As we begin to learn more about the tragic high-rise apartment building in London, I want to address what protects us. Thus far, there are 17 confirmed fatalities and about 100 people still missing. There are so many issues that lead to a situation like this, but I will attempt to address some of them. I just heard, in a news report, that there was no alarm system, no sprinkler system, one stairwell and other reported fire safety issues. The building had apparently undergone cosmetic construction on the exterior, which may have contributed to fire spread, but that will only be determined by a thorough investigation. The fire is reported to have started on the 4th floor and spread to the top floor. The fire was reported at about 1 AM, when most building occupants would have been sleeping.
We see most of our high-rise buildings in our urban centers. When real estate is at a premium, the only other option is to build up. The higher a building goes, the less accessible it becomes for firefighters; let me explain. Most aerial apparatus have a 100-110’ aerial. The closer that an aerial ladder gets to the building, the higher their reach will be. Even with the best scenario, an aerial, will at best, reach 7-8 stories. The only access to upper floors will be via an internal stairwell. It was reported that there was only one stairwell in this building. If occupants are trying to get out, this will hinder firefighters from going up. If this building had no sprinklers, then I will assume that it had no standpipe either. In other words, there was no ability for firefighters to hook to a water supply on upper floors. Incidentally, I did hear one witness state that he saw people on the stairwell with luggage. Please understand, when the building is on fire, get out quickly!
There is a problem in our country. This building in London was reported to have no fire alarm system. Our buildings have fire alarm systems, but we choose to disregard the alarm. As stated earlier, this fire was reported about 1 AM. People were sleeping and unaware, until awoken by whatever, that their building was on fire. Fire and building codes in the U.S. require fire alarms. When you stay in a motel, you see pull stations, sprinkler heads and smoke alarms. These things are tied to the fire alarm system. The responsibility of every building occupant is to ensure that a fire is prevented at all costs, that a fire is reported immediately so that everyone has a chance to escape, that we know where the closest primary and secondary exits are and that we get out when the fire alarm activates, smoke or no smoke.
Sprinkler systems are expensive and even more expensive as a retrofit, but necessary. Sprinkler systems save lives. Where high-rises are concerned, occupants need all the help that they can get to get out. Sprinkler systems are designed to hold a fire in check or extinguish a fire, in its earliest stage of development. There will still be smoke, so we may have to get low and go, as we exit the building. We have a Plans Review section in our Fire and Life Safety Division in Chesterfield. These men and women ensure that all fire safety requirements are met in new construction. Chesterfield also has fire inspectors that deal with existing construction. Sprinkler systems are required to undergo annual testing.
I can only imagine what these firefighters faced. I saw one elevated master stream that was having no effect on fire suppression whatsoever. This fire went out because the fuel was consumed. This fire appears to have spread rapidly, giving people little chance of survival. You may only have one chance to get out and that only comes with early notification of a fire. One lady was reported to have dropped her baby out of a tenth-floor window. The baby survived and the mother is missing. If you live or stay in a high-rise setting, you must prepare, if a fire occurs. This fire could have been cooking related, which remains the leading cause of residential fires in our country. We will not know what happened until the investigation is complete. At this point, the building is too unsafe for anyone to comb the building for victims, much less perform a thorough investigation. I pray that we learn from incidents like this one so that we can prevent them from happening again.