Fire accidents cause a lot of damages including loss lives and property. Fires can be prevented through improving the building process, and through preventive measures. One Meridian Plaza fire is one of the most significant fires that have affected Highrise buildings in the United States’ history. The fire caused a loss of three firefighters, destroyed eight floors of a 38-storey building, and loss of property worth hundreds of millions of US dollars. This paper will focus on the causes of the fire, and the issues that were not taken into consideration while the building was constructed. By considering these factors, there are lessons learned that could be taken into consideration in the future. It will help to serve for future designs, and how buildings can be safeguarded from excessive fire damages. The most crucial thing that was learned from the fire is the systems that were installed and how they were vulnerable to fire. There were common issues that could have helped prevent the fire. One of the signals that were discovered earlier is the loss of electrical power in the building. There was a loss of electrical fire in the early days before the fire broke out. There was also failure of stand-by generator when the fire broke out. There was also the failure of standpipe which had been installed in the building. This failure resulted in the outcome of the fire. The only thing that worked and saved the fire from further spreading was the automatic sprinkler systems. The fire started on the 22nd floor of Meridian plaza high-rise building in Philadelphia. The cause was as a result of piles of rags that had been soaked with linseed oil. They were left by the contractor. The rest of the paper will focus on the causes and the nature of the building that could have caused the fire and failed the rescue process.
There are some issues that were not addressed in the building while it was under construction. These are the issues that are considered to have contributed to the fire. One of the issues is the building that had not factored in some issues. The greatest concern after the fire took place was the safety of the building and whether the building was fit for occupancy. The spray-on roofing had done well so that it protected most of the structural steel. After the fire, it was clear that columns were supporting the building without any problem. They were found to be standing still. There was also the help from the exterior structure of the building which was built using granite curtain wall panels. One problem that was realized after the fire is girders and beams. The girders and beams sagged because of the heat that was got from the fire.
The building lacked in structural fire designs. The floor assemblies like the girders and the beams. The building had followed the requirement of exposure of the floor to the fire from one side only. There is a need to integrate situations where the floor will be exposed to fire from both sides. This will require concern to be put in place. In the fire, the steel columns were exposed to fire from both sides, and they were designed that way. That is the reason why they remain intact. The steel columns are the least vulnerable when dealing with fire vulnerability in high-rise buildings. Perhaps this lacked in the construction of the floors. The building law requires that horizontal assemblies follow the requirement stated in section 508.4 of the international building code.
There were also issues with the fire protection assemblies. There was a need to address the poke-throughs and voids in fire separation assemblies. This oversight presented some issue, and problem while the fire continued. While the building was constructed, there were openings left between the partitions enclosing the electrical equipment on the floor. These openings enabled the fire to spread fast and damaged the electrical risers. This caused a lot of smoke which caused darkness while the firefighters were in this opening early in the fire. This caused the firefighters to be in darkness which made the operation of firefighting difficult.
Through penetration has been an issue of concern for a long time. This is because of the sensitive nature of their role in fire protection. The building code requires that the openings have fire-protection mechanisms in fire-resistance rated assemblies.
It is crucial to understand how a building has been utilized in order to help in rescue operations. This is one problem that was encountered in One Meridian Plaza building. The occupancy was hard to come by and, therefore, hindering the firefighting operations. There was no initial pre-planning of the building. Pre-planning is the process of getting information about a building and ensuring that, in the event that a fire has occurred, there will be enough information to aid in the rescue operation. This information was not there in the process of fire-fighting. This information should have been used by the fire department in their preparedness about the building. The fire department was not able to get that critical information about the location of the fire protection systems in the building. The availability of such information as standpipes, valves that are used for pressure relieve, and the fire pump were all missing and made the rescue process a difficult one. This information could have helped the firefighters early in their firefighting activities.
Fire protection systems
When One Meridian Plaza building was being constructed, the prevailing building code that was followed was that of Philadelphia Building Code. They required that there be integrated a local fire alarm system in buildings. There was then a need to have manual stations located at each of the exit points within the building. Another requirement was the availability of smoke detectors at supply and return shafts. There was the need to have hose pipes from the domestic water service that could be used for occupant purposes. There was also need to have fire extinguishers that were portable. This would help for occupancy purposes. There was also the installation of dry standpipes that were to be used by fire departments for firefighting purposes.
There were improvements that were made to the building after it was complete. This is because of the improvements and the change of local building code and the fire protection systems. There were improvements by Philadelphia Department of Licenses and Inspections which required that changes be made to the fire code so that life safety would be assured. This was addressed to high-rise buildings for occupants. Some of the amendments include the installation of stair identifications, ways in which stairway re-entry would be made possible, and installation of smoke detections in the path of access towards exit locations. There were problems in the design of the smoke detector system installation. This is because single tenant open plan floors were designed to have smoke detectors while the whole floor did not have smoke detectors. The reason is that they were not considered a common area. It was expected that changes to these designs would be effected after the building code changed in the area. There are no indications that these changes were done.
There was coded manual fire alarm system which was installed in the building. Pull stations were installed in each of the exit stairwells on each floor. There was also the installation of smoke detection in the main supply and return ducts which were located at the floor levels of mechanical processes. There was a need to have amendments due to the changes that were made at the stairway doors and access systems. It was required that the hardware at the stairways doors would allow access to the stairs back to the area of the floor system. Another alternative to this would be that the access would unlock automatically if there was a fire. Perhaps one of the problems that One Meridian Plaza had was that it was allowed to have a variation of these requirements. They were allowed to have doors which were unlocked at intervals of after every three floors.
There was also the installation of public address system for the whole building two years before the fire occurred. The system could serve all stairways, all floors, and elevator machine rooms. The system was installed so that it had the capability of two-way communication in elevators and elevator control rooms. Additional devices that were added later were integrated to the fire alarm system which had already been installed while the building was constructed. Smoke detectors and water floor signals were integrated with their signals.
The response to the fire attack was difficult because of the complexity of the Building Code. There are many systems that had not been built to follow the Building Code of Philadelphia. There was the lack of coordination when the battalions arrived at the incident area. There were different commands that were issued to the place of fire. The first battalion was told to be on the lobby level while the second battalion was told to be on the floor where the fire had occurred. There was the interruption of the attack process because of the lack of electrical power. There was the lack of power because of electricity power. This is because of the damage of electricity control room from the flow where the fire started. The loss of electricity occurred when a heavy heat caused the cable, that is used for insulation, to melt thus resulting in short between the conductor and the main conduit. This tampered with the attack process. The response was affected because of this process that was disturbed. The primary and secondary power feeds were damaged which cause total loss of the commercial power to the building. The generator that was installed for emergency purposes did not generate any electricity. This resulted in the building without power for the entire duration that the attack procedures were undertaken. There were efforts to have the commercial power back, but these efforts were futile.
The fire fighting operations were hampered by the lack of electricity in the place. This made the carrying of the equipment for fire fighting to be hard. The only tools they had in their possession were battery-powered lights. They found it hard to carry equipment because the elevators were not working. Another problem is that the rescue effort for the other firefighters took time. This was caused by the need for the fire fighters to climb 20 floors up the building.
As the attack teams went up the floor towards the 22nd floor, they were hampered by smoke in the stairways. The door to the 22nd floor took the time to be opened. It had been closed, and by the time the fire attackers reached the floor, the door was already blistering from the heat. The time that the fire fighters took to reach the 22nd floor made the fire advance with time. The fire fighters arrived and started making efforts to have the fire stopped. They started connecting the supply lines to the standpipes connections of the building.
The response was also interrupted by water problems. This was caused by the poor quality of the pressure reducing valves that had been installed in the building. They provided pressure which was less than 60psi. This was not enough for the development of effective fire streams.
Loss of lives
Heavy smoke continued to build up in the stairway, in the building, and made the firefighters hard to manage the smoke. The members of the engine 11 were instructed to attempt to open the door so that the stairway could be secured from the heavy smoke. Three team members started this process and went upwards from floor 22. Engine 11 passed a radio signal that there was disorientation of the stairway operating while they were at floor 30. There was an effort to redirect the crew to another stairway in the building.
There was a loss of fire fighting team crew in the incident. The three fire fighting members succumbed to their deaths because of the heavy smoke inhalation. They were pronounced dead after resuscitation efforts were unsuccessful. The dead bodies were hard to be located, but after extensive efforts, they were located on the 28th floor in one of the broken windows.
There was fast spread of fire to other floors because of the lack of control from the 22 floor. With the lack of functioning control systems in most of the floors, it was hard to control the fire in the 23rd to 29th floors. There was the lack of mechanism for controlling the fire, and it spread extremely fast to other floors. The fire was wholly extinguished in the 30 floor because of the presence of fire fighting automatic sprinklers.
The process and effort to extinguish the power were futile because of the lack of many working systems. The fire fighting crew managed to put off the fire when it had reached the 30th floor. The effort to put off the fire was enabled and successful because at the 30 floor, there were automatic sprinklers enabled. They helped put off the fire. The fire was extinguished at each point in which they started. The auto-sprinklers heads were ignited automatically, and the fire was managed to be put off entirely. The spread of the fire in the vertical direction was stopped entirely with the working of the auto-sprinklers. The sprinklers were supplied by the fire department pumpers. The 30 floor was not heavily damaged by the fire, and most of the things that were found in this floor were salvaged. The fire was finally declared under control on the 24 February 1991 at 3.01pm.
Strengths and weakness of the incident command
There was heavy coordination of the incident command from the Philadelphia Fire Department. The incident command was able to apply the different standard operating procedures for high-rise buildings. They had these procedures in place. They were flexible in their operations and tried every strategy to salvage those who were trapped.
There was the lack of communication in the operation because of the lack of systems working. This made the rescue operations and procedures for salvaging the building a hard task.
The logistics process was also a hard process for fire fighting team. This is because with the lack of alternative systems, the team was almost grounded on the effort to stop the fire.
One of the lessons that were learned with this incident is that there should be the installation of standard fire sprinklers in each floor of a high-rise building. Automatic sprinklers helped save the firefighters as the fire was entirely stopped in the building. If there would be no automatic sprinklers, the fire would have continued and probably more casualties would have been encountered.
Another lesson learned is that the design of standpipes should be assessed carefully. There should be standards followed in this process. There was a lack of these procedures followed while designing the building.
Command Safety. Remembering the One Meridian Plaza High-rise Fire. 21 October 2009. 10 February 2014 <http://www.commandsafety.com/2009/10/21/remembering-the-one-meridian-plaza-high-rise-fire/>.
International Building Code Council. International Building Code. 2011. Feb 11 2014 <https://ia700807.us.archive.org/19/items/gov.law.icc.ibc.2012/icc.ibc.2012.pdf>.
Patten, Zach. Looking back at the fire that took 1 Meridian Plaza. 27 February 2013. 10 February 2014 <http://philly.curbed.com/archives/2013/02/27/looking-back-at-the-fire-that-took-1-meridian-plaza.php>.
The Company Officer. One Meridian Plaza High Rise Fire: Twenty Years Ago. 23 February 2011. 10 February 2014 <http://www.thecompanyofficer.com/2011/02/23/one-meridian-plaza-high-rise-fire-twenty-years-ago/>.
US Fire Administration/Technical Report Series. Highrise Office Building Fire: One Meridian Plaza. February 1991. 10 February 2014 <http://www.usfa.fema.gov/downloads/pdf/publications/tr-049.pdf>.