Precision Fire Protection News
Controlling Fire in a Multifamily Environment
Does success for an NFPA 13R sprinkler system mostly mean controlling a fire in a multifamily environment long enough to prevent deaths and injuries? Should success also include preventing significant property damage? Where’s the sweet spot, and how do we get there?A panel of stakeholders weighs in
“MY FAMILY AND I ARE SAFE—and that’s all that matters.” We often hear these words from survivors following an earthquake, tornado, car accident, or other event where the outcome could have been much different. This also includes fires that occur in the places where we work and live.
Maintaining the safety of occupants and first responders is the primary goal of the codes and standards that regulate the built environment. That goal, with respect to fire protection and fire safety, is achieved through a mix of elements that govern building construction, early detection and alarm, and automatic sprinkler systems. Redundancies and features are balanced to avoid overreliance on any one system or feature in order to achieve life safety.
This balance has been under scrutiny over the last 10 years, no more so than following the January 2015 fire at the Avalon on Hudson apartment complex in Edgewater, New Jersey. According to officials, the fire began accidentally as maintenance workers were making repairs and spread rapidly through the unsprinklered parts of the four-story structure, including floor trusses and attic spaces, growing into a massive blaze. Some 500 responders from 35 towns converged on the fire, which took more than 15 hours to contain and eventually destroyed 240 of the 408 units in the complex. More than 500 residents lost their homes, while another 500 were temporarily displaced. A few minor injuries were reported, but no fatalities. Published loss data from the fire has ranged as high as $80 million.
One of the notable features of the fire was that it destroyed housing widely described as “luxury.” With the Manhattan skyline as a backdrop, the upscale apartments—one-bedroom, one-bath units at Avalon rented for nearly $2,700 per month—provided a range of amenities and safety features, including fire protection via a sprinkler system designed to meet the requirements of NFPA 13R, Installation of Sprinkler Systems in Low-Rise Residential Occupancies. Following the fire, State Assemblyman John Wisnewski, chair of New Jersey’s Fire Safety Commission, commented on the facility’s sprinkler system for a New York television station. “This, I’m told, was a system designed to give people time to get out but not necessarily preserve the structure,” he said. “We have to ask the question, should it have been a more robust system?”
An equally important question centered on the fact that the fire occurred late in the afternoon on a workday when many of the residents weren’t home. While it is only speculation, how different would the outcome have been if the fire occurred in the overnight hours when most residents would’ve been home and asleep? The Edgewater fire and other recent incidents like it announced that the time had come for a closer examination of these fires and the questions they raise. When codes allow the use of NFPA 13R systems, for example, how much protection should those systems provide to preserve building contents and property? As long as the trends show we are doing better at protecting residents and occupants, specifically in the multifamily and residential environments, should that be good enough?
These were among the questions posed at the Life Safety Sprinkler System Challenge Workshop, an event hosted by NFPA last December and attended by an active group of stakeholders that included authorities having jurisdiction (AHJs), fire service members, contractors, owners’ representatives, consultants, and insurance organizations. With an acknowledgment from all involved that the types of fires being discussed are the exception and not the rule, the workshop set out to address the performance metric for the condition in sprinkler-protected buildings using NFPA 13R when the occupants safely escape the fire but the building still suffers substantial property damage.
When the first edition of NFPA 13R was issued in 1989, it was anticipated that as new multifamily residential construction grew, and as the building and life safety codes began to mandate sprinkler systems that complied with the new NFPA 13R standard, it was inevitable that there would be certain fires where the full life safety benefit of the sprinkler system would be achieved but significant property damage would also occur. It is also possible that we will see a fatality occur at some point in a fire of this type. Since the 1990s, coordinated efforts by AHJs, the fire service, and insurance interests have moved to integrate NFPA 13R as a reference document in the codes and as an alternative to full NFPA 13 systems. The multifamily housing industry has been supportive of this effort as well.
While the standard emphasizes its ability to provide life safety protection, it also states that it will provide improved protection against property damage. The balancing act in achieving these two goals is to ensure that sprinklers are installed in areas where a high percentage of fatal fires originate in this environment while allowing the omission of sprinklers from the areas where that probability is much lower. Construction features and safety measures such as draft stops and fire-rated construction can help contain or control fires that get into these unprotected areas, but that isn’t always the case. Fireground tactics and safety concerns of first responders might be viewed differently—that is, from a more defensive firefighting approach—if they know the fire involves a building protected by an NFPA 13R sprinkler system. Firms that insure the building on behalf of the property owner and manager may go so far as to consider the building unprotected. And finally, what might residents think if their apartment amenity checklist indicates the building is equipped with a sprinkler system not necessarily designed to protect the entire structure?
Further complicating this discussion is the expanded scope and use of NFPA 13R beyond its original four-story limit that has taken place over the past 20 years—in code parlance, this may be referred to as “scope creep.” Four-story residential apartment buildings composed extensively of wood construction are now being built on top of one-story concrete pedestals, resulting in five-story buildings. An overall maximum building height of 60 feet is imposed on this construction, but this combination of stories and maximum height is different from when the standard was first developed. Add to this list the ever-expanding use of engineered wood structural systems, along with synthetic furnishings that have been found to increase the growth of fires, and the already complex discussion over NFPA 13R expands to include fire dynamics, probability, and risk assessment.
Photograph: Getty Images
While extreme positions from “everything is fine, don’t change it” to “get rid of NFPA 13R” were among the individual recommendations put forth at the NFPA workshop, the key recommendations fell somewhere in between. A recurring theme had to do with development of better or more refined data with respect to helping everyone understand the magnitude of the problem. While events such as the Edgewater fire happen on occasion, they are the clear exception. These fires also attract national attention, igniting the debate about the effectiveness of NFPA 13R systems, construction materials and techniques, and even enforcement of established code provisions.
Our current data collection models and investigation reports are directed more toward events where something goes wrong rather than when something goes right. As one of the workshop’s breakout groups mentioned, “We don’t see studies about how many airplanes don’t crash,” just as we don’t see how many lives have been saved due to the installation of NFPA 13R sprinkler systems. Details about the extent that a building was or was not in compliance with locally adopted codes, details on building construction types, and the overall accuracy of information being reported are among the challenges to help improve the data reporting and analytics.
Even before this workshop was organized, certain changes were already underway. Recent editions of the International Building Code and NFPA 13R itself targeted balconies, a problem area not requiring sprinklers in earlier editions of the two documents. That exception was removed in 2012. Other changes under consideration include increased use of fire-retardant-treated wood; installation of alternative detection devices in unprotected areas; and greater emphasis on the design, construction, and inspection of draft stops. Some of these changes will occur sooner, but other challenges—such as the availability of new refined data pieces—will be a long-term process. The NFPA workshop report was released in June and includes discussion of these as well as myriad other topics that are being addressed to help determine what NFPA 13R “success” looks like.
Five of our workshop participants were asked to share their views on this challenge and to discuss how we can move forward to maintain the use of NFPA 13R systems while maintaining the awareness that, in spite of our best efforts, we may not always be able to control the perfect storm with codes, standards, and regulations.
The Code Enforcer’s Perspective
Maryland State Fire Marshal’s Office
The installation and maintenance of building fire protection systems have always competed with other building design features such as security, aesthetics, and, most important, cost considerations. The fire protection community in the late 1980s understood that life safety was a primary concern in the residential environment and that a unique approach to fire protection was warranted to enhance occupant survivability, with less consideration to property protection.
Citing the emerging acceptance and success of the design of automatic sprinkler systems in one- and two-family dwellings, an extension to this concept was introduced that would apply the same principles—that is, providing quick fire control efforts for fires that start or extend to occupiable parts of the building—into larger structures that present the same basic fire hazard. This seemed reasonable with supplemental considerations to address the additional time needed for occupants to evacuate buildings with larger footprints and multiple stories. Considering the history and effectiveness of automatic sprinkler protection in buildings, the use of a special residential design for such protection could—and would— provide a useful means of life safety and enhanced property protection.
For code enforcement officials, however, there are several considerations regarding the continued, and possibly expanded, use of these types of systems. Perhaps the most important of these factors involves the education of the public on the correct expectations of successful operation of these systems. While a successful event may involve the protection of all building occupants, it must be understood that buildings considered “fully protected” per NFPA 13R may indeed be heavily damaged or even destroyed by fire, involving significant property loss in certain circumstances. In order for the public to clearly understand the need for such protection, it must be properly informed of such possibilities and made to clearly understand potential outcomes. Building owners must be made fully aware of the consequences and make the decision to install lower-cost and lower levels of protection while sacrificing the assurance of full property protection provided by systems designed to NFPA 13, Installation of Sprinkler Systems.
Additionally, it seems incumbent upon code-making organizations to take a close look at incentives and tradeoffs that have been offered in increasing numbers for the installation of residential sprinkler protection. While these tradeoffs or construction modifications were minimal when residential sprinkler systems were first introduced, the differences were centered on the use of more robust, NFPA 13-designed systems. Many of those differences have slowly been eroded by more recent code changes, including modifications now permitted with NFPA 13R systems. Where there were once limited reductions in passive construction features for the installation of residential sprinkler protection, later code changes have accepted the use of such systems for many additional code modifications, including reductions in fire resistance ratings, extended means of egress paths, reductions in requirements for fire department access and water supplies for fire suppression, and elimination of various other fire protection features and systems. It is interesting to note that some of these code changes have occurred outside the scope of sprinkler design standards—a development that makes it even more important for code officials in particular to maintain a vigilance over the entire code-making process.
The Contractor’s Perspective
Peter Schwab, VP of Purchasing and Engineering Technologies
Wayne Automatic Fire Sprinklers Inc.
Fires that lead the local and or national news always make my head turn. If it’s local and a sprinkler-protected property, we immediately search our archives to find out if we were the installing contractor for that NFPA 13R sprinkler system. Unfortunately, when we have a sprinkler success in a building equipped with an NFPA 13R sprinkler system, it rarely makes the news and if it does, the story is more about the amount of water damage. We never hear the side of the story that 20 plus families probably would not have had a building to live in and would have lost everything. Nor do we hear about the deaths or injuries that were prevented due to the presence of the sprinkler system.
Florida has a long history of being a leader for requiring fire sprinklers in low- and mid-rise apartments. In the early 1990s, the Florida Legislature approved Florida Statute 553.895, which required all buildings three stories or more, with a construction contract of January 1, 1994 or later, to be equipped with automatic sprinkler systems. This law applied to commercial as well as residential buildings. Prior to this, pockets of jurisdictions required sprinkler installations in multifamily residential developments as far back as the 1980s. This included the City of Altamonte Springs, under Chief Tomas Siegfried, which adopted one of the first local ordinances in the nation requiring fire sprinklers in new apartments.
At the time of the 1994 statutory mandate, NFPA 13R was only five years old. The types of buildings being constructed were generally three stories with 20 or 24 units, built as Type VI construction (Standard Building Code, Type V NFPA). There were generally two open corridors (non-sprinklered) bisecting the building. Any amenities were located in a separate stand-alone building. Without NFPA 13R available as an adopted standard, the multifamily builders would have pushed back, and these buildings would have continued to be built without sprinklers. In addition to the cost associated with an NFPA 13 system, the construction turnaround time would have been four to six times that of an NFPA 13R installation.
Jump to 2016, and we find that construction methods and population demands have dramatically changed. No longer is it everyone’s dream to use an apartment as a stepping stone to building a home. Many of the younger generation are content to live in an apartment for years, but they demand a long list of amenities. In addition, land prices in urban areas are continuing to escalate, leading to the construction of large “wraps” and podium-style buildings like the apartments in Edgewater, New Jersey. As a large contractor in the southeastern U.S., we are involved in the installation of both NFPA 13 and NFPA 13R systems for these types of buildings.
Are these buildings outside the scope of what NFPA 13R was intended to provide? The better question might be whether the additional cost of an NFPA 13 system compared to an NFPA 13R system is justified for the low-rise family environment. The cost for an NFPA 13 system in these types of buildings, especially in colder climates, can be four to six times more per square foot than an NFPA 13R system. In addition, there simply is not enough skilled labor available in the workforce, from designers to installers, necessary to maintain the schedules that builders and developers require to ensure profitability.
The major difference between the two standards is that NFPA 13 protects the combustible concealed spaces. The installation of sprinklers in the interstitial spaces (between the floors) is not a difficult installation. It can usually be installed with CPVC pipe, and sprinkler manufacturers have developed special sprinklers that can protect up to 256 square feet per sprinkler in these concealed combustible spaces. However, the interstitial spaces in NFPA 13R systems have not been where most of these fires have had the most impact.
When NFPA 13 is the level of protection, the attic space is the most difficult and costly to protect. The majority of roofs usually do not have a single ridge and one slope. Architects have become very creative with the multiple hips and valleys when designing buildings. There is technology available for some attic applications, but this usually requires the use of a fire pump. Perhaps there is a level of protection for the attic that would be less than what is required by NFPA 13 but more than what NFPA 13R currently provides—which is nothing. A public input regarding protection of attics was submitted to NFPA 13R for the 2019 edition. Perhaps this will open the door for manufacturers and laboratories to develop an affordable option for protection of attics in NFPA 13R-protected buildings.
The Insurer’s Perspective
Gary Keith, vice president and engineering standards manager
When NFPA 13R was first issued in 1989, the objective of the standard was to begin to move the needle on the acceptance of sprinklers in residential occupancies. The goal was similar to that of NFPA 13D, Installation of Sprinkler Systems in One- and Two-Family Dwellings and Manufactured Homes, first issued more than a decade earlier, except that NFPA 13R addressed larger, low-rise buildings with a four-story limitation. The “Purpose” section of NFPA 13R says that the standard is intended to aid in the “control of residential fires” and provide “improved protection against injury, life loss, and property damage.” While there have been numerous “sprinkler saves” associated with these systems, over the last several years we have observed too many examples of major property losses in these buildings, suggesting more work needs to be done on the property damage aspect of the standard.
While the height limitation of NFPA 13R has largely been maintained since it was originally developed, the area covered by buildings with these systems has grown dramatically, and the areas of unprotected combustible concealed spaces and unprotected combustible attic spaces have grown with them. One could claim that a major part of the problem isn’t with NFPA 13R at all, since a large number of exterior fires have occurred on balconies and within exterior groundcover that have resulted in fire spread into attic spaces, and there have been code provisions added requiring balcony sprinkler protection. However, the exterior fire scenario isn’t the only concern related to property protection with NFPA 13R and large-area residential buildings. The poster child for the property protection issue—the Edgewater, New Jersey fire in 2015—certainly was not an exterior fire.
NFPA 13R is also coming up short in another key property protection aspect with these buildings: resiliency. I would guess that the original NFPA technical committee drafting NFPA 13R never used the term “resiliency” when discussing the displacement of occupants and the need to completely rebuild an NFPA 13R-protected building gutted by fire. Back in 1989, that lack of discussion was perfectly appropriate, because the objective was only to move the needle on acceptance of sprinklers in residential occupancies. But times have changed. Fires like the one in Edgewater should no longer be considered acceptable simply because the sprinkler system is for life safety and everyone got out of the building safely, and we can just rebuild the building. Resiliency should be a key part of the property protection equation for sprinkler systems installed in these buildings.
So what’s the answer? Toss out NFPA 13R entirely? Use NFPA 13D for one- and two-family structures and NFPA 13 for everything else? Property insurers would probably accept those options, but they’re not likely to happen. There needs to be either an area limitation on buildings using NFPA 13R or some additional form of property protection such as sprinklers, noncombustible construction, or insulation for attics and concealed spaces.
Whatever is done, let’s do what we can to prevent fire chiefs from having to stand outside fire-gutted buildings that had NFPA 13R systems, trying to tell the public the building was properly protected.
The Fire Service Perspective
Sean DeCrane, battalion chief (ret.),
Cleveland Division of Fire
Over the last several years, the fire service has been discussing the seemingly increasing number of exterior fires that have propagated into the interior of the attic causing the total, or major loss, of an occupied structure that was protected by a functioning sprinkler system. In similar cases, the fire simply originated in an area where sprinklers were not installed based on the installation criteria. I say “seemingly,” because much of the circulated information has been anecdotal, but there were enough incidents to cause concern for fire prevention and suppression officials.
As fire officials and first responders, we have strongly supported the requirement of sprinkler systems, especially in multifamily occupancies. However, in the case of NFPA 13R, we are faced with a situation in which developers and local governmental officials followed the advice of the fire service and we were still realizing occasional large property losses in these protected occupancies. Granted, the majority of these incidents did not result in loss of life, so should they be considered wins because of the minimal life loss? Some think yes, but these incidents did result in a large number of residents losing of their belongings and their homes.
What was causing this increase of exterior fires causing greater damage or transitioning to the interior? That has been a difficult question to answer, since the constraints of the National Incident Fire Reporting System limit the data collected on the source and materials involved with fire propagation. One example is the increased demand for energy conservation that has led developers to utilize vinyl siding with increased amounts of foam insulation. Does this type of construction permit fire to propagate into the attic faster or more often? Again, it’s a difficult question, because NIFRS does not even include vinyl siding as an option in the dropbox menus, let alone exterior insulation or the type of insulation.
The goal of established minimum construction requirements in our national building, fire, and related codes and standards has been debated for many years. Many observers believe the codes and standards establish a minimum requirement to protect lives, while others believe the minimum is established to protect lives and property or to reduce economic loss. As with many issues, both sides are correct.
The goal of our codes is to protect lives, but there are also code requirements established to protect individuals from the actions of their neighbors that could cause them harm. It is these goals that led to the establishment of the NFPA 13R sprinkler systems. Building and fire officials worked with various industry representatives, including developers and owners, to develop a reasonable sprinkler system that would protect the occupants, potentially limit fire damage, and improve costs to encourage wider installation. In general, these goals were very successful in improving occupant safety by increasing the number of structures protected.
The question facing the first responder and broader code development community now is how do we meet the demands of the current built environment? What changes must be made in the codes and standards to protect occupants of apartment buildings from exterior fires propagating into the attics? To answer these questions, NFPA has invited many representatives of multiple disciplines to discuss and understand the issues and to potentially understand our options. Stay tuned—there is more work to be done.
The Consultant’s Perspective
Jeffrey Shapiro, P.E., FSFPE, president of International Code Consultants and a consultant to the multifamily housing industry
The topic of fire safety for large multifamily occupancies has recently drawn significant attention from the media, elected officials, public safety officials, and citizens, all of whom have raised legitimate questions about large fires that have occurred in buildings protected by NFPA 13R fire sprinkler systems. The multifamily housing industry is equally concerned and notes that all stakeholder groups, including our industry, share a common interest of providing safe, affordable housing for citizens who live in our communities.
In the U.S., most jurisdictions rely on model codes and standards, such as those published by NFPA, to establish a reasonable basis of regulation for building safety. For more than 25 years, the reasonable basis for the design and installation of fire sprinkler systems in low-rise multifamily occupancies has been NFPA 13R.
NFPA 13R provides a level of safety that resides between NFPA 13 and NFPA 13D. It was developed in response to the cost obstacle presented by installing full NFPA 13 systems in multifamily occupancies and in recognition of an increasing willingness on the part of local jurisdictions to permit NFPA 13D or hybrid 13/13D systems for use in large multifamily occupancies in the mid- to late-1980s.
Contrary to popular belief, NFPA 13R sprinkler systems are not just life-safety systems. While the systems do provide an exceptional level of life safety, they also provide a high degree of property protection, a fact acknowledged by model building codes that offer construction incentives for buildings protected by NFPA 13R systems.
The protection level offered by NFPA 13R systems in occupied spaces is similar to that provided by NFPA 13. Loss statistics for fires in sprinklered multifamily occupancies—many, if not most, of which are protected using NFPA 13R systems—demonstrate highly successful performance. “U.S. Experience with Sprinklers,” published by NFPA in 2013, reported that activated sprinkler systems in residential occupancies are 97 percent effective in controlling fires.
The most significant difference between NFPA 13 and NFPA 13R protection is NFPA 13R’s permissible omission of sprinkler protection in combustible concealed spaces, such as spaces between floors and in attics. This omission recognizes the fact that fires and fatalities associated with ignitions in these areas are rare.
Previously, balconies were also excluded from sprinkler protection, but several years ago the multifamily industry identified balcony fires as the cause of disproportionately high property losses, even though fires originating on balconies were not high-frequency events. Given the property protection incentives offered by building codes for the installation of NFPA 13R systems, the multifamily industry recognized balcony fires as a concern and pushed for codes and standards to mandate balcony sprinklers, bolstering NFPA 13R systems to address a purely property protection issue.
More recently, attic fires associated with low-rise multifamily occupancies constructed on fire-resistive “pedestal” levels have been raised as a concern. Like the balcony situation cited above, a relatively small number of incidents have caused major property damage with some losses being attributed, at least in part, to unprotected attics at high elevations.
In response, the multifamily industry has once again assumed a leadership role, partnering with the fire service and other stakeholder groups to develop and co-sponsor proposals to enhance building codes and NFPA 13R by requiring sprinklers or other means to protect residential attics that are well above the lowest level of required fire department vehicle access. These proposals have been well received, gaining initial approval by responsible technical committees. We look forward to inclusion of these new requirements as an enhancement to upcoming editions of NFPA 13R and model building codes.
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