by Arthur Londensky
Unprotected high-rise buildings in New Jersey pose serious risks of loss of life, injury and economic strain for thousands of New Jersey residents and firefighters. Recently, the Department of Community Affairs passed on proposed high-rise fire sprinkler retrofit regulations that would address this significant public safety issue, citing costs to New Jersey families in the current economic climate. While the Department chose not to act on these regulations now, the fire service community strongly urges the state, the Department and Commissioner Doria to keep his promise and address high-rise fire protection as quickly as possible before a tragedy strikes. If our state acts now, it can make proper high-rise fire protection a reality and avoid the risk, the devastation, the loss of life, and the financial hardships on local municipalities and fire services of high-rise fires.
High-rise fires take an unbearable life-safety and economic toll on communities. Firefighters are forced to fight high-rise fires head on, carrying hoses and equipment as they go and endangering their chances to reach the fire at hand and evacuate residents. The cost of a fire sprinkler head present in apartments to help keep a fire suppressed ultimately pales in comparison to the potential loss of resident and firefighter lives in addition to the necessary 100+ firefighters and multiple hours of service involved to contain and suppress a raging high-rise fire. Moreover, throughout New Jersey, many fire departments staff volunteer firefighters, who face greater challenges and available resources to respond to fires of this magnitude. In the end, New Jersey’s communities can’t afford the monetary and manpower resources necessary to face a high-rise fire, and so can’t afford to have unprotected high-rise buildings.
Our state has already witnessed tragic high-rise fires where comprehensive fire sprinklers could have made the difference between life and death. Examples such as Seton Hall, Phillipsburg, Belmar and Asbury Park in New Jersey, combined with lessons of high-rise fire fatalities in New York and Philadelphia, prove the excessive dangers that these fires pose. Fires in high-rise buildings result in more injuries, more displaced tenants and pose a greater risk of multiple deaths per fire than fires in any other structure according to the National Fire Protection Association.
In the 1980’s, the state mandated fire sprinklers in newly constructed high-rise buildings because the imminent dangers of a potential high-rise fire were understood. While this act for new high-rise fire sprinklers provided economically affordable installation of fire sprinklers for many and has saved valuable lives, it ceased attention on existing high-rise buildings. Today, 470 high-rise buildings statewide, including 11 high-rises in Elizabeth, Linden and Rahway, still lack complete fire sprinkler protection.
While the state feels strongly about seeking alternatives, fire sprinklers continue to be the most effective and cost-efficient means for saving lives and property from fire. Many in our fire service have experienced fires where concrete construction and passive fire protection measures alone were not enough to properly keep fires from spreading and properly protect lives. These safeguards do not mitigate the risk to building residents, firefighters and first responders who put their lives on the line in responding to these dangerous incidents, as effectively as they do combined with fire sprinklers. Fire sprinklers in high-rise buildings have already saved lives in the last year, from a high-rise dormitory fire at Montclair State University to a residential apartment high-rise on Timber Ridge in Neptune, where the fire sprinklers immediate action to suppress the fire resulted in zero fatalities and zero significant injuries. Fire sprinklers remain the most effective and economical life safety device. To date, there has never been a multiple loss of life in a building with a fully installed and well-maintained fire sprinkler system.
While recent regulations have expired, time continues to run out for New Jersey family and firefighter safety. The State, the fire service community and building owners need to keep high-rise building fire safety a priority now and take action. We strongly urge Commissioner Doria to fulfill his promise, for the Department of Community Affairs to keep high-rise fire sprinkler retrofit a priority, and to work with the New Jersey Fire Commission and other involved parties as soon as possible to make proper high-rise fire sprinkler protection a reality before it’s too late.
Arthur Londensky is the president of the New Jersey Fire Prevention & Protection Association and a member of the New Jersey Fire Commission.