Perception is reality

On January 21, there was a significant fire in Edgewater, N.J. The fire involved The Avalon on the Hudson, a luxury apartment complex. The complex, built in 2002 and located at 102 Russell Avenue, consisted of two four-story buildings, one with 240 units and one with 168 units.

Edgewater is located on the Hudson River shoreline across from Manhattan, between the George Washington Bridge and the Lincoln tunnel. For many years, Edgewater and neighboring communities have been popular with Manhattan commuters for lower cost rental housing. Much of the land developed in Edgewater and all along the Jersey waterfront was once the site of a large industrial area. The Avalon on the Hudson is the site of what once was an Alcoa Aluminum plant.

The fire destroyed all 240 units in the complex’s large building. The fire was reported around 4:30pm. Fire officials have determined the fire was accidental, caused by AvalonBay workers using a propane torch to repair a leak in plumbing.

AvalonBay Communities Inc., a publicly traded real estate investment trust, owns the development. While the owners and local building officials were quick to go on record that the building met all codes, local firefighters and fire officials also wasted no time offering their views.

NBC New York reported, “One responding fire chief …. thought lightweight wood construction was a factor in how quickly the fire spread. ‘It collapses very easily, and the fire spreads very easily throughout.’’

NewJersey.com reported, “The occupants of this building probably didn’t realize they were basically living in the middle of a lumberyard,” said Jack J. Murphy, a past president of the Bergen County Fire Chiefs Association who teaches fire safety at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. The only saving grace was that this didn’t happen at 2:00a.m.”

“The truss style of roof framing allows sections to be built of lighter lumber on the ground, then hoisted into place. The method is generally considered to be faster and less expensive to install. If it was made out of concrete and cinder block, we wouldn’t have this problem,” said Thomas Jacobson, the Edgewater fire chief, at a news conference on Thursday before Christie’s appearance. The building’s fire sprinklers were on and the building was up to code, according to the fire chief.

The good news about the fire was, most fortunately, there was no human life loss in this fire. There was reporting that several family pets had not been recovered.

The bad news? This building was provided with a NFPA 13R automatic sprinkler protection.

As we in the industry have often heard (and as I have expressed on occasion) about life safety sprinkler system, if all occupants safety escape the building, even though the building is lost, the sprinkler system did its job.

Annex paragraph A.1.2 of NFPA 13R (2013) clearly explains the level of protection expected from a 13R system:

A.1.2 Various levels of sprinkler protection are available to provide life safety and property protection. This standard is designed to provide a high, but not absolute, level of life safety and a lesser level of property protection. Greater protection to both life and property could be achieved by sprinklering all areas in accordance with NFPA 13, which permits the use of residential sprinklers in residential areas.

This is an accurate, appropriate and much needed disclaimer. Not much in the way of comfort to the 500 residents that were displaced and the millions of dollars in property damage suffered by the owners.

It appears that the fact that no human life was lost was more of a near miss than a sprinkler success. As Jack Murphy alluded above, it may be that the fire did not occur when most residents were at home asleep was a greater factor in the prevention of life loss.

Chief Jacobson said, “firefighters had rescued three people on different floors.

‘The hallways are banked floor to ceiling with smoke," Jacobson said. "These guys had to claw their way in the dark, trying to find these apartments and get these people out."

The late political consultant Lee Atwater, former Chair of the Republican National Committee and advisor to Presidents Regan and George H.W. Bush, is credited with saying, “Perception is reality."

It is difficult, if not impossible, to convince a condo owner or an apartment dweller, having just lost all their belongings in a fire, that their “life safety sprinkler system” did its job.

It may be even more difficult to convince a jury of laypersons to make this distinction. Several lawsuits have been filed by building residents. It would not be surprising if misconceptions about the purpose of the sprinkler system were used by plaintiffs.

Just as when a building owner or manager pays for NFPA 25 inspection service, there is an expectation that the sprinkler system will control or suppress the fire, building residents will have that same expectation. Perception certainly may be reality as far as it concerns most non-sprinkler experts, such as many building owners and building managers and the general public.

Sprinklers are now provided in virtually all new construction. U.S. model codes now require sprinklers in all new residential construction.

Now that many more buildings are sprinklered, there will be many more fires occurring in sprinklered buildings. I expect that the overwhelming majority of the fires will continue to be successfully dealt with promptly by those first few operating sprinklers. However, among these many successes, there will be some failures, both real and perceived.

It is the perceived failures that the industry must be prepared to address.

What should be done with respect to our codes and standards?

The International Building Code (IBC) provides building area limits when NFPA 13R are used. Residential occupancies consisting of the IBC Type V-B provided with NFPA 13R systems may not take advantage of generous allowable area increases that are permitted for buildings protected with NFPA 13 systems. Buildings are, however, permitted an increase in building height by one floor and the additional floor area per floor due to the story increase.

Apparently, as may be the case with this fire, building codes in some jurisdictions do not impose the same limitations on the size of buildings containing 13R systems.

In the aftermath of the Edgewater fire, via nj.com, developer AvalonBay announced, “plans to add fire protection systems at its future housing projects in Princeton and Maplewood to comply with national standards … The builder will incorporate more sprinklers throughout the Princeton and Maplewood complexes, including in the attics and closets and between ceilings and floors. It will also install masonry firewalls, which are not required for these building types under current state codes…”

It may be that the NFPA Technical Committee on Residential Sprinkler Systems will need to consider building-code-like allowable area limitations to address the case where a jurisdiction’s building codes are not on par with national standards. NFPA 13R currently does not contain building area limitations as this has traditionally been considered the realm of building codes.

Those involved with IBC code making may wish to determine if the provisions that allow a floor increase for NFPA 13R are still appropriate.

Another possible code provision that may need to be addressed is the distance from fire department access roads in NFPA 1 Fire Code. NFPA 1 currently allows the distance of building exterior perimeter from fire department access roads to be increased from 150 feet to 450 feet when the building is provided with a NFPA 13, 13R or 13D system. Difficult access appeared to be an issue with this fire. It was reported, on nbcnewyork.com, that after firefighters first responded the fire appeared under control for some time, but it escalated in the back part of the complex, which responders had a hard time accessing.

Maybe, since sprinkler trade-offs permeate our U.S. codes and standards, the amount of trade-off may need to depend a little more on building construction and site features.

We are a safer society due to the presence of sprinklers in our built environment. The sprinkler industry and codes and standards industry must do what is needed to ensure that this perception is in fact reality. n

 

Samuel S. Dannaway, P.E., is a registered fire protection engineer and mechanical engineer with bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Maryland Department of Fire Protection Engineering. He is past president and a Fellow of the Society of Fire Protection Engineers. He is president of S. S. Dannaway Associates Inc., a 15-person fire protection engineering firm with offices in Honolulu and Guam. He can be reached at SDannaway@ssdafire.com.

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