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High-rise Office Building Fire One Meridian Plaza Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

LESSONS LEARNED

8-Nationally recognized elevator code requirements for manual control of elevators during fire emergencies work.

Elevator control modifications at One Meridian Plaza were accomplished in accordance with Commonwealth of Pennsylvania requirements based on ANSI/ASME A17.1, Safety Code for Elevators and Escalators. The elevators performed as expected by the standard. The only problem with the elevator response was the decision of the building engineer to override the system to investigate the alarm

9-The ignition source provided by oil-soaked rags is a lone recognized hazard that continues to be a problem.

Had the contractor refinishing paneling on the 22nd floor not carelessly left oil soaked cleaning rags unattended and unprotected in a vacant office, this fire would not have occurred. To pinpoint the particular source of ignition of this fire as the sole cause of the death and destruction that followed is a gross oversimplification. Nevertheless, failure to control this known hazard is the proximate cause of this disaster. The danger of spontaneous heating of linseed oil-soaked rag waste is widely recognized. Each model fire prevention code requires precautions to prevent ignition of such materials. At a minimum, waste awaiting removal from the building and proper disposal must be stored in metal containers with tight-fitting, self-closing lids. Leaving these materials unattended in a vacant office over a weekend was an invitation to disaster. This is both an education and an enforcement problem for fire prevention officials
10-Building security personnel should be vigilant for fire safety as well as security threats, especially while construction, demolition. alteration, or repair activities are underway.

Earlier in the day, the building engineer had become aware of an unusual odor on the 22nd floor which he associated with the refinishing operations which were underway there. When the alarm system activated later that evening he first believed the solvent vapors had activated a smoke detector.

The roving security guard made no mention of anything unusual during his rounds of the fire area earlier in the evening. It is conceivable that no detectable odor of smoke or audible or visible signals of a fire were present when the guard last checked the floor. However, a cursory check is not adequate when construction, demolition, renovations, or repair activities are underway in a building area. Fire hazards are often associated with construction activities, and buildings are especially vulnerable to fire during such operations. For these reasons, it should be standard practice to check these areas even more carefully and thoroughly than usual. All building operating and security personnel should have basic training in fire prevention and procedures to be followed when a fire occurs.

 


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11-Emergency electrical systems must be truly independent or redundant.

Article 700 of the National Electrical Code recognizes separate feeders as a means of supplying emergency power. However, Section 700-12(d) requires these services to be “widely separated electrically and physically...to prevent the possibility of simultaneous interruption of supply.” Installing the primary and secondary electrical risers in a common enclosure led to their almost simultaneous failure when the fire penetrated voids in the walls above the ceiling of the 22nd floor electrical closet. The intense heat melted conductor insulation resulting in dead shorts to ground which opened the overcurrent protection on each service interrupting power throughout the building.

Auxiliary emergency power capability was provided by a natural gas powered generator located in the basement mechanical room. This generator was intended to supply one elevator car in each bank, fire pumps, emergency lighting and signs, and the fire alarm system. However, this generator set failed to produce power when needed. (Generator maintenance records indicated a history of problems; however, the root cause or mechanism responsible for these problems was not identified.)

Supplying the generator from the building natural gas service also left the emergency power system vulnerable in the event of simultaneous failure of the electrical and gas public utilities. The transformers that provided power for the adjacent building were installed in the basement of the One Meridian Plaza Building. These transformers had to be shut down due to the accumulation of water in the basement, resulting in the loss of power to this building as well. As a result the elevators in the adjoining building could not be used.

12. The regulations governing fire-resistance ratings for high-rise structural components should be re-evaluated.

The degree of structural damage produced during the fire at One Meridian Plaza suggests that the requirements for structural fire resistance should be reexamined. Floor assemblies deflected as much as three feet in some places. The fire burning on multiple floors may have produced simultaneous exposure of both sides of these assemblies, which consisted of concrete slabs on corrugated decks, supported by structural steel beam and girder construction, sprayed with cementitious fireproofing materials. The standard fire test for floor and ceiling assemblies involves exposure from a single side only.

Columns and certain other structural elements are normally exposed to fire from all sides. In this fire, the steel columns retained their structural integrity and held their loads. Experience in this and similar high-rise fires suggest that columns are the least vulnerable structural members, due to their mass and relatively short height between restraints (floor to floor). Major damage has occurred to horizontal members, without compromising the vertical supports.

13. Features to limit exterior vertical fire spread must be incorporated in the design of high-rise buildings.

Exterior vertical fire spread or autoexposure can be a significant fire protection problem in construction of high-rise buildings if interior fire growth is unrestricted. Because of the difficulty with retrofitting exterior features to restrict fire spread, the installation of automatic sprinklers to restrict fire growth is the most simple approach to managing this risk in existing buildings. Exterior features to prevent fire spread must usually be designed and built into new buildings. Many modem (international style) and post-modem building designs present difficult exterior fire spread challenges because of their smooth exterior facades and large glazing areas. Variegated exterior facades and larger noncombustible spandrels significantly reduce exterior fire spread effects by increasing the distance radiant and conductive heat must travel to stress exterior windows and to heat materials inside the windows on floors above the fire.

 
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