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Life And Death In A ‘Fireproof’ High-Rise

Grenfell Tower seen in the distance, giving off smoke
Grenfell Tower, June 14, 2017. Photo by Brandon Butterworth.

In June 1969, my family moved into a “fireproof” high-rise building in a new housing project in the Bronx called Co-op City.

Built on the site of the former Freedomland amusement park, the complex included 35 apartment towers ranging from 24 to 33 stories, as well as scattered smaller buildings – a total of 15,372 units housing about 50,000 residents.

My family came from a six-story tenement-style building, also in the Bronx, which had been constructed in the 1920s. Behind the old building’s plaster and lath walls and beneath its hardwood floors was a supporting structure also mainly constructed of wood. Those apartments all had external fire escapes. In the Bronx, traditionally these fire escapes – as well as the rooftops – were where people slept during the height of the New York City summer heat waves. As a youngster, I was never permitted on the fire escape; my brother and I sweltered inside.

Co-op City was different. The apartments had something called “air cooling.” There was no actual compressor unit, but cold water that was chilled at a central power plant was piped to each room, where a blower passed air over a set of baffles to cool the interior. No fire escape required.

Our new apartment was on the 19th floor, with two bedrooms, one bathroom and a balcony. I was taught that in the event of a fire elsewhere in the building, I should stay in the apartment because the fireproof construction would protect me. Of course, as the recent London tragedy makes plain, there is no such thing as a truly fireproof building.

The fire that consumed large portions of Grenfell Tower on June 14 killed at least 79 people, though authorities expected that figure to rise as emergency services continue to search the building. Police have said that some of those killed may never be positively identified. Metropolitan Police Commander Stuart Cundy told interviewers that he hoped the death toll would not reach triple figures.

Grenfell was completed in 1974, only a few years after Co-op City. It had not been retrofitted with sprinklers or a building-wide alarm system in the years since. And, like me, its residents had been encouraged to stay put when there was a fire elsewhere in the building. High-rises with floors and beams made of reinforced concrete, and with partitions made of cinder block or similar materials, are not supposed to spread fires from unit to unit, and especially from floor to floor.

Yet even in a fire less severe than Grenfell, experts say the “stay put” advice is only good to a point. “If you have good fire resistance between flats, there is less risk if you stay in place than if everyone runs out of the building at the same time,” said Sian Berry, chairwoman of the Housing Committee of the London Assembly, according to The New York Times. “But this shouldn’t be applied in a hard and fast manner.”

Prime Minister Theresa May has called for a formal inquiry to ascertain the causes and contributing factors in the disaster. Initial suspicion fell on the recently installed exterior cladding, which may have had combustible material at its core. The cladding might have spread the fire vertically, as well as horizontally, around the building and defeated the purpose of the fire-resistant construction. Composite cladding panels contributed to at least 30 fires in the U.K. in the 1990s, which makes the cladding a plausible culprit, or at least a major contributing factor. But we just don’t know yet.

What we do know is that buildings of this vintage lack many secondary fire defenses that are standard in more modern construction. Today, I have an 18th-floor apartment in a 21st century building in Fort Lauderdale. My unit, like those in the rest of the building, is equipped with interior sprinklers and a public address system, through which I can receive instructions in the event of an emergency. Neither feature was available in Co-op City (or Grenfell). Most modern high-rises also have stairwells equipped with fans to create what is called “positive pressure.” The air pressure inside the stairwell is made greater than the natural air pressure in the corridors; this helps prevent smoke from entering the stairwell and impeding an evacuation. This feature, again, is not standard in the first generation of postwar high-rise offices and apartments.

It is worth noting that overall fire deaths continue to fall in the United States, especially considered as a percentage of the population. In buildings with modern sprinkler systems, the risk has dropped so much that any death by fire in such a building gets a special review by the National Fire Protection Association. And an NFPA report on fires in high-rise buildings between 2009 and 2013 found that, even without sprinkler systems, only 4 percent of fires spread from unit to unit and only 2 percent made it from one floor to another. In other words, while we still have work to do, we have already come a long way in designing high-rise buildings to keep residents safe.

There will doubtless be much discussion in London, and elsewhere, about the wisdom and economics of retrofitting older high-rises with modern safety features. Like Grenfell Tower, Co-op City was a publicly sponsored project, intended for less-affluent families in a wealthier community. There will be those who say that retrofitting is a matter of equity; poor people deserve the same degree of safe housing as rich people. But someone will need to pay for such retrofits and, in some cases, it might be cheaper to tear down an older building and start over.

Given the number of people who live in housing well below the standards of even high-rises built in the ‘60s and ‘70s, or who have no affordable housing options at all, pouring money into these middle-aged buildings is probably not the wisest use of limited funds. But keeping this perspective amid the emotional backdrop of the London tragedy won’t be easy.

Obviously something went dreadfully wrong at Grenfell, and the lessons from the tragedy ought to be learned and applied elsewhere. One possible measure would be tougher restrictions on materials used during refurbishment, along with sufficient inspections to ensure those restrictions are followed. It would also be easy enough, in these days of text messaging, to set up a building-wide text alert system in place of the public address facilities in newer buildings. Clearly alarm systems and strobe lights would not be too difficult to install, either. Such cost-effective steps may be a useful compromise when full retrofitting is economically impossible.

On the other side of the Bronx from Co-op City, my earlier six-story tenement still stands today, complete with fire escapes. As long as people continue to make do with this nearly century-old structure – and many as old or even older – turning our backs on these fireproof high-rises completely is not really any option, even if they are not truly fireproof.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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