Photo: Abaco Bum; Flickr ( https://www.flickr.com/photos/14714920@N07/32676160887/)

If the administrators who manage the Notre Dame cathedral had opted to install a sprinkler system, the recent fire would likely have automatically been extinguished within approximately 10 to 15 minutes, and the damage would likely have been minimal. Scott Benowitz looks specifically at two safety features: automatic fire sprinkler systems and carbon monoxide detectors.  

The recent tragic fire at the Notre Dame de Paris cathedral which occurred on April 15th, 2019 has reminded people throughout the world of the need to pay close attention to safety features in buildings. The Notre Dame de Paris cathedral is 850 years old and it is part of the Paris Banks Of The Seine UNESCO World Heritage Site. This historic cathedral did not have a fire suppression sprinkler system installed in it.  If the administrators who manage this historic cathedral had opted to install a sprinkler system in this building, the recent fire would likely have automatically been extinguished within approximately 10 to 15 minutes, and the damage to the building would likely have been minimal.  

A sprinkler system would likely have contained the fire and only a small section of the roof would have been damaged. The technologies involved in retrofitting older buildings with modern sprinkler systems have been well understood by architects, engineers and contractors for many decades.

Incidentally, prior to being President Of The United States Of America, Donald Trump was a real estate developer during one of his earlier careers.  He does not talk about sprinkler system laws terribly often these days (in fact as far as I can tell, he’s not mentioned the issue even once since he’s been elected President back in November of 2016), but I can assure you that because he’s owned numerous high rise apartment towers and hotels throughout the entire world, this is an issue which he is quite familiar with.   

Each year, throughout the world, a number of new technologies are patented which enable architects to design increasingly taller buildings, and there are also a number of new technologies which enable construction contractors to build houses, apartment buildings, office buildings and mixed-use buildings faster than ever.  

While more buildings are being constructed throughout the world every year, and the technologies that are available to architects, engineers, contractors, property owners as well as developers continue to improve, only a handful of governments throughout the world are requiring that the most advanced safety features be included in new buildings.  

 In this article, I’m going to look specifically at two safety features- automatic fire sprinkler systems and carbon monoxide detectors.  Although requiring that these two safety features be installed in all new buildings will be costly for property owners and developers, these devices and systems have repeatedly proven to be invaluable in saving lives. I’m going to examine what I perceive to be a potentially realistic timeline in which we might be able to see these safety features become mandatory in all new buildings throughout the world, and I’ll also examine the possibility of installing these devices into older buildings.
 

How Sprinkler Systems Operate And Why Sprinklers Save Lives

Twenty-two months have now passed since the tragic fire which had occurred in the Grenfell Tower Block in North Kensington in London on June 14th, 2017.  Much of the footage that I’d watched on television news shows, as well as articles that I’d read in newspapers about the tragedy, were focused on the materials that were used to manufacture the exterior cladding of the tower block.  While the cladding obviously was dangerous, it was not the only factor which contributed to this tragedy. If automatic overhead sprinkler systems had been required in apartments towers in the U.K. when the Lancaster West Estate had been built back in the 1960s, or if the tower complex had been retrofitted with sprinkler systems at a later date, the June 2017 fire would likely have been extinguished within the first couple of minutes after it began.  Future tragic tower fires are in fact preventable, and this involves implementing a technology which has been well understood since the 1870s.

There are a number of reasons why automatic sprinklers are not installed in all high rise apartment, hotel and office towers throughout the world.  Designing, installing as well as maintaining a sprinkler system in a building is very expensive, so many property owners and management companies will not opt to install them unless they’re required to do so.  The International Code Council updates the International Building Code every three years, but at the time that I’m writing this article, the International Building Code is used in only 22 of the world’s 206 countries.  

As far back as the early 1800’s, people were designing systems of overhead pipes that were kept filled with water which could be opened in the event of a fire.  The earliest fire sprinkler systems were manually operated, a person needed to manually open a valve to release the water.  In the 1870’s, engineers designed the first overhead sprinkler systems which were automatically operated; in the 1870’s, two American inventors, Philip W. Pratt and Henry S. Parmelee created two separate designs for sprinkler systems which automatically release water once a room reaches dangerously high temperatures.

The technologies that are used to design and manufacture sprinkler systems have undergone quite a few advancements and improvements since the 1870’s, but the basic concept actually has changed very little because flooding a room with water is still a very effective means of extinguishing or containing a fire quickly.  The overhead sprinkler heads are sealed with wax, metals which melt at relatively low temperatures, or a glass bulb which is filled with chemicals that burn quickly (such as alcohols, for example), and once a room reaches a certain temperature, the seals melt or break, and then the water is released.  Modern pumps are much more advanced than those found in earlier sprinkler systems, so the water is released faster and at a high volume, and less of it evaporates due to the heat of a fire. Modern systems are also available which use various forms of fire suppression chemicals instead of water.  

These technologies have been well understood for the past 150 years, so why are these systems still not yet mandatory in all high rise buildings?

Even though the technologies involved in designing and manufacturing automatic sprinkler systems have been well understood since the 1870’s, as I mentioned earlier, the process of designing, manufacturing, installing and maintaining sprinkler systems is still expensive.  The process of requiring that sprinkler systems become mandatory has been gradual, in the U.S., in the U.K. as well as the rest of the world.

The International Building Code has required that automatic sprinkler systems be installed in all residential apartment buildings, office buildings, hotels as well as mixed use buildings which exceed a certain height for many years.  However, the agencies which are concerned with establishing building safety standards in the governments of only a limited number of countries require that architects use the International Building Code when designing buildings or that contractors use it when they construct buildings.  At of the time that I’m writing this article in 2019, only the governments of Abu Dhabi, Afghanistan. Colombia, Georgia, Honduras, Saudi Arabia, the governments of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) countries, as well as most states in the U.S. require that architects and contractors adhere to the current edition of the International Building Code.  

 In the countries which do not require that architects use the International Building Code when they design buildings, various agencies within the national governments work with different groups who are involved with the construction industry to write their own national building codes.  The governments of individual states, provinces, counties and cities within each of those countries have the option to add further requirements which are in addition to the national codes.

 In addition to the International Building Code, the International Code Council also publishes an International Fire Code.  Similar to the International Building Code, the agencies which are concerned with building safety standards in the governments of only a handful of countries require that architects adhere to the International Fire Code.  

 In the U.S., due to disputes with the International Code Council, the National Fire Protection Association does not contribute to the new editions of the International Building Code.  The NFPA publishes a separate guide every three years, which is entitled Life Safety Code.  Unlike the International Building Code, and the International Fire Code, the NFPA’s Life Safety Code is not a legal code, it is a series of guidelines.  The Life Safety Code had emphasized the necessity of installing automatic sprinkler systems many years prior to the recent edition of the International Building Code requiring that sprinkler systems be mandatory.

Building codes vary vastly between countries.  In the U.S., the earliest buildings in which sprinkler systems were installed were factories and industrial complexes because there were a lot of potentially flammable and explosive materials that were used in the day- to- day operations in those buildings.  In the U.S., agencies within the individual state governments have the option to require further building safety standards which are in addition to the safety standards which are included in the International Building Code, and agencies within city and county governments have the options to enact further regulations regarding buildings within their jurisdictions.  The Federal government has their own codes for safety standards in Federally owned buildings.

    Throughout the course of the 20th century, state governments gradually realized that fire sprinkler systems will save lives in the event of fires, and so gradually more states began to require them.  After people saw that fire sprinkler systems were successful in containing fires in factories and industrial complexes, the agencies which write building codes began to require that fire sprinkler systems be required in train stations and any buildings where large numbers of people meet, and so requirements for hospitals, jails, military bases, schools, public libraries, colleges, universities followed.  In the following decades, an increasing number of agencies began to require that sprinkler systems be required to be installed in office towers and office complexes, and apartment buildings. An increasing number of states began to require that older historic buildings which now house museums be retrofitted with overhead sprinkler systems.

Building codes have been improving in recent years in the U.K. too.  Beginning in 2011, all new houses in Wales have been required to have sprinkler systems in them.  In a number of countries, including the U.S. as well as in the U.K., in some areas where sprinkler systems are not required, property owners still have financial incentives to install sprinkler systems because insurance companies will often offer discount rates on both residential as well as commercial policies for buildings which have sprinkler systems installed in them.

Were Some Of The Recent Tragedies Potentially Preventable?

Since 2015, there have been fires in residential, hotel and office high rise towers in the Address Downtown building in Dubai, UAE, the Wisma Kosgoro building in Jakarta, Indonesia, the Azadlig Avenue apartment building in Baku, Azerbaijan, the Cosmopolitan Of Las Vegas hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada, the John Hancock Center in Chicago, Illinois, a residential tower in Sharjah, UAE, the Plasco Building in Tehran, Iran, the Grenfell Tower in London, U.K., the Pamchal Chitgar Building in Tehran, Iran, the Marco Polo apartment tower in Honolulu, Hawaii, the Rotana Hotel Building in Tehran, Iran and the have now been three separate fires in the Marina Torch building in Dubai, UAE.  

In 2018 there were tower fires in the Trump Tower in New York City, in The Trump International Hotel And Tower in Baku, Azerbijan, and there was a tower fire in The Wilton Paes de Almeida Building in Sao Paulo Brazil in which the entire building collapsed.  

 The only two of those buildings in the list of aforementioned fires which have overhead sprinkler systems installed in the are the John Hancock Tower in Chicago and the Cosmopolitan Hotel Of Las Vegas.  People were injured from smoke inhalation in those two fires, but the fire departments were able to rescue them in time to rush them to nearby hospitals, there were no fatalities in the 2 fires in buildings which have sprinkler systems in them.  There were fatalities in the fires in the Baku, Azerbaijan apartment building, the Plasco Building in Tehran, the Grenfell Tower in London, the Marco Polo apartments in Honolulu, the Trump Tower in New York City as well as in the Wilton Paes de Almeida Building in Sao Paulo Brazil.  (Although installing automatic sprinkler systems has been mandatory in apartment buildings in the U.S. for many years, automatic sprinkler systems were still optional when the Trump Tower was originally designed and built back in 1979 through 1983, and because Trump Tower has not undergone any major renovations in recent years, the owners of the building have not been required to retrofit the tower with a sprinkler system.)  The other incidents which I’ve mentioned did not result in any fatalities, but there were more injuries reported in the fires in the buildings which lack sprinkler systems than in the buildings which do have them.

Single Family Houses

The safety features which are required for smaller private houses are addressed in the International Code Council’s International Residential Code.  Beginning in 2017, most private houses are now required to have sprinkler systems in them.  The most recent editions of the International Residential Code also require that carbon monoxide detectors are to be installed in most kinds of single family houses.  However similar to the International Building Code, as of the time that I’m writing this article, the agencies which are concerned with establishing building safety standards in the governments of only a handful of countries throughout the world use the International Residential Code.

Carbon Monoxide Detectors

 There are a number of possible sources from which CO can accumulate in apartments, houses and offices.  CO can leak from furnaces which burn coal or natural gas, from wood burning stoves, from any machines or vehicles which burn either gasoline or diesel fuel, including automobiles, motorcycles, snowmobiles, ATV’s trucks, leaf blowers, lawn mowers, chainsaws and snowblowers when people turn any of those devices or vehicles on in their garages.  CO can also leak from some kinds of heaters as well as from back- up generators. Although burning diesel fuel produces less CO than burning gasoline, vehicles and machinery which operate on diesel fuel can also produce potentially dangerous levels of CO.

 CO is colorless, tasteless and odorless, so without CO detectors, it is impossible for people to realize that potentially dangerous levels may be accumulating within their houses, apartments or in their offices.  Although minimal levels of CO occur in nature and are a part of the air that we all breathe every day, higher levels of CO will lead to headaches, can cause people to faint, and even higher levels of CO will be fatal to humans.

Carbon monoxide detectors are usually battery powered.  In houses in which the owners do not pay to have a burglar and fire alarm systems monitored by an alarm company, the CO detectors produce a loud noise when high levels of CO are detected to alert the residents of the danger.  In houses in which the owners do opt to have their security system monitored by an alarm company, then in addition to the noise warnings, the alarm company will send first responders to the house when high levels of CO are detected.  An increasing number of houses throughout the world today are wired with smart technologies, so homeowners can now be alerted to the presence of dangers such as high levels of CO when they’re traveling, even if they are hundreds or even thousands of miles away from their homes when an alarm is activated.

I’d mentioned earlier that installing automatic fire sprinkler systems into older buildings is a complicated process.  This is because construction crews need to drill a lot of holes into the ceilings, floors and walls in almost every room in a building when they install sprinkler systems.  By contrast, installing CO detectors is a relatively simple process. Many CO detectors are wireless, so installing them involves nothing more than screwing the mounting brackets into a ceiling- this can be accomplished very quickly by experienced professionals.

There Is No Monetary Value To Human Lives

It is expensive to install fire sprinkler systems in new buildings, and it is even more expensive to retrofit older buildings with sprinkler systems.  However, there is no monetary value that we can place on the value of saving human lives- human lives are not replaceable. Sprinkler systems and CO detectors do in fact save lives, this has been observed in fires throughout the U.S. for many decades now.

These are not issues which effect only the U.S., or the U.K., or Europe, or any individual country or regions.  These are issues which effects the entire population of the world. As long as we are going to continue to construct houses, apartment buildings, office buildings as well as mixed use buildings throughout the world, we will continue to have an increasing number of buildings in which people will live as well as work.  The population of the world is continuing to grow every year, and this is an issue which can no longer be ignored.  Human life is precious and irreplaceable- it is time that the agencies which are concerned with building safety within all governments throughout the entire world require that all new buildings have automatic sprinkler systems and CO detectors installed in them.  

Either every national government throughout the world needs to require that architects who practice in their countries use the most recent edition of the International Building Code, or the agencies which are responsible for building safety standards in each country need to revise their national building codes so that automatic sprinkler systems become mandatory in all buildings which exceed a certain height.  If the agencies which are responsible for building safety standards within national governments do not address this issue, then perhaps the administrators within some of the regional IGO’s throughout the world may opt to require that automatic sprinklers and CO detectors be installed in all buildings within their respective constituencies- as I’ve mentioned, the legislators within the CARICOM organization did opt adopt the International Building Code for construction projects within all of the CARICOM member states.  No matter how expensive this will be, this will end up saving numerous lives throughout the world each year.

I am well aware that in many countries in the developing world, property owners, developers, architects, engineers and contractors are not working with the same budgets of those in wealthier countries.  Furthermore, people who are looking to purchase houses, apartments or rent office space in the developing world are likelier to be working with limited budgets, and are therefore likelier to be willing to purchase or rent houses, apartments or offices which lack modern safety features.

Access to construction equipment as well as to building materials is often difficult in some countries. It is not realistic at all for me to suggest that all governments in every country should require that all new buildings have automatic sprinkler systems as well as hardwired CO detectors installed in them by the end of 2019, and that all governments in all of the countries throughout the entire world require that many older buildings be retrofitted with these safety devices.

However, automatic sprinkler systems and CO detectors have been tested and studied extensively in a number of countries for many years, and there can be no possible doubt that quite a few lives have been saved by automatic sprinkler systems since the late nineteenth century and by CO detectors since the last years of the twentieth century.  Perhaps if the agencies which are responsible for building safety codes in national governments throughout the world opt to plan a realistic timetable that requirements regarding mandatory automatic sprinkler systems and mandatory CO detectors by installed in new buildings as well as retrofitting older buildings throughout the course of the 2020’s and the 2030’s, future tragedies will be avoided.  

 We need to bear in mind that in the nineteenth century emergency exits and early forms of fire escapes were optional features that architects had the option to include in buildings if the property owners specifically requested them, and throughout the world property owners rarely requested that these safety features be included within their buildings.  Throughout the course of the 20th century, the agencies which are concerned with building safety standards throughout the world began to require that emergency exits and fire escapes be installed in most new buildings which exceed a certain height, and that emergency exits and fire escapes be installed in many older buildings.  Today, emergency exits and fire escapes are so commonplace that we usually don’t notice them anymore. Think of how many lives have been saved throughout the world over the course of the past 100 years because people were able to exit from buildings quickly during emergency situations.

Scott Benowitz

Scott Benowitz is a staff writer for Afterimage Review. He holds an MSc in Comparative Politics from The London School of Economics & Political Science and a B.A. in International Studies from Reed...