Darwish: Faux fire walls lead to tragedy

The day after the tragic explosion in West, which displaced dozens of people, an apartment fire in North Houston displaced nearly 40 residents. Last December in Austin, an apartment complex fire destroyed 68 units, displacing 80 residents. More recently, in February this year, another apartment complex fire in Austin destroyed or damaged all 24 units, displacing 27 people. Earlier in April an apartment fire in San Antonio displaced the residents of 27 units.

Every year, in fact, hundreds of Texas families are displaced by multi-family structure fires, albeit without the shock, drama and media attention of the massive explosion in West. The failure of many Texas cities to adopt zoning ordinances, development standards and building codes that require the use of masonry exterior walls and masonry fire walls contributes mightily to our fire problem in Texas.

In the fourth quarter of 2012, according to the Texas State Fire Marshal, there were 382 multi-family structure fires statewide, which resulted in estimated property loss of almost $10.2 million, three civilian deaths, five firefighter injuries, and 22 civilian injuries. If we assume conservatively that on average five people are displaced by each multi-family structure fire, it would total more than 1,900 displaced people per quarter statewide.

Fires happen, but the absence of fire walls allows fires to spread beyond the room of origin. Consequently, dozens of families can suddenly find themselves homeless through no fault of their own.

According to a report for the National Fire Protection Association:

• In 2011, the latest available data year, there were roughly 95,500 multi-family structure fires in the U.S., which resulted in 415 civilian deaths, 4425 civilian injuries, and an estimated $1.168 billion in direct property damage.

• Of the multi-family structure fires nationwide, only 10 percent spread beyond the room of origin, but that 10 percent accounted for 81 percent of total property damage for the category.

The report also shows that in apartment fires where fire spread beyond the room of origin in years 2006-2010, structural framing (23 percent) and exterior wall covering or finish (11 percent) contributed the most to fire spread. In other words, these are combustible dwellings.

Here’s a radical idea: Let’s build dwellings that actually protect the occupants from fires. The fundamentals of fire safety design are pretty straightforward:

• Prevention: reduce fire risk through good housekeeping, education and building layout.

• Detection and alarm: warning devices, like smoke detectors.

• Suppression: sprinklers, fire extinguishers or other suppression systems to help control fires quickly.

• Containment: masonry fire walls can isolate and contain fire, toxic smoke and gases; allows for safe evacuation of residents and access for fire fighters.

The first two elements are widely accepted and cost little. A few business groups have fought efforts to require sprinkler systems in new construction because of the cost, but some cities wisely have implemented the requirement anyway.

So what about masonry fire walls? (Actually, the term “masonry fire wall” is redundant, because for insurance purposes, the only true fire wall is one made out of masonry — usually steel-reinforced concrete block or brick.) Masonry simply does not burn, and the combination of fire walls and sprinklers can prevent fires from spreading at all.

Developers generally oppose requirements for masonry fire walls. They claim such walls are too costly and are unnecessary. They prefer “fire-resistant” barriers, such as coated wallboard. Unfortunately, such barriers offer little resistance under real-world conditions. And studies have shown that the cost difference for a masonry fire wall versus non-masonry “fire-resistant” barrier is minimal.

The case for requiring masonry fire walls for all new multi-family structures (apartments, condominiums, town houses) is so strong, you have to wonder why don’t cities already require them? Why don’t builders and developers just include them in projects without being required to do so?

Bottom line: consumers — renters and townhouse/condominium buyers — must understand the importance of masonry fire walls and show developers that this is an important selling point. The public also must pressure local officials to step up and require masonry fire walls in all new multi-family structures, so lives no longer are lost or disrupted by fires that spread beyond the room of origin.

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