Friday, May 2, 2008

The Problem with High-Rise Residences

by Sarah Tressler

New York, May 2 -- Residents of high-rise apartment buildings in New York should be prepared to save themselves in case of an emergency – because high-rise residential buildings are not required to provide residents with a comprehensive evacuation procedure.

The news may come as a bit of a surprise for penthouse-apartment dwellers. If you reside on the 35th floor of a building, do you know how you’ll escape if the 34th floor is going up in flames? Many of those in such apartments do not. In fact, most are simply advised to stay in their apartment in case of a fire.

“The best thing to do is to shut your door and pray,” said one New York fire fighter, who asked to remain anonymous. “We’ll be there as soon as we can, but until then, you want to keep the fire contained. So just keep your doors shut.”

Indeed, the Office of Emergency Management Web site instructs residents to do just that.

“If you live in a high-rise residential building, and the fire is not in your apartment, stay inside rather than entering smoke-filled hallways,” the Web site says. “Keep your windows closed, especially if the fire is in the apartment below.”

For one high-rise resident, the fire didn’t become apparent until it was well underway. Liz McNamara, who lives on the 12th floor of The Crest, a 36-story high-rise apartment at 63 Wall St., was spending a sunny day indoors when she thought she heard rain. Confused, she went to the window to find clear skies. And the “rain” she was hearing?

A fire two floors above her had set off the building’s sprinkler system, which was causing a flood in the apartment above hers. Soon, the water was coming through the ceiling into her apartment as well.

“I didn’t know there was a fire in the building until water started pouring from the ceiling,” she said. When she ran into the hall to notify the building manager, she finally heard the fire alarms going off in the stair well.

Fortunately for Liz (and the other residents of The Crest on Wall Street), the building is equipped with a sprinkler system. Without the sprinklers, McNamara could have been dealing with much more serious problems than her soaking wet furniture.

“New York was around 20 years behind the model codes in terms of requiring sprinklers in residential high-rises,” said Charles Jennings, Ph.D., a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, where he also received a Master of Science in fire protection management. Jennings points out that the sprinkler systems basically mitigate most evacuation problems by limiting the fire’s ability to grow and spread. New York finally decreed that all high-rise residential buildings constructed need to be equipped with sprinkler systems in 1999. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) claims that, no more than two people have ever been killed as a result of a fire, excluding explosions, when the building had a fully functioning sprinkler system.

Still, said Jennings, improvements can be made.

“What residential high-rises need is public address capability, so that residents can get instructions during an emergency,” said Jennings. “This was never required.”

Jennings suggested that residential buildings should be required to be outfitted with two-way communication capability – like that which is currently required in office buildings.

A representative from the Office of Emergency Management for New York City made a simple, somewhat frightening conclusion for those who seek an evacuation procedure for high-rise residences: “There’s nothing in terms of a wide-scale one for apartment buildings – individuals need to be prepare themselves for evacuation.”

Protecting Yourself in Case of a Fire: Tips from the FDNY

1. Have a Fire Escape Plan

Have a family meeting to discuss what to do if there is a fire. Practice your plan.

2. Use Approved Window Gates

Only use approved window gates. Do not use a padlock which will prevent your escape from a fire.

3. Decide on a Meeting Place Outside of the Building

By deciding on a meeting place outside and away from the building, you will know if everyone has gotten out safely.

4. Send the Alarm

Dial 911 to report a fire. Use the local Fire Alarm Box.

5. Walk Quickly, Don't Panic

Feel the door on your way out with the back of your hand. If the door is hot, do not open. Close door behind you to slow the spread of fire.

6. Use the Stairs

Don't use the elevator. It may stop and trap you.Try to place one hand in contact with the wall. This may prevent you from getting lost.

7. Stay Low and Go

If there's smoke, escape by staying very low to the ground where air is cooler.

8. Open Window if Trapped

Open window at top to let out heat and smoke; and at the bottom to breathe.If you cannot get out, wave a sheet out the window.

9. Don't Go Back

Do not go back into a fire for anything! Your life is your MOST valuable possession.

Sarah Lynn Tressler

Sarah is a grad student at NYU's school of journalism. She has a B.A. in communications from the University of Houston, where she was a columnist for the school's paper. Her work has appeared in The Houston Chronicle and The Epoch Times.

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