London tower fire leads to new risk-assessment tool

Jeff Martin
The Associated Press

ATLANTA – Six months after flames engulfed a London high-rise and sparked concerns about similarly-clad buildings around the world, a U.S.-based fire prevention group has developed a tool aimed at making buildings safer.

The National Association of State Fire Marshals’ research foundation says its free risk evaluation tool will be available on its website after Jan. 1.

Combustible exterior paneling fueled the flames that enveloped Grenfell Tower on June 14, killing 71 people, authorities said. An Associated Press review found the same panels on several U.S. buildings, and some of the owners were unaware of the potential danger.

The fire marshals group says the new Risk Evaluation Matrix can help assess fire risks based on materials used, a building’s occupancy and other criteria.

The goal is to enable fire marshals, building owners and others to make their structures safer through a rational and scientific approach, said Nick Dembsey, professor of fire protection engineering at Worcester Polytechnic University in Massachusetts, which contributed research that went into developing the assessment tool.

Troubling trend: The researchers found evidence of a troubling trend: An over-reliance on sprinkler systems. Sprinklers are effective in many fires, but they should not justify cutting corners on other fire prevention measures, fire officials say.

“More data is needed, but the early conclusions indicate an overreliance on sprinklers at the expense of passive fire safety systems, which endangers both the public and the fire service alike,” said Louisiana State Fire Marshal H. Butch Browning, who is president of the National Association of State Marshals.

The U.S. has for decades required sprinkler systems to be installed in new high-rise buildings, as well as multiple ways for people to exit in the case of a fire. Grenfell Tower had none of those safeguards.

“We believe that sprinklers should be in every building. But we also have a concern that we not get all our safety eggs in one basket,” said Jon Narva, an association spokesman. “There’s more to fire safety than just sprinklers.”

Since sprinklers are so effective in many interior fires, some building codes have introduced “trade-offs” — a relaxation in regulations if sprinklers are present. But indoor sprinklers can’t stop a fire that ignites on a building’s exterior and spreads across the material encasing the structure. These types of fires are of particular concern today, since many buildings are covered with synthetic materials which can burn fast and hot.

“In exterior fires, the sprinklers aren’t going to have a chance to affect the outcome,” Narva said.

Other measures: The concern among fire marshals and others is that engineers, architects, and fire codes are less likely to include an array of fire protection features when sprinklers are present.

Along with building codes, a proactive approach to fire safety should include product testing, public education and a thorough analysis of what could happen in a fire, Browning said.

Many older buildings in the U.S. — even high-rise apartments, hotels and condominiums — have no sprinklers at all. Regulations vary from city to city.

In Hawaii, a fire in a 36-story apartment building that killed three people in July focused attention on an estimated 300 older high-rise structures with no sprinkler systems on the island of Oahu. The building where the blaze happened was built in 1971, four years before sprinklers became mandatory for new construction in Honolulu. A committee formed in response to the fire recommended last month that 150 of the older buildings be retrofitted with sprinkler systems, but the cost has made some reluctant.