely and very important. I urge those advocating for the new legislation, as well as any legislators who get involved, to do their research on the available technology. Together, we can find the right system that will work effectively to make sure tragic incidents like the fire death in Hell’s Kitchen never happen again.
About the Author:
John Stofa has worked in the fire alarm and fire sprinkler industry for more than 20 years and is NICET certified. He joined Honeywell Fire Systems (HFS) in 2006 for which he currently serves as its Municipal Account Manager. John was a volunteer/call firefighter in the States of New York, Connecticut and Vermont and has been a professional EMS provider in New York State for 10 years. John holds a Bachelors degree in Fire Science, an Associate degree in Fire Protection Technology and is currently studying Fire Protection Engineering.