I am a retired battalion commander for the New York City Fire Department and frequently speak to firefighters about all topics related to their development. I have gained credibility in the fire service during my tenure and after retirement by pioneering research that has revolutionized fire- and life-safety specific to high-rise buildings.
For example, I established a close working relationship with the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Our first study was to develop effective methods and techniques for smoke management and control in high-rise buildings. Our research continued with the study of fire behavior (dynamics) in tall buildings with residential and/or commercial occupancies. Our focus has been on the life safety of those that live and work in these buildings, as well as the firefighters called upon for fire suppression, rescue and evacuation.
Instrumental to our research was when Mayor Richard M. Daley of Chicago authorized us to use an unoccupied high-rise building in the city to conduct research with live fire. That particular venture, back in 2006, demonstrated actual fire dynamics in conjunction with methods of smoke management that would prove effective. The project resulted in further research on the specifics of fire dynamics when wind is a factor. When windows fail, a blow-torch-type fire occurs. These types of fires have caused fatalities to occupants and firefighters worldwide. We now have developed methods, means and procedures to meet that challenge.
I also co-authored a book, High-Rise Buildings: Understanding the Vertical Challenges, published in 2023. In it, a full chapter (chapter 11) examines renovations and alterations in detail.
I have recently lectured about fire safety during retrofits and renovations to the Fire and Life Safety Directors Association (FLSDA) of Greater New York. Those in attendance included those in contracting trade organizations, building owners and BOMA members. I became intrigued with the subject matter and content retrofit presents to those that are planning or in the process of enhancing their properties. retrofit provides insight to trends and technology driving change to buildings as they exist. The fire service is compelled to keep pace with this.
My lecture to the FLSDA emphasized the safety factors important to life safety during renovations and alterations and what these attendees should be mindful of during these project enhancements.
I think it’s highly important a relationship be established for collaboration between the project team and fire service. The reason is all about life safety during a renovation/retrofit.
The collaboration should begin in the planning stage. The project must be scrutinized on how it will impact the occupied tenant spaces while the work is being performed. For example, can the transportation systems of stairs and elevators be used by the contractors simultaneously with the occupants without impacting their availability? It may be possible to use a service elevator exclusive to the contractors and not impact the passenger elevators. The floors being renovated may require passenger elevators be taken out of service for occupants’ safety. An exterior scaffold with an elevator hoist should be erected if interior transport systems are not feasible. Existing transport systems are vital emergency egress points for all occupants (construction floor(s)/tenant spaces) should a fire or emergency occur and when shelter-in-place mode is not an option. Fires and emergencies are commonplace in buildings while being renovated or alterations are underway. A potential emergency event is a valid reason to include the local fire department in the initial planning stages of a project.
There is the possibility that the local fire department does not provide emergency medical response; then, whatever agency or service available should be included in the planning, as well. Explore what resources are available onsite to fulfill the emergency medical response services with dedicated access to the facility. Providing first responders admittance to the building, particularly the construction floor(s) for familiarization will reveal what resources are available to assist their services and uncover what else may be needed. A fire department site visit can determine the best access for their arrival to expedite emergency services and what building intelligence will be available and exchanged, including the status of building and fire protection systems. In addition, emergency services must have a means to communicate with all building occupants to inform them of the situation, understand occupants’ status and provide instructions when warranted.
It is vital to collaborate early with the fire department and emergency medical services to avoid any adverse event during a project that is intended to enhance the building; its infrastructure, including its fire-protection features; and its strength in the marketplace.