High-rise buildings and life safety
NFPA Journal®, March/April 2006
While the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center almost five years ago drew everyone’s attention to the special safety concerns of high-rise buildings, that historic tragedy also served to give pause to a concern that we have had for decades as we have worked to develop appropriate safety requirements for ever taller and more complex buildings. Our involvement with the safety concerns of tall buildings really began with the Triangle Shirtwaist fire in New York in 1911.
There is no question that the 9/11 attack engaged new government resources to evaluate high-rise safety beginning with FEMA’s Building Performance Study of the World Trade Center complex issued in May 2002, and continuing through NIST’s investigation, “Federal Buildings and Fire Safety Investigation of the World Trade Center,” that began in June 2002 and was released last year. NIST made recommendations to reassess certain requirements in our building regulations some of which already existed in the NFPA codes prior to the NIST study while others are under consideration.
Among the changes made or already exist in NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code® and NFPA 5000®, Building Construction and Safety Code ® are integration of performance-based design options, retroactive requirements for installation of automatic sprinkler systems, 3- and 4-hour fire resistance ratings for structural systems, wider stairs based on occupant use and counter-flow for emergency responders, requirements for stair descent devices for people with mobility impairments, and integration of the structural frame approach when determining fire resistance.
Other changes, driven in large part by what we have learned from the NIST and FEMA investigations of the World Trade Center collapse are under review in our consensus process. One initiative is to take another look at the protocols currently in use to evaluate the performance of building structural systems under fire conditions. While NIST has not questioned the adequacy of current procedures, a review of test and evaluation methods makes sense.
Another area in urgent need of review is how elevators should be used in high-rise emergency evacuations. NIST is working with ASME, NFPA, and other groups to develop a better understanding of the conditions under which elevators in tall buildings can be used safely.
When NFPA started to consider safety issues involving tall buildings almost a century ago, nobody was planning for the Taipei 101 Building in Taipei with 101 stories, the Sears Tower in Chicago with 110 stories or the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, each with 88 stories. The safety concerns raised by magnificent high-rise structures like these call for rigorous research and hardnosed review by government agencies, code developers, enforcement officials, architects, and engineers. These buildings are like cities within themselves and the users of these buildings, including people with disabilities, as well as the emergency responders who come to our aid deserve to have their say about the safety of their environment, too.
NFPA is moving quickly but deliberately to incorporate the best research about high-rise safety from the most knowledgeable people into our codes and standards and education and training programs. To make sure that we are appropriately responding to the unique safety issues presented when we put so many people into tall buildings, we have formed the High-Rise Building Safety Advisory Committee to bring forth effective recommendations for high-rise buildings. In taking the lead to find the appropriate level of safety for high-rise buildings, NFPA is not just reacting to a terrible event in recent history, although we have learned a great deal from studying that event. We are doing what we have always done, bringing together a dedicated group of people with differing viewpoints and expertise to reach consensus on important safety issues. But we are also continuing a process of steady, meaningful improvement as buildings get taller, more complex, the numbers of people inhabiting them and working in them grow larger, and the technologies that keep them working change. The threats to these buildings and their inhabitants change as well, and all of that makes the work that NFPA and other organizations do to keep them safe more important than ever.