Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Fire Safety: The High-Rise Priority

So, after reading about the ship, yesterday:
When you work in a skyscraper, or stay in a hotel, or live in an apartment building, do you ever think what systems are supporting your safety in the event of a fire?

Big Buildings, Big Projects
As a Condo Board Member, I am supposed to think about it. We have to replace our fire safety system in a couple of years, for which funds must be available. We also have regular tests and checks of that system, for which the Condominium Association contracts experts. Various consultants check our boilers; our heating systems; our fire safety system; our emergency generator. 

This past summer, we bid out and endured a fire-stopping project in the garage. We were grandfathered by the Code, but does that count? The City Inspector thought not. The Board found (as immediately as a Board can--three days) that it didn't wish to argue with that. It was not in our Association's best interest to defer a safety measure or invoke our venerable status. The project took two months and tens of thousands of dollars. Many residents with cars were inconvenienced. When it was done, we gained a safer place to live.

Big Projects, Bad Follow-Through
A few years ago, we added a fire extinguishers to the roof deck when we added the three new (electric) grills. That next week, we had flames shooting six feet up, too close to the elevator tower. The old fire extinguisher didn't work. Fortunately, two guests happened to work in fire service. Lucky for everyone but them.

Oh, there was hell to pay on that one for the Zombies in the Management Office. No replacement grease pans. One new extinguisher; Two old fire extinguishers unchecked.  FAIL.

That next week, Condo Board members electronically passed 303 grease-mails through the medium of the Internet. Eventually we bought a grease-only, fire-safe (to all, including California standards) trash can. We also ordered three hundred grease pans so that they would be immediately, easily replaced. And got the fire extinguishers inspected. I figure about 263 of those grease-mails were not required, but we all wanted to kick ass, and that was how we did it.  That condo manager left the next month or so, and we got the new Zombie Boss we have now.

Regular Maintenance
Twice a year, our Building Engineers replace a/c filters, check for dripping faucets, how much carpet is down on the floor (noise control) and--for working smoke alarms. We do not allow battery-operated ones to suffice in our building. Each unit must be hooked up to constant electricity. If they don't work, then the next week they are changed out and the Owner charged for the maintenance.

Every floor has a set of fire extinguishers. We pay a firm to check them and replace them on time.

Sometimes other stuff relates to fire safety: a banister falling off the wall in the stairwell. That's not just a stairwell, it's the emergency exit. More, the phone and cable boxes are also in these stairwells. They need to stay locked, so that the box lid doesn't raise up and impede progress in the event of an incident. The Board also had them put safety strips back on the steps in both stairwells, after a two-year absence. 

So, how do you find the way out of your office? Do you know what the fire alarm sounds like? How about at your hotel? Where's the nearest stairs? 

Scary and Careless
Somebody threw a gas can down our trash chute. The fire department inspectors came for that, to determine if it was attempted arson. We had to pay for trash chute cleaning after that stupid move, over a thousand bucks of Association money.

Somebody sprayed fire extinguisher in a stairwell for a prank. That screwed up a fire extinguisher and an emergency exit. It also cost money.

The point of this article is that all building systems are still dependent on human compliance. 
We have to get them in place correctly. We have to update them and inspect them. We have to pay for experts and take their advice. Last of all, even the best systems can be taken down by one full grease pan, one prankster, or one idiot's gas can in the wrong place.

So individual safety is based on good systems and a good emergency response.
What is your personal emergency preparation?

Emergency Safety Committee-An Active Minority
Currently, we have a volunteer Emergency Safety Committee trying to figure out some safe evacuation plans for our building. There's a lot of frail people, and one guy in a wheelchair. The guy in the wheelchair has a lot more together on this than the frail people do.

Some of the committee members, like its chairman, have a lot of experience in emergencies. Other have volunteered to run a floor, or get a frail person out.

But it's a work in progress. For instance, no one wants to practice a fire drill. They want to kick back when they're home, and watch television, cook dinner, stay in their shower. We elected officials are weenies on this point. The consent of the governed and all that.

For each of us at home: we need to think about our safety. Because a Condominium Association has multiple owners, we contract some of this out or enforce it with Staff. And yet in the end it still comes down to this: we have to think about how we get out of our own door safely. We each have to have a plan.

The U.S. Fire Administration, a part of the Department of Homeland Security, has a portal page with everything you need to know about Escape Plans, Fire Extinguishers, Smoke Alarms, Rooms of the House, and Flaming Stuff such as Cigarette, Candle, and Cooking Safety.  It also has special instructions for High-Rises, Mobile Homes, Rural Areas, and so forth. It's a good place to start.

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