Smoke Kills: How to Keep Smoke from Harming Building Residents

On January 9, 2022, tragedy struck in the Bronx when a fire in the Twin Parks high-rise housing development took the lives of 17 residents and injured over three dozen others, most of whom were children. Investigators later discovered that the fire was caused by a defective space heater that had burst into flames.

The fire itself was contained within the apartment with the space heater, but a series of failed fire-safety devices allowed the smoke to flow unhindered through the hallways and eventually the entire building. While approximately a dozen people suffered critical injuries from severe burns, smoke inhalation was the cause of all 17 deaths.

The New York City Fire Department (FDNY) arrived on the scene within three minutes and quickly upgraded the incident to a five-alarm fire. While the fire was quickly contained and never left the unit in which it started; two self-closing doors malfunctioned and allowed the smoke to move throughout the building. So while the fire occurred on the third floor, the failure of the self-closing doors created a flue effect which carried the smoke throughout the building, all the way to the top floor — over a dozen floors above the one from which it originated and where the deaths occurred.

Had these two self-closing doors functioned, the casualties could have been limited. Building codes are instituted in order to protect occupants, but even when adhered to, human error and equipment malfunctions can still lead to loss of life.

The Battle of the Builders, Special Interests and Building Codes In New York City

Theoretically, building codes that aim to protect the lives of occupants should be the top priority of all builders, designers and building owners. And when it comes to new builds and areas that have plenty of real estate for building, this is generally the case. When dealing with an area like New York City, however, the situation becomes more complicated.

New York City is not only the most populous city in the United States, but it is also the most densely-packed. Considering that the city is built on a narrow group of islands without additional space to expand, developers must either look skyward or renovate the existing decades- and even centuries-old real estate. These limitations have led to a complex situation in regards to protective building codes.

No matter the circumstances for developers, building and renovating in New York City is extremely expensive. Every cent is given a critical eye, and sadly, safety building codes are often regarded as too cumbersome and owners are granted exemptions.

A Tale of Three Building Safety Initiatives

Internal Temperature Management

The Bronx fire was handled promptly by the emergency crews — the FDNY contained the fire within hours, saving countless lives and the building itself. That said, the building had safety measures in place which if followed, would have drastically decreased the number of injuries and fatalities.

During the investigation when an over-utilized space heater was discovered to have started the fire, questions then arose regarding the quality of the building’s heating system. New York City housing laws require landlords to maintain temperatures above 68°F (20°C) during the day. A study from 2017 claimed that 27% of households in the Fordham neighborhood utilized supplemental heating sources, indicating that many heating systems in the area of the fire aren’t maintaining the minimum temperatures.

This type of building code is one that is difficult to enforce. It’s entirely possible that building managers maintained that temperature according to their thermostat, but these buildings are large with windows facing various directions, causing temperatures around the building to vary. Moreover, 68°F is just a threshold — many occupants may want some extra heat and choose to utilize devices such as space heaters.

Sprinkler Systems

A second safety feature that is commonly known to be a primary defender against fire is a sprinkler system. The Twin Parks building did not have a sprinkler system, nor was it required to. But even if it had, that system would have been completely inept at stopping this tragedy as the culprit was not open fire — but smoke — and sprinklers are virtually useless at combating smoke.

Self-Closing Safety Doors

Self-closing safety doors are a third safety feature, which unfortunately malfunctioned during the deadly Twin Parks fire. A 2018 city law required self-closing mechanisms on all apartment doors with more than three units. The Twin Parks building property owners claimed that an inspection of the specific doors was performed in July of 2021 and that it had found them to be in working order. A mere six months later, the doors failed to close during the fire.

How to Find Better Solutions Following Tragedy

Following tragic incidents like the January Bronx fire, investigations seek to understand exactly what happened to discover better ways to prevent future events. This may lead to new building codes, but codes on paper do not always translate to the real world. Evolving codes are challenging for owners to keep up with, and as a result, many of the older buildings containing millions of residents may fall behind or be unable to meet them.

A better alternative or adjunct to evolving building codes is to take a more scientific approach, evaluating how buildings are built, how fire and smoke behave and how the air flows in high-rises.

There are many opportunities for building owners to incorporate passive systems to contain smoke. When combined with sprinkler systems, alarm systems and proper maintenance, these passive systems can create an extra layer of protection at reasonable costs without having to renovate or deconstruct old high-rises.

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Fire departments are aware of newer passive systems and fully support their use. However, while occupant safety should be top priority for building developers and managers, it is not the only variable in the equation. Finding an economical solution that can be readily installed with limited maintenance will go much further than seeking protection, which many builders may ultimately choose to ignore.

Passive systems such as smoke curtains can provide smoke containment to impede its vertical migration, and a significant new level of protection can be afforded to occupants. Smoke curtain installation can be done readily and for far less than some of the extremely expensive mechanical solutions that evolving building codes suggest. Discover more about unobtrusive, passive solutions to help prevent a tragedy in your building and if you have any questions, we’re always here to help.