Safeguarding Against Disaster

A recent building fire in Los Angeles blazed its way to front page news. On January 29th a high-rise apartment building, the Barrington Plaza, became engulfed in smoke and flames like a scene straight out of a Hollywood blockbuster.  As civilians and apartment residents flooded the streets to regard property and lives being swallowed whole, you have to wonder, was this fire—or at the very least—the breadth of its destruction, preventable?  And if so, how can you safeguard yourself, your property, and your loved ones from a similar fiery fate?

The official cause of the Barrington blaze is still under investigation, but the spread of the flames alone prompted questions surrounding the quality of the building’s automatic sprinkler system or lack thereof.  

According to Los Angeles city building code, high rise buildings do not require automatic sprinkler systems if built prior to 1974.  The Barrington Plaza apartments were built in 1961, and therefore, well within the existing fire safety protocol. 

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has attempted to breach this loophole where the Barrington Plaza tragically fell; however, the task is easier said than done.  In an attempt to ease the process of historical buildings becoming ‘up to code’ so to speak, NFPA put together several different courses of action, scopes, and objectives.  While the intention is there, the resulting fire codes are a murky web of specifications and standards that can leave the savviest fire expert scratching his head and historical buildings standing victim.  

A second red flag can be raised within the NFPA building codes; however, this time the fire codes themselves cannot be held entirely responsible.  With the advent of Airbnb, apartments are being rented out as hotel rooms and thus blurring the lines on a building’s purpose and so, the codes that said building must follow.  A long-term tenant is less likely to cause a fire than say, a group of friends just in town to party for the night.  Hotel building fire codes are based around transient populations and differ from the apartment building fire codes.  The problem arises when apartments are suddenly being rented as party pads for the weekend, as was frequently the case for Los Angeles’ Barrington Plaza.

The reality is that the Barrington blaze of this past month is hardly unique.  Between 2009-2013, U.S. fire departments reported an estimated 14,500 structure fires in high-rise buildings every year.  On average these fires cause 40 civilian deaths and nearly $160 million in property damage annually. The numbers are staggering, and the NFPA fire codes can be overwhelming.  1

So, what can you do to shield your investments against disaster?  Here are three preventable steps you can take to safeguard yourself, your property, and your loved ones.

  1. There is an element to human error when it comes to fires. Be aware and make building occupants aware of the most common building fire causes.  The National Fire Protection Association cites cooking equipment, heating equipment, electrical and lighting equipment, smoking materials and intentional fire setting as the top five causes for commercial building fires. While the jury is still out on what caused the Barrington blaze, practicing vigilance around the top five most common fire causes can only help.
  2. In addition to basic fire safety, be sure to complete timely fire safety inspections and ask questions as they arise. If a code, specification, or building element just doesn’t seem right, bring it up.  Your future building occupants may thank you for it.   
  3. When you have fire safety inspections completed, track them. Stay up to date on the latest developments and configurations to ensure sprinkler systems and alarms are working efficiently. The community your building houses is counting on you. 

As with any fire, there are lessons to be learned in the wake of ashes.  Take the necessary precautions to safeguard your community against devastating destruction.

1- Ahrens, Marty, “High Rise Building Fires”, National Fire Protection Association, 11/2016, pg 2