Fire Safety in High Rise Buildings a Must

Source: The Daily Telegraph

Radio National had a very informative piece on fire safety in their Background Briefing last Sunday morning. The episode had its roots in the tragic death in Sydney of a young student who died when she jumped along with her friend from a 5th floor apartment when fire blocked their escape.

Fire safety in a high rise building should always be top of mind for any engineer, developer, builder or occupant. Despite that, I constantly see fire doors left open, rubbish left in stairwells and occupants ignorant of the location of the fire stairs.

The Background Briefing program mentioned the terrible fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company in New York City in 1911 which caused officials to rethink fire safety.  I visited the site of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, now part of the Brown Building which is part of New York University, a couple of years ago as part of some research I was conducting at the time.  The company produced women’s blouses, known as ‘shirtwaists’.

Back in 1911, the top three floors of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company building were occupied by the shirt company. Over 500 young, mostly immigrant, girls worked on the 7th, 8th and 9th floors.  The fire doors were locked and when a fire broke out, 142 either jumped to their deaths or perished in the fire.  Some of the girls who died were as young as 11.  I found it a very moving experience to visit the Brown Building as I thought of the last few moments of these young women.

The owners and managers escaped prosecution due to the skill of their lawyer Max Steuer who successfully proved that the witnesses, many of whom spoke little English, had memorised their testimonies.  However, the owners were later held liable in a civil action.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire was the deadliest workplace disaster in New York City, until 11 September 2001.

As with most, if not all disasters, great good came out of it, including labour laws and fire escapes.  Another great benefit which resulted from that disaster: every external door in New York opens outwards, as do fire escape doors worldwide.

Why it still takes tragedies like the death of this young student in Sydney before we review our fire standards continues to amaze me. Do we really have such short memories?

Fire is a very real risk for us all. Fire safety should be top of mind even when we are on holidays. If you are going to a third world country over the upcoming holiday period, special care needs to be taken and perhaps a lower floor taken over the one with the view. I for one always carry a torch and ensure I know where the fire escapes are.

If you are about to purchase a high rise unit, obtaining an independent report on whether the building meets current fire safety standards is always a very good idea. As I keep telling my clients, hope for the best but plan and insure for the worst.

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