Highrise Fires

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					              Topical Fire Research Series
January 2002                                                                                 Vol. 2, Issue 18

Federal Emergency
 Management Agency
                                  Highrise Fires
United States Fire
 Administration                                                  FINDINGS
National Fire Data Center               H Each year, an estimated 15,500 highrise structure fires
Emmitsburg, Maryland                      cause 60 civilian deaths, 930 injuries, and $252 million in
 21727                                    property loss.
                                        H Highrise fires are more injurious and cause more damage
                                          than all structure fires.
OF INTEREST                             H Three-quarters of highrise fires are in residential structures,
                                          but these cause only 25% of dollar loss.
Arson in the United States,             H The leading cause of all highrise fires is cooking (38%), but
Vol. 1, Issue 8, January 2001             cause patterns vary by property type.
Heating Fires in Residential            H 69% of highrise structure fires originate on the 4th floor or

                                                                                                            Sources: NFIRS & NFPA
Structures, Vol. 1, Issue 9,              below; 60% occur in apartment buildings; 43% originate in
January 2001                              the kitchen.
Candle Fires in Residential             H Highrise fires are inherently more difficult for the fire
Structures, Vol. 1, Issue 12,             service.
February 2001
                                  Each year between 1996 and 1998,         residential and non-residential high-
Smoke Alarm Performance           there were an estimated 15,500           rise structure fires. Fires in highrise
in Residential Structure          highrise structure1 fires in the         structures tend to be more injurious
Fires, Vol. 1, Issue 15, March    United States. From data reported        and cause more damage than struc-
2001                              to the National Fire Incident            ture fires generally.
Residential Air Conditioner       Reporting System (NFIRS), these
                                  fires were responsible for 930 civil-    Even though the majority of high-
Fires, Vol. 2, Issue 5, July                                               rise fires occur in residential high-
2001                              ian injuries, 60 civilian fatalities,
                                  and nearly $252.3 million in prop-       rise structures (nearly three-quar-
Multiple-Fatality Fires, Vol.     erty loss annually.2 In the wake of      ters), only about 25% of highrise
2, Issue 11, November 2001        the tragic events of September 11,       dollar loss is incurred on these resi-
                                  2001, highrise fires and highrise        dential properties. In part, this is
Mattress and Bedding Fires
                                  firefighting tactics have assumed a      because non-residential highrise
in Residential Structures,
Vol. 2, Issue 17                  more prominent role in the con-          fires tend to be bigger—they are
                                  sciousness of the U.S. fire service      more likely to cause damage out-
                                  and American society as a whole.         side of the room of fire origin than
                                  This report briefly examines the         residential highrise fires. More than
All reports in the Topical Fire                                            95% of residential highrise struc-
Research Series can be found at
                                  causes and characteristics of high-
                                  rise fires and the challenges inher-     ture fires are contained to the room    ent in controlling them.                 of origin. By contrast, only about
tfrs.htm                                                                   75% of fires in manufacturing,
                                  LOSS MEASURES                            industrial, and storage highrises are
                                                                           contained to the room of origin.
To request additional informa-    Figure 1 compares the loss mea-          Further, it may be that the special-
tion, or to comment on this       sures for highrise structure fires       ization associated with non-residen-
paper, visit                      with those for all structure fires,      tial properties drives up the cost of         residential structure fires, non-        replacing or renovating such struc-
feedback/                         residential structure fires, and         tures after a fire.
                              Topical Fire Research Series

                                              Figure 1. Loss Measures
                                           (3-year average, NFIRS data 1996–98)

                                              HIGHRISE STRUCTURES                             ALL STRUCTURES
                                                                 NON-                                          NON-

 Dollar Loss/Fire                  $17,515       $6,102         $45,441       $14,115           $11,271      $21,878
 Civilian Injuries/1,000 Fires      66.0          73.2           48.4          40.9              48.0          22.1
 Civilian Fatalities/1,000 Fires     3.2           3.9            1.6           6.1               7.7          1.7
Source: NFIRS only

Residential highrise fires tend to         Another potential explanation for         the installation and maintenance of
be smaller than those in non-              the disparity in injury and death         smoke alarms, particularly in high-
residential highrises, but they are        rates between residential structures      rises, where residences are smaller
particularly injurious, more so than       and highrise residential structure        and occupants are likely to be
fires in residential structures gen-       fires is the role of smoke alarms.        closer to the seat of a fire than in a
erally. In part, this may be due to        Most building codes require hard-         single-family home.
the higher population density              wired smoke alarms in highrises.
found in a highrise. Also, residen-                                                  CAUSES OF FIRES
                                           This significantly increases the
tial highrise fires cause more             chance that an alarm will activate        Figure 2 compares the incidence of
injures per fire than fires in non-        during a fire. A smoke alarm acti-        highrise structure fires by fixed
residential highrises. Lastly, the                                                   property use (FPU). Cause patterns
                                           vates in 69% of residential high-
design of highrises tends to allow                                                   differ somewhat depending on the
                                           rise fires, as compared to only
toxic smoke and byproducts of fire                                                   type of highrise occupancy
to spread throughout a building            38% in residential structure fires
                                                                                     involved in the fire. For example,
and injure occupants who may be            generally. As a result, people are        in highrise structures used for pub-
many floors away from the fire             more likely to escape a fire and,         lic assembly, the leading cause of
itself. By contrast, residential           although they may be injured, they        fires is smoking. For educational
highrise death rates are half those        are far less likely to die than those     properties, the leading cause of
of residential structures in general.      in residential structures generally.      highrise fires is arson. These varia-
Because the population in a high-          As such, the injury rate increases        tions are not particularly surpris-
rise is higher than in a single-           while the death rate decreases.           ing, as one would expect a prop-
family home, more people may be            This demonstrates the role of             erty’s function to affect its fire
available to alert residents of a fire     smoke alarms in saving lives and          experience.
and assist with evacuation.                underscores the continued need for

                           Figure 2. Causes of Highrise Structure Fires, by FPU
                              (3-year average, NFIRS data 1996–98, adjusted percentage)
  PRIORITY CAUSE                                         MANUFACTURING/                                       PUBLIC
 Incendiary/Suspicious              14           30                7                     14           12           22
 Children Playing                    2            1                0                      2            0            0
 Smoking                            13            9                2                     14           13           34
 Heating                             3            5                4                      3            6            3
 Cooking                            38           10                2                     47           10           16
 Electrical Distribution             6           12                8                      4           21            6
 Appliances                          6            5                3                      5            9            5
 Open Flame                          7           11               17                      6            9            6
 Other Heat                          2            1                5                      2            2            1
 Other Equipment                     6           12               34                      2           14            3
 Natural                             2            2               12                      1            2            2
 Exposure                            1            1                4                      1            1            0
Source: NFIRS only
                           Topical Fire Research Series

Because of the number of residen-
                                                 Figure 3. Leading Sources of Ignition for Highrise
tial properties involved, the lead-
                                                                  Structure Fires
ing cause of highrise structure
fires is cooking, followed by                      (3-year average, NFIRS data 1996–98, adjusted percentage)
incendiary/suspicious (arson) and
                                                                                   Properly Operating
In 44% of highrise structure fires,                                                   Equipment
an ignition source is left un-                                                           (35%)
attended or is abandoned. Of fires
that involve unattended equip-                                                                                  Short Circuit
ment, 70% involve stoves, which
is consistent generally with the                    Equipment                      Cigarette
pattern seen in residential struc-               (incl. pilot lights)               (20%)
ture fires.                                             (29%)

As shown in Figure 3, the leading
                                        Source: NFIRS only
ignition sources (NFIRS “Form of
Heat of Ignition”) for highrise        more damage than fires that origi-                vates in 62% of highrise structure
structure fires are properly operat-   nate on a higher floor. However,                  fires (Figure 5). In contrast, a
ing electrical and gas-fueled          fires that originate on an upper                  sprinkler system is activated in
equipment, most often a stove          floor (30 or above) tend to cause a               only 8% of such fires. The discrep-
(stoves are involved in 24% of         disproportionate share of injuries                ancy is largely because highrise
highrise structure fires). Ciga-       and fatalities. Although 45% of                   structure fires tend to be small,
rettes also play a prominent role.     fires originate above the 30th                    with 92% of fires contained to the
                                       floor, these fires account for 55%                object or room of origin.
WHERE FIRES START                      of injuries and 60% of fatalities.
                                                                                         As with fire cause, however,
Sixty percent of highrise fires                                                          smoke alarm performance also
occur in apartment buildings, 6%       SMOKE ALARM/SPRINKLER                             tends to vary depending on the
occur in hospitals, 4% in hotels,      PERFORMANCE                                       type of highrise structure involved.
3% in dormitories, and 3% in                                                             Industrial/manufacturing/storage
offices.                               Highrise structures are generally                 facilities are much less likely than
                                       required to meet specific building                other types of structures to have
Forty-three percent of highrise        codes for fire resistance, smoke                  smoke alarms present. As such,
structure fires originate in the       alarms, and sprinkler systems. (For               these fires are more likely than
kitchen, 9% begin in the bed-          further information, contact your                 those in other highrise structures
room, 6% in a trash/rubbish room,      local fire marshal.) Overall, a                   to extend beyond the room of
and 5% in a hallway. Recently,         smoke alarm is present and acti-                  origin.
several large cities, including
Boston and New York, have expe-
rienced a number of hallway fires              Figure 4. Level of Fire Origin, Highrise Structure Fires
in highrises. The incidence of
                                                     (3-year average, NFIRS data 1996–98, adjusted percentage)
fires in hallways is troubling in
that occupants must generally                                                   PERCENT OF HIGHRISE STRUCTURE—
travel through a hallway to exit            FEET ABOVE                              DOLLAR
the structure.                                GRADE                     FIRES        LOSS          INJURIES        FATALITIES
                                             Below Grade                  5            19                5               3
Fires in highrise structures do not
                                             Grade to 9                  27            22               21              12
necessarily originate on an upper            10 to 19                    12             8                9              15
floor of the building. Rather, as            20 to 29                    10            13               10              10
shown in Figure 4, nearly 69% of             30 to 49                    15             9               17              13
fires originate on the 4th floor or          50 to 70                    14            16               22              22
below.3                                      Over 70                     16            12               16              25

Fires that originate on a lower           Source: NFIRS only

floor (9 or below) tend to cause
                           Topical Fire Research Series

                          Figure 5. Smoke Alarm Performance in Highrise
                                        Structures, by FPU
                          (3-year average, NFIRS data 1996–98, adjusted percentage)

                                                     MANUFACTURING/                                        PUBLIC

In Room, Operated                    46       39               22                49            39             18
Not in Room, Operated                16        8                3                19            11              4
In Room, Did Not Operate              6        7                3                 7             7              8
Not in Room, Did Not Operate          6        9                3                 6             8              6
Fire Too Small To Activate            8       10                3                 5             8             48
No Alarms Present                    19       27               67                14            27             16
Source: NFIRS only

CHALLENGES POSED BY                       S Highrise structure fires require     by a five-alarm blaze in a 40-story
HIGHRISE FIRES4                           significantly more personnel and       highrise apartment complex. The
                                          equipment to extinguish than do        fire originated in a 5th floor apart-
Highrise structure fires pose a           other types of fires. This further     ment and quickly spread. The cap-
number of challenges both to the          strains the responding fire depart-    tain and his crew were trapped on
occupants and to the fire service.        ment and firefighters.                 the 5th floor; he died from smoke
Several of these include:                                                        inhalation. Several other fire-
                                          EXAMPLES                               fighters and residents of the build-
S By nature of their height,              S In December 1998, a fire             ing were injured and required hos-
smoke movement in highrise struc-         ignited by an electric heater killed   pitalization for burns and smoke
tures is very different from that of      four residents of a Manhattan          inhalation.7
other structures. Temperature gra-        apartment building. The fire
dients result in varying pressures        started on the 19th floor; the vic-
throughout the structure, which                                                  CONCLUSIONS
                                          tims were found in a stairwell
can allow for the rapid, uncon-           between the 27th and 29th floors.      As with all fires, those that occur
trolled movement of smoke and             The residents of the apartment of      in highrise structures are largely
flame (known as the “stack                origin left the front door open        preventable. Residents must exer-
effect”).                                 when they fled the fire, allowing      cise caution to prevent fires, but
S Highrises often contain multi-          the smoke and flames to spread.5       must also seek information to
ple types of occupancies, including       S In December 1998, three fire-        determine the appropriate actions
residential, commercial, restaurant,      fighters were killed by an early       in the event of a fire (e.g., whether
and underground parking. Each             morning smoking fire in a 10-story     to stay in place or evacuate, ensur-
type of occupancy poses a chal-           apartment building. The fire was       ing that all apartment door are
lenge to firefighters and must be         not reported for nearly 30 minutes     closed if one evacuates).
approached differently.                   while the apartment’s resident
                                                                                 For further information, contact
                                          attempted to douse the flames with
S By design, exits from highrise                                                 your local fire department or the
                                          pans of water. After leaving the
structures are limited. In an emer-                                              USFA. Also see the USFA publi-
                                          apartment, the resident left the
gency, the movement of people out                                                cation Danger Above: A Factsheet
                                          front door partially open, allowing
of a building is particularly                                                    on Highrise Safety (http://www.
                                          smoke and gases to enter the hall-
                                          way. When firefighters attempted
S The HVAC and other utilities in         to enter the apartment, a flashover
                                          occurred, killing the three fire-
some highrises service multiple
levels and can facilitate the spread      fighters.6                              To review the detailed methodol-
of smoke and flame through a              S In October 2001, a Houston fire        ogy used in this analysis, click
building.                                 captain and a civilian were killed            METHODOLOGY
                               Topical Fire Research Series

1.   For the purposes of this report, a highrise structure is defined as a structure that is five stories or greater. This
     definition was based on the limitations of NFIRS data. Jurisdictions throughout the country use different defini-
     tions for regulatory and tactical purposes.
2.   National estimates are based on data from the National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS) (1996–1998) and
     the National Fire Protection Association’s (NFPA’s) annual survey, Fire Loss in the United States.
3.   Assuming a floor is between 10 and 12 feet, 30 to 49 feet would approximate the 4th floor.
4.   “Occupancies in Special Structures and Highrise Buildings, Fire Protection Handbook, 18th Edition, NFPA 2001.
5.   “Christmas Tree May Have Ignited in Culkin Apartment Fire,” CNN, December 24, 1998.
6.   “Three Firefighters Die in a 10-Story Highrise Apartment Building, New York,” Firefighter Fatality Investigation
     Report 99F- 01, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, August 2, 1999.
7.   “Houston Fire Captain, Man Killed in Highrise Blaze,” Click2Houston, October 17, 2001.

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