Unique Exposures in Multi-Story Structures
It is difficult enough to keep your building and tenants safe when you are dealing with an ordinary structure. Add the numerous problems and exposures of a high-rise property and the list of necessary controls gets even greater.
High-rise buildings are generally defined as any building of eight or more stories. By their nature, they create inherent remoteness which can be dangerous. With primary exposures uncontrolled, a fire occurring on a lower floor can cut off the escape route for anyone above. Getting water and emergency personnel to the higher floors can also be a challenge.
Multi-story buildings were made possible by the invention of the elevator. Though elevators are the only practical way to move from floor to floor during normal operations, they are not an option in an emergency.
To help make sure you are doing what you can to alleviate some of the high-rise issues, we are listing a few of the primary concerns:
Fire Protection: The best way to ensure that fire fighting capabilities are readily available in all parts of your building is to install an automatic sprinkler system. Sprinklers cannot always extinguish a fire, but they will often effectively confine it to a specific area so that it can be put out by firefighters. Controlling the fire area obviously does less damage to your building, but it also helps ensure that the nearby floors can be evacuated safely. Either a light hazard (office occupancy) or a 13R (residential occupancy) system will typically be adequate. Though all systems are pricey to retrofit, these two use smaller piping and less supporting hardware, making them fairly economical.
Egress and Exits: The two primary parts of the building that occupants will use to exit in an emergency are corridors and stairways. There are steps you can take to protect both. Emergency lighting is critical for both areas. Emergency lighting needs to be equipped with battery backup so that in the event of a power failure, the corridors and stairwells remain lighted and the exit signs leading to the stairs are also backlit and visible. An emergency generator (nonelectric) that powers critical building lighting and systems is also an important part of keeping the means of egress for tenants usable.
Stairwells need to be enclosed, with enclosure doors rated for both fire and smoke. It doesn’t do any good for the occupants to make it to the stairwell if they can’t breathe once they are there. Either a smoke venting system (using the building HVAC or a stand-alone system) or a pressurization system to keep the smoke out of the stairwells should also be in place.
Central Reporting: Make sure that all alarms on site report to a remote central station and that you also have a control panel in the building, monitored by qualified personnel. These two steps can help get emergency personnel on site quickly and to the affected area without delays.
Preventive Measures: After arson, the most common cause of a building fire is electrical in nature. To help ensure that your systems and equipment are in good repair, you should have contracts in place for periodic scheduled service with qualified service and inspection personnel. Every ten years or so, this service should include a thermal scan of your entire electrical system (see CIBA bulletin on thermal imaging). Equipment, including generators, should be tested regularly, with repairs made when recommended.
You should also make sure you are having your sprinkler system, smoke/heat detection units and any other applicable alarm systems tested regularly to make sure they are in good working order. You should also have a contingency plan in place that includes contacts for getting your utility systems back up and getting your space returned to usability as soon as possible. Designating persons for handling the press is also important.
Other Important Issues: One of the things you can do to help make sure you are ready for an emergency is to have periodic drills or reviews of emergency procedures. If you or a property manager who works for you is responsible for building operation, you have direct control over any fire drills or reviews. If not, you should still encourage your tenants to conduct drills and have an emergency plan in place.
Invite the local fire department to tour your building to familiarize themselves with the systems and conditions there. This will help reduce the time needed to evaluate the situation during an actual emergency.