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Last Week's High-Rise Building Fire in Los Angeles Prompts Questions around Fire Protection for Existing High-Rise Buildings

A resident clings to the exterior of a 25-story Los Angeles high-rise apartment building on January 29, 2020; photo courtesy of Al Seib/Los Angeles Times

I have to wonder whether passersby on L.A.'s Wilshire Boulevard thought they were witnessing the filming of a new action film, considering they were only about nine miles away from Hollywood. This was no movie, however. This was real life, and the scene that played out on the morning of January 29th at the Barrington Plaza apartments was nothing short of terrifying. A 19-year-old man died and 13 other people were injured – 10 civilians and three firefighters – in a fire on the sixth and seventh floors of a 25-story apartment building. The building, which was constructed in 1961 and the scene of another major fire in 2013, was not protected by an automatic sprinkler system.

According to media reports, the City of Los Angeles does not require high-rise buildings to be protected by automatic sprinkler systems if they were built prior to 1974. This has led some to ask about NFPA's position on sprinkler protection for older high-rise buildings. NFPA's position is established by the requirements in its codes and standards that are developed using an ANSI accredited, open-consensus process in which any person can participate. Two NFPA codes specify sprinkler requirements for existing high-rise buildings: NFPA 1, Fire Code, and NFPA 101, Life Safety Code. The requirements of NFPA 1 and NFPA 101 differ slightly because the two codes have different scopes and different goals and objectives.

The scope, goals, and objectives of NFPA 101 are limited to protecting building occupants from the effects of fire and similar emergencies. Building occupants are those who live, work, or otherwise normally occupy a building. Building occupants, in the context of NFPA 101, do not include emergency responders. Because NFPA 101 is concerned only with occupant life safety, protection of neither the building itself nor its contents is considered. If a building has a fire in which all occupants are able to safely evacuate and the building subsequently burns to the ground, the goals and objectives of NFPA 101 are considered to have been satisfied. The life safety requirements of NFPA 101 are based on a building's occupancy classification (i.e., how a building is used). The Barrington Plaza building would be classified by the current edition of NFPA 101 as an existing apartment building. In addition, any building having a floor level more than 75 ft above the lowest level of fire department vehicle access is a high-rise building; the 25-story building in question meets this criterion.

The 2018 edition of NFPA 101 requires existing, high-rise apartment buildings to be protected by automatic sprinkler systems unless one of the specified exemptions exists. Because this requirement applies to existing buildings, it is intended to be applied to any high-rise apartment building that was constructed prior to the adoption of the 2018 edition of the Code, irrespective of the requirements of the code adopted at the time of construction. NFPA 101 does not “grandfather” existing buildings. Two exemptions apply to the mandatory sprinkler requirement: one is if every apartment is provided with exterior exit access (e.g., outside balconies), and the other is if the building is provided with an engineered life safety system (ELSS) designed to compensate for the lack of sprinkler protection and approved by the applicable authority having jurisdiction. ELSSs can be comprised of a combination of partial sprinkler systems, smoke detection systems, smoke control systems, building compartmentation, and other approved systems. An ELSS is an engineered, complex, alternative system that is designed to provide a level of protection essentially equivalent to that afforded by automatic sprinklers. In some cases, building owners might find that the design and installation of a complicated ELSS is cost-prohibitive and the installation of a relatively simple automatic sprinkler system is more cost-effective.

Whereas the scope of NFPA 101 is limited to occupant life safety, the scope, goals, and objectives of NFPA 1, Fire Code, include not only occupant life safety, but also emergency responder safety and property protection. For this reason, the high-rise building sprinkler provisions of NFPA 1 and NFPA 101 differ. The 2018 edition of NFPA 1 states that all existing high-rise buildings, regardless of occupancy classification or when the building was constructed, must be protected by automatic sprinkler systems, without exception, within 12 years of adoption of the Code by the applicable jurisdiction. NFPA 1 does not offer the ELSS alternative, recognizing the life safety benefits as well as the property saving benefits of automatic sprinkler systems.

While neither NFPA 1 nor NFPA 101 has criteria that specifically addresses short-term rental of residential dwellings, it is interesting to note, according to media reports, residents of Barrington Plaza complained about numerous units being used as such with sites like Airbnb. It's reported that some units would be rented for a night by partiers. Where a building is used for residential purposes on such a transient basis, it starts to have some of the characteristics of a hotel. Codes have different requirements for hotels when compared to apartment buildings recognizing the transient nature of the occupants. The 19-year-old who died in the Barrington Plaza fire was an exchange student from France. Further details haven't been released so it isn't known whether he was a short-term renter, if he had a standard lease from the building management, or if he was a visitor. Regardless, the risks associated with hotels and apartment buildings differ, and this is a topic that warrants further study. (A feature article in the July/August 2018 issue of NFPA Journal titled “The Airbnb Challenge” addresses this issue.)

Automatic sprinkler systems have proven to be the best defense against fire in high-rise buildings. While the recent fire in Los Angeles was tragic, it had the potential to be catastrophic. I believe the outcome would have been much different had the fire occurred at 2:30 a.m. instead of 8:30 a.m. The relatively few numbers of injuries were thanks to the heroic efforts of the members of the Los Angeles Fire Department who selflessly put their lives on the line. They had no other choice, largely because an older high-rise building was grandfathered from requiring a basic fire protection feature like an automatic sprinkler system.

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Greg Harrington
Principal Engineer, Staff Liaison to the Life Safety Code and Health Care Facilities Code technical committee projects.

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