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Fire sprinkler safety assumptions dumb down life and death matters

If recent columns on encouraging White House, Departments of Labor, Transportation and Treasury, and the Environmental Protection Agency actions haven’t made the case, here’s another reason for concrete interests to respect President Donald Trump: He is versed on one of the principal value propositions of cast-in-place, precast or masonry load-bearing assemblies.

He demonstrated fire confinement or containment acumen in response to a four-alarm blaze of on the 50th floor of Trump Tower in New York City. The early-April incident was confined to an 1,100-sq.-ft. condominium, owing to reinforced concrete construction. It took the life of the property’s owner and engaged nearly 200 Fire Department of New York firefighters and EMS responders. In a social media dispatch during the fire service operation, President Trump characterized his Fifth Avenue namesake property as “Very confined (well built building).”

Confinement or containment through the use of noncombustible structural and enclosure materials fosters what building code professionals view as passive fire protection—in contrast to active protection or suppression measures led by automatic sprinkler installation. Sprinklers are lacking in the upper levels of the 58-story Trump Tower, which rose in the early 1980s as one of the city’s first high rises of all concrete design.

Media covering the condominium fire seized on the absence of active protection and President Trump’s past opposition to fire sprinkler retrofit mandates for high-rise residential units pre-dating a New York City building code change requiring such devices. In a follow up fire report, the New York Daily News visited with former Trump Organization Vice President Barbara Res, who contended that fire sprinklers would not have saved the condominium owner’s life. “Sprinklers protect buildings. Smoke detectors protect people,” she told the paper, adding that by the time sprinklers activated in the 50th floor unit, the owner “might already have succumbed to smoke inhalation.”

The Trump Tower fire occurred days into the third year of the National Ready Mixed Concrete Association’s Build with Strength coalition. Assisted by outside public affairs counsel, it has grown to encompass community organizations, fire safety professionals, engineers, architects and industry experts committed to strengthening building codes and ensuring greater access to secure housing.

Build with Strength responds to the perpetual fires plaguing three- to six-story wood frame, multi-family residential properties—occupied or under construction—and provides media with basic building safety perspective lacking in the Trump Tower coverage. While a well-contained fire at 600 feet in a reinforced concrete building differs sharply from the typical low- to mid-rise building incident on the Build with Strength radar, both are reminders of a mistaken assumption on life safety: Fire sprinklers rule the day.

The Trump Tower incident elicited a kneejerk reaction surrounding active fire protection. Many of the wood-frame properties Build with Strength is tracking, on the other hand, secured permits with the pretense that automatic fire sprinklers are an acceptable substitute to a prevalence of noncombustible load-bearing materials. If the fire service is ever dispatched to one of the current generation of three- to six-story wood structures, will members of the media—many of them targets of Build with Strength communications and outreach—crow about demonstrably inadequate, combustible materials? Will their zeal match that of the inquiry into a tragic, but thoroughly contained fire in a Trump Tower condominium for which a sprinkler installation would fail basic cost-benefit analyses?