June is National Safety Month – Blog Series #1 of 4: Life Safety

“Your door opening specialist for life safety and security.” – LaForce tagline

 June is National Safety Month Blog Series 1 of 4 Life Safety“Life Safety” is a familiar concept to those within the building industry. But the phrase may not carry as much weight without an understanding of the history behind Life Safety Code. Today, “life safety” represents a commitment to protecting human life through building standards and codes.

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) is the most well-known organization that develops building standards and codes to minimize danger from fire-related hazards. The NFPA developed its first standard (for the installation of sprinkler systems) in 1896, and started publishing materials that lead to the current Life Safety Code in 1913. Over the subsequent 100+ years, this publication has updated to reflect the latest developments in construction and lessons learned from fire catastrophes.

Unfortunately, it took several tragic incidents to solidify the urgent need for such standards. Let’s take a look at a few of them.

Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in New York, NY (1911)

A fire in a clothing factory, located on the top three floors of the 10-story Asch Building, lead to 146 deaths on March 25, 1911. Business owners locked the exit and stairwell doors during the workday to minimize worker theft and unauthorized breaks, which exacerbated the victims’ inability to escape the flames. The doors themselves opened inward, making it harder to escape in an emergency situation. In addition, aisles to building exits were narrow and obstructed. Finally, the building was constructed with one fewer staircase than required, since the architect insisted an outdoor fire escape was sufficient. During the fire, people crowded onto this fire escape, which quickly collapsed.

Cocoanut Grove Nightclub Fire in Boston, MA (1942)

A fire in a nightclub caused 492 deaths on November 28, 1942. The space was designed to hold 460 people but over 1,000 were crowded into Cocoanut Grove that night. Once the fire began, it was difficult for victims to escape, since nearly all of the exits were hidden or non-functioning. Some side doors were bolted shut to prevent people from leaving without payment, and others opened inward. The main entrance was only accessible via a single revolving door, which quickly became obstructed. In addition, the establishment’s décor featured highly combustible materials such as cloth wall coverings and faux palm fronds, which intensified the fire’s spread.

Our Lady of the Angels School Fire in Chicago, IL (1958)

A fire in a K-8 Catholic school resulted in 95 deaths (92 of these were students) on December 1, 1958. The school did not have fire alarms, heat detectors, second-floor stairwell fire doors, or fire sprinklers since state and city fire codes (at that time) did not require existing buildings to comply with new construction standards. The fire alarm within the building did not automatically connect to the fire department. In addition, there was only one fire escape and fire extinguishers were stored seven feet off the ground. Classrooms were overcrowded and the floors were highly combustible due to flammable varnish and petroleum-based waxes. Glass transoms above classroom doors allowed flames and smoke to quickly permeate the rooms. Stairwell doors that were meant to be kept closed were chained open by staff, causing the fire to spread quickly.

Cook County Administration Building Fire in Chicago, IL (2003)

A fire on the 12th floor of an office building lead to six deaths on October 17, 2003. The victims were trapped in a stairwell a few floors above the fire and died of smoke inhalation. They entered the stairwell to escape the fire, but because the stairwell doors were locked due to building protocol, they could not re-enter on another floor and escape the smoke. Codes require such stairwell doors to be connected with the fire command center so that they automatically unlock when activated by fire alarm or emergency personnel in an emergency situation. In addition, the 12th floor did not have a fire sprinkler system installed at the time of the fire, which could have drastically minimized the destruction.

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As a result of these tragedies, life safety codes now address building features that decrease the chances of death by fire. LaForce is committed to providing building materials that meet building codes and standards. We provide continuous training for staff members, to keep them apprised of the latest developments and technical requirements. Our certified fire door inspectors can confirm that a building’s fire doors have been properly installed and maintained to help building owners increase safety, limit liability and avoid fines. In addition, our Architectural Services team is knowledgeable in building requirements and can provide personalized specification writing services.

“Life Safety” is a vital concept that LaForce takes very seriously. Let’s learn from yesterday’s lessons to create a safer future!

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