Proposed NYC fire law would require ECS in high-rises

It’s prompted by a fire fatality that might have been prevented if an emergency communications system had been in place
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Wednesday, January 22, 2014

NEW YORK—The city may mandate emergency communications systems in buildings higher than six stories after a man died in a high-rise fire this month while trying to escape down a smoke-filled stairway instead of remaining safely in his apartment.

The measure, proposed by New York City Council member Corey Johnson, would apply to hundreds of existing buildings in the city if the council approves it. Corey’s office estimated in mid-January that the council would receive the legislation proposal in six to eight weeks.

An emergency communications system would be able to instruct residents to “stay or go”—that is, either to remain in place or leave by a specific exit or stairwell in the event of a fire or other emergency.

Johnson proposed the legislation after 27-year-old Daniel McClung died in the Jan. 5 high-rise blaze on 43rd Street and his husband, Michael Cohen, 32, was seriously injured. Both fled their 38th-floor apartment in the Strand high-rise after a fire broke out on the 20th floor. They did not know their unit was safe in the building, which is made out of fire-resistant materials. They also did not know the stairwell they ran into was being used by firefighters to battle the fire and had become a chimney for suffocating smoke.

“I can say without any doubt in my mind that if we had communications in the stairwell, this gentleman would not have been in the stairwell and he would have been alive today and the person who was with him would not be [injured]. … They’d both be fine,” Thomas Von Essen, former commissioner of the Fire Department City of New York Fire (FDNY) during 9/11 and its aftermath, told Security Systems News.

Von Essen, now retired and a senior safety consultant for Honeywell’s Gamewell-FCI division, is an outspoken supporter of the proposed legislation. He said he has promised Johnson that, “I’ll help him, in any way I can.”

Emergency communications systems, also sometimes called mass notification systems, have a military origin. In the 1996 terrorist bombing of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, where American military personnel were housed, the fire alarm system proved inadequate to tell occupants of the building what to do in that type of event. Building residents flee outside when they hear a fire alarm, but that may not be the safest place if a shooter or some other threat is outdoors.

Similarly, heading outside may not be the best option when there is a fire in a high-rise building, Von Essen explained. Many buildings are made of fire-resistant materials so an apartment fire can be isolated, affecting only that unit or perhaps the ones immediately above and below it.

Von Essen admits that may seem counterintuitive to some. “Whether it’s because of an increased fear today, maybe because of Sept. 11, people are in buildings and they just feel the best place to be is out in the street,” he said.

An emergency communications system is needed to help people know what to do, he said. “These communications systems tell people to stay in their apartment or to stay in the lobby or just stay out of the stairwell,” Von Essen said.

In the recent fatal fire, news reports say one of the stairwells in the building remained relatively free of smoke, so an emergency communication system could have directed residents to use that exit.

Johnson’s proposal impacts older buildings.

Von Essen noted new buildings already have protection. “When I was commissioner in the late 90s we were able to get legislation passed for new construction. So everything built new is fine: It has communications systems, it has smoke alarms, it has sprinklers, it has everything you need. But the older buildings don’t and there are hundreds of them in New York City,” he told SSN.

Back in 1999, a task force report issued by Von Essen called for fire safety measures that included public-address systems in existing buildings over six stories.

That recommendation has not been mandated and few building owners have voluntarily added them, Bob Williams, president of Briscoe Protective Systems, a Centereach, N.Y.-based engineered systems fire and security company that does a lot of work in New York City, told SSN.

In an email interview, Williams called Johnson’s proposal “a solid one” and added, “I believe he has tremendous public support.”

However, he added, “The challenge is to get the passage of this legislation for the hundreds of existing buildings like the Strand—especially with the many special interests and cost of retrofitting these buildings.”

As to whether the solution should be a public-address system or an ECS integrated with a fire alarm, Von Essen said both would help to let building residents and also people making deliveries or visiting know what to do in a fire or other type of emergency.

“Everybody has a right to some level of communication whether it's a public address that the owner has and he maintains himself or it’s a good solid fire/emergency notification system that’s inspected and tied to your alarm system that someone in the lobby knows how to work,” Von Essen said. “There are levels of protection in commercial buildings that are significantly higher than the level of protection we have in the residential buildings.”