Last week I wrote about a tragic fire in Chicago, in which Shantel McCoy was killed. I provided links to several articles in my post, but in a nutshell…
a) The residents of the apartment of fire origin left their door open in hopes that their cat would escape.
b) The open door allowed smoke and flames to fill the corridor, trapping other residents in their apartments.
c) The building was not required to have a sprinkler system because it was built prior to 1975.
d) There was no building-wide fire alarm system or elevator a system to disable the elevators, as the deadline to install these systems had recently been extended to January 1st, 2015.
e) Shantel boarded the elevator without any way of knowing about the fire on her floor, and the elevator opened to a corridor full of smoke, flames, and 1500-degree temperatures.
In the last week I’ve done some research and also read some additional news accounts. Here’s what I’ve learned:
1) There are more than 750 residential high-rises in Chicago which are exempt from the sprinkler requirement because they were built before 1975. In 2004, a city ordinance was passed which required commercial buildings to be retrofitted with sprinklers, but exempted residential high-rises and required other building safety measures: A 2004 city ordinance required that pre-1975 commercial buildings install sprinklers. But the city exempted pre-1975 residential high-rises, such as 3130 N. Lake Shore Drive, because of the huge expense of retrofitting those buildings. Instead, the older buildings were required to choose from a list of generally cheaper safety improvements. Those were supposed to be finished by Jan. 1. But last month, the City Council extended that deadline to 2015. (Chicago Tribune)
2) Despite the severity of the fire conditions in the corridor, the closed doors on the other 12-floor units protected those apartments (many of them occupied) from the fire: “That is a fire-rated door. Even if it only held the flames for 15 or 20 minutes, that would have been more than enough time.” Instead the smoke, gas and flames stormed down the hallway, burning the metal numbers off the other apartment doors, filling the hall with heat and smoke and damaging the walls, Langford said. The fire did not spread into other apartments, he said. (Chicago Tribune)
3) City officials have reportedly blamed Shantel’s death not on the lack of building fire safety features, but on the residents who left their door open: Deputy District Fire Chief Joseph Roccasalva emphasized that the fleeing couple’s decision to prop their apartment door open to let their pets escape “doomed” Shantel McCoy. Chicago businessman and alderman Tom Tunney, who co-sponsored the ordinance that extended the building fire safety deadline, said that McCoy’s death was “unrelated” to the extension and absence of modern building fire precautions, noting, “The important thing is this door did not close.” (WSWS.org)
4) Shantel’s mother has filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against building management, and plans to file a lawsuit against the residents who propped the apartment door open for their cat: “We don’t have their names, but I assure you as soon as we do they are going to be named as defendants in this case,” Joseph Curcio, an attorney for JoAnn McCoy, told the Sun-Times. (Chicago Sun-Times)
5) The International Fire Code requires that tenants of all R-2 occupancies (apartments, dormitories, etc.) receive a fire emergency guide prior to moving in. Here are the applicable paragraphs from the 2009 IFC. Maybe a code change proposal adding something specific about fire doors is in order?
408.9 Group R-2 occupancies. Group R-2 occupancies shall comply with the requirements of Sections 408.9.1 through 408.9.3 and Sections 401 through 406.
408.9.1 Emergency guide. A fire emergency guide shall be provided which describes the location, function and use of fire protection equipment and appliances accessible to residents, including fire alarm systems, smoke alarms, and portable fire extinguishers. The guide shall also include an emergency evacuation plan for each dwelling unit.
408.9.2 Maintenance. Emergency guides shall be reviewed and approved in accordance with Section 401.2. (Section 401.2 requires review by the fire code official.)
408.9.3 Distribution. A copy of the emergency guide shall be given to each tenant prior to initial occupancy.
401.2 Approval. Where required by this code, fire safety plans, emergency procedures and employee training programs shall be approved by the fire code official.
I found several examples of fire emergency guides online, and most of them mentioned closing doors to prevent the spread of smoke and flames. The Los Angeles Fire Department’s guide includes the following information:
Once a fire flashes over in a room, it will begin to spread rapidly throughout the building. The number and location of open doors will directly affect the speed and direction the fire will take. Heated gases created by the fire will be forced from the room rapidly because they are expanding. In fire tests these gases have been seen to carry the fire down the hall at a rate of a hundred feet in ten seconds. This deadly speed is only possible when doors are nonexistent or are open. Closing any door in the path of the fire slows its spread for a time. How much time depends on the material and the construction of the door. Ordinary room doors will confine a fire for three to five minutes. Sometimes that confinement can last longer.
Here are a few examples of online guides:
Los Angeles Fire Department
Colorado Springs Fire Department
Seattle Fire Department
Now, for the $64,000 question(s)…are these guides getting into the hands of tenants? Are they reading them? Closing the door on a fire needs to become as ingrained as “stop-drop-and-roll” and “check the temperature of the door before opening.” Maybe we need to focus on preschoolers, in addition to apartment residents.
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Good follow up to your initial story.
Well hate to say it but more than likely have read that section before, but just at a glance
Will need to visit about it in our office
Hi Charles –
I’d be interested to know how your office might handle this requirement…would a standardized guide that could be used across the country make sense? Like a recommended guide for tenants that could be modified locally? I don’t think this should be left up to individual property managers.
Current code requires an protected elevator lobby at each floor for buildings over 3 stories. Retrofitting cross corridor doors is an inexpensive way of creating these. Reference IBC 2009 708.14.1 et al.
Very good point Jack. I wonder if that is listed as one of the options these building can owners can implement rather than retrofitting sprinklers.
Not just good follow up. I thought you did a GREAT job is giving more information.
Thanks Alan!! It’s getting even more interesting now, because the state has come in and cited the building owner for fire code violations, even though the building was technically compliant with Chicago codes. More to come.
Perhaps because my wife is a preschool teacher and I know they do things with children every year for National Fire Prevention Week, I was intrigued by your comment: “Closing the door on a fire needs to become as ingrained as stop-drop-and-roll and check the temperature of the door before opening. Maybe we need to focus on preschoolers, in addition to apartment residents.”
Maybe this could be the basis of a public service announcement from the AIA during National Fire Prevention Week?
Hi Bruce –
I would love to figure out how to add this message to the others that we all learned as kids. I looked at the NFPA’s guidelines for public education and it didn’t include much if anything about fire doors, so maybe that’s a good place to start. This is one grassroots effort that could save lives and I can use any help I can get, so if you have ideas I’m all ears.
I, too, was caught by the idea that we should teach kids to close the door on a fire. Kids are often not the ones who end up responsible for the door, but they DO bring home fire safety pamphlets to their parents, which can be very effective on the whole family. A reminder to have a home fire safety plan and a home fire drill teaches the whole family, not just the preschooler.
It would be smart for cities like Chicago, San Francisco, New York, and others with aging multi-family residences to require or encourage fire drills in those residences that are not sprinklered. It would be a good time to teach the idea of “close the door on a fire”, though of course the residents will be closing their doors against theft when it’s only a drill.
I’d support the idea of an AIA-sponsored public service announcement. Use my money to teach life safety!