Safe solutions for high-rise buildings require long-term planning

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Thursday, April 1, 2004

Close your eyes. Can you locate the nearest fire exit in your building? If not, imagine the similar darkness you would experience if your building became engulfed with smoke during a fire.

Occupant safety in high-rise buildings depends on being able to quickly exit into stairwells and gain access to other safe floors. While it would seem the obvious solution, completely vacating a high-rise is simply not practical - leaving high-rise safety dependent on finding safe refuge elsewhere in the building.

As recent high-rise tragedies have illustrated, moving away from a gauntlet of flame, smoke or heat doesn’t always ensure the safety of those in distress. All too often, those fleeing for safety encounter a host of roadblocks unrelated to fire itself.

On October 16, 2003, a fire in the 12th-floor supply room of the Cook County Administration Building in Chicago killed six people. The cause of the fire in the 37-story Loop building remains under investigation, including why six victims died of smoke inhalation after being trapped in the upper floors of a stairwell behind doors that locked automatically.

Simply put, safe solutions are paramount to ensure occupant safety in any fire. As the tragic high-rise fire in Chicago demonstrates, something as simple as an unlocked door or a locking system that automatically opens in an emergency could have prevented the deaths.

However, high-rise buildings built before 1975, including the Cook County Administration Building, were not required to comply with current codes and are exempt from National Fire Protection Association codes that mandate newer solutions.

Increasingly, code officials and design professionals are becoming more aware of the lethal potential of older buildings that do not comply with the solutions currently outlined by NFPA. Three weeks after the Chicago fire, the Chicago City Council passed an ordinance that relied heavily on NFPA codes, thus eliminating the exemption and immediately impacting every high-rise within the city limits.

The Chicago ordinance requires every high-rise stairwell enclosure that serves more than four stories to comply with one of two minimum standards by Jan. 1, 2005 - unlock the doors in order to provide re-entry from the stairwell enclosure to the interior of the building, or stairwell enclosure doors must be equipped with a fail-safe electronic lock release system that is activated both manually and automatically.

In the interim, the city ordinance also requires that stairwell doors can only be locked on every fourth level; re-entry to the building interior must be possible at all times on the highest story or the second highest story.

The door hardware industry offers several solutions to code requirements, ranging from basic to complex. These solutions include simple passage sets (always unlocked), electric locking devices (automatically releases in an emergency) and electromagnetic locks (a fail-safe magnetic locking device, although not an option under the Chicago ordinance).

This balance between safety and security is a primary concern of building owners and tenants.

As the Chicago fire illustrated, the real issue is mandating if, when and how buildings should be required to comply with current codes. This should be a multi-year approach that considers rational solutions and recognizes the costs and time required to ensure a safe and secure building.

In the case of the Chicago fire, as well as other cities grappling with this issue, the ultimate solution is to abide by the correct local codes. The mandates from the Chicago City Council are likely to serve as a wake-up call to every city in the country with high-rise buildings.

Claude Hollyfield, DAHC, is director of training for YSG Door Security Consultants. He has more than 40 years of experience in the door hardware industry.