Author(s): Don Bliss. Published on May 1, 2017.

Safety Vacuum

The absence of fire protection features in buildings in developing countries means a higher likelihood of events like the Plasco fire and collapse in Tehran

Last January, in Tehran, Iran, a 17-story multi-occupancy tower called the Plasco Building collapsed during a fire, killing 16 firefighters. The tragedy, recorded live and broadcast on news outlets around the world, was eerily reminiscent of the collapse of the World Trade Center towers on 9/11.

Fortunately, the sudden and catastrophic collapse of a high-rise building in a fire is rare. That is in part because high-rises designed in accordance with the requirements of a model building code, such as NFPA 5000®, Building Construction and Safety Code®, are required to have active and passive fire protection features, including automatic fire sprinkler systems, protected vertical openings, emergency communication systems, and fire resistance–rated protection of structural components. The evidence is pretty clear, based on what we know about high-rise fires in the United States, that these requirements have been effective in reducing the likelihood of a high-rise collapse due to a fire.

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However, this is not the standard used in high-rise buildings that I’ve seen being built in countries like Bangladesh, India, and Ethiopia. Very few fire protection features, if any, are in evidence, from stairwell enclosures and detection systems to sprinkler systems, fire alarm systems, and protection of the structural support components. These conditions are commonplace throughout the developing world. The demand for housing in these low- and middle-income nations is expected to exceed one billion new dwelling units in the next 30 years, according to estimates by the World Bank, which leaves little doubt that construction of substandard high-rise buildings will continue in great numbers for the foreseeable future. The potential for more tragedies like the Plasco fire is very real unless proactive measures are taken.

More needs to be done to encourage governments to adopt and enforce modern building codes. Existing buildings should be retrofitted with fire protection features in accordance with NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code®. Architects, engineers, and authorities having jurisdiction need to be better trained on fire protection concepts and code requirements for high-rise buildings. To this end, NFPA is currently working with the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology to introduce a fire safety curriculum that could be a model for other regions.

The reality is that improving building safety won’t happen overnight—it will take time, and it will also take money. In the meantime, it is critical for the fire service everywhere to take note of what happened in Tehran and prepare. It’s imperative that fire officials take stock of their cities and identify buildings that have the greatest potential for collapse. Training is also critical, since high-rise firefighting tactics are complex even in the most code-compliant building. Firefighters must be knowledgeable about fire behavior and building performance, and incident commanders and safety officers must be alert to the warning signs of an imminent collapse. Procedures should be put in place to limit the amount of time spent on interior firefighting before withdrawing all firefighters.

The Iranian government hasn’t publicly released the results of its investigation into the Plasco collapse so we don’t yet know what went wrong, but I am anxious to find out. Those insights could arm firefighters with more knowledge of critical importance to their safety when fighting fires in similar buildings.

Over the years, I’ve had the fortune to meet members of the Tehran Fire Brigade at international conferences. They are knowledgeable, highly dedicated to their profession, and have worked diligently to attain recognition as a proficient, modern-day fire service. They are devastated by the loss of so many colleagues. The fire service everywhere feels their loss. Buildings can be replaced, but the loss of even one firefighter is unacceptable.

DONALD BLISS is vice president of Field Operations for NFPA.