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Debating Fire Sprinkler Codes After New Jersey Blaze

Fire safety experts have invoked the fire as an example of conflagration hazards and the need for code reform.

In January 2015, a massive fire in Edgewater, N.J., demonstrated that buildings with sprinkler systems are not always protected against fire. The blaze destroyed 240 residential apartments and displaced 500 people from the Edgewater Avalon apartment building. The fire began when a maintenance worker’s plumbing torch accidentally ignited wooden wall studs, and flames quickly spread throughout the structure.

Fifteen minutes passed before workers called the fire department. In that time, the fire spread throughout combustible void spaces (between walls and floors) and soon engulfed the building. Emergency personnel from 35 different cities and towns ultimately responded to the incident. Thankfully, there were no fatalities.

Immediately after the blaze, people asked why the fire was so devastating. The building had sprinklers, after all. Shouldn’t the sprinkler system have extinguished the fire? To make matters worse, this building had already burned down 15 years prior during its construction. Didn’t the builders have to meet strict code requirements with new construction? The answer surprised many residents and lawmakers: Construction codes did not require full sprinkler protection, and allowed for lightweight wood trusses that, in a fire, are prone to early collapse without warning.

Sprinkler Requirements
In Edgewater, like in other cities, building codes from the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) determine sprinkler requirements. With large apartment buildings like the Edgewater Avalon, sprinkler regulation either falls under NFPA 13 (Standard for the Installation of Sprinkler Systems) or NFPA 13R (Standard for the Installation of Sprinkler Systems in Low-Rise Residential Occupancies) depending on the size and usage of the building. Simply stated, the difference between these regulations is that NFPA 13 requires full sprinkler protection and NFPA 13R requires less. The Edgewater Avalon was designed to meet the less-demanding NFPA 13R requirements.

NFPA 13 sprinkler systems have two goals: protecting the life safety of occupants and confining/extinguishing the fire. In NFPA 13 buildings, sprinklers are required in residential areas, commercial areas, combustible void spaces (between walls and floors), closets, bathrooms, attics, etc. In firefighter terms, NFPA 13 buildings are “fully sprinklered.” This type of protection is mandatory in certain types of buildings such as high rises, fraternities/sororities, hospitals and nursing homes.

The obvious downfall is that NFPA 13 protection systems are expensive. Installation costs are high, maintenance can be onerous and sprinklers can burst by accident. Newer buildings may even require installation of water storage tanks to feed the sprinklers during a water main break. Critics also claim that excessive sprinkler regulation is a symptom of “too much government” and that sprinkler costs outweigh the benefits. Developers therefore design buildings that maximize construction potential, but do not require NFPA 13 regulation. As such, developers look to construct buildings, such as the Edgewater Avalon, that fall under NFPA 13R.

Unlike its code counterpart described above, NFPA 13R requirements have a single goal: to protect the safety of occupants as they exit a burning building. These 13R buildings are required to have sprinklers in residential and commercial areas, but not combustible void spaces, closets, bathrooms or attics. In firefighter terms, NFPA 13R buildings are “partially sprinklered.” As the code’s name suggests, 13R protection applies to “residential occupancies up to and including four stories in height.” This includes apartment buildings, hotels/motels, large single-family homes and some mixed-use (commercial and residential) buildings. These buildings may be exceptionally large (the Edgewater Avalon complex had 408 total apartments) and built entirely of wood.

With NFPA 13R systems, builders and owners save money. The cost to construct an NFPA 13R sprinkler system is significantly lower than NFPA 13. There are fewer sprinklers, potentially less maintenance, potentially less damage from accidentally burst sprinklers and smaller water storage tanks, if any. As seen in the Edgewater Avalon, builders can even combine 13R sprinklers with inexpensive, lightweight wood trusses. Wood construction costs significantly less than noncombustible steel and concrete. The difference is that wooden members are combustible, and in fires lightweight trusses are prone to early collapse without warning.

Rebuilding After the Fire
In the aftermath of the Avalon blaze, Edgewater Borough is calling for change. After two large fires in the Avalon, the Borough’s mayor, fire chief and zoning board were eager to see the building rebuilt differently. Specifically the zoning board has focused on two issues: increasing sprinkler protection and the use of noncombustible construction materials.

The board has been partially successful in achieving these goals. Although building codes have not significantly changed since the Edgewater Avalon fire, the developers have offered some concessions on the new development that go beyond code requirements. Based on a September 2016 zoning board meeting, developers are planning to rebuild the Avalon complex with some fire safety improvements, including:

•    Sprinklers added to combustible void spaces
•    New masonry fire walls (to prevent horizontal fire spread by dividing the building into sections)
•    More fire department connections (to supply the sprinkler system)

Despite these improvements, safety concerns remain. The new structure will still be built with lightweight wood materials. The new building will match the site plan of the old building, with the same number of residential units. And finally, fire walls in the Avalon plans are designed to be hollow structure — arguably ineffective at preventing fire spread.

On a national level, fire safety experts have invoked the Edgewater Avalon blaze as an example of conflagration hazards and the need for code reform. Author Glenn Corbett refers to large-scale wooden structures like the Avalon as “toothpick towers” that are too large and potentially unsafe because of inadequate fire codes. Corbett describes the predominant fire hazards of toothpick towers: unsprinklered void spaces; combustible, lightweight load-bearing materials; lack of adequate fire walls; pedestal garages (built below the apartment complex); and living areas that are inaccessible to fire department ladders, hoses and apparatus. Corbett sarcastically claims that the “R” in NFPA 13R refers to “roulette,” because of the uncertainty that fire protection is sufficient in these buildings.

New Jersey legislators have also invoked the Edgewater Avalon fire as a reason to change the state’s building codes by augmenting NFPA requirements. In 2015, the New Jersey Assembly and Senate passed bills that would mandate fire sprinklers in one- and two-family homes. Gov. Chris Christie vetoed the law. In another instance, Assemblyman Scott Rumana sponsored a bill that would stop construction and approval of lightweight wood truss multifamily buildings until codes are changed. This bill was referred to committee.

New Jersey lawmakers advanced various other proposals. State Sen. Brian Stack sponsored a bill that would expand the use of NFPA 13 requirements, limit the size of lightweight wood truss buildings and toughen fire wall requirements. Assemblyman Joseph Lagana and Assemblywoman Maria Rodriguez-Gregg jointly proposed a similar bill. Assemblyman John Wisniewski advanced legislation to improve sprinkler protection standards and limit lightweight wood construction in buildings like the Edgewater Avalon. These proposals have also been referred to legislative committees.

Another fire code reform movement has showed more promise in the New Jersey Legislature. Identical bills were introduced in both the state Senate (as S1632) and Assembly (as A3770), each with multiple sponsors. The proposed legislation aims to prevent new construction of buildings similar to the Edgewater Avalon. Primarily the bill would prohibit certain residential lightweight wood construction in densely populated areas. In other areas, when lightweight wood construction is used, the following restrictions would apply:

•    Each story is limited to 7,000 total square feet
•    A maximum of three stories or 40 feet from ground level is permitted
•    Structures must have a fire separation of at least 30 feet
•    Automatic sprinklers must meet NFPA 13 requirements
•    A fire watch guard must be present 24 hours per day during construction; and
•    The building owner must provide notice to all residents of the fire safety hazards of lightweight wood construction.

That fate of this bill and fire code reform proposals in the state legislature is uncertain. S1632 and A3770 were both sent to committee. However, the debate over fire code is sure to continue. Every three years, New Jersey reviews and updates its building codes. The next such review is scheduled for 2018. In the meantime, New Jersey’s fire sprinkler requirements remain unchanged and builders continue to construct large, multifamily buildings with lightweight wood trusses and NFPA 13R sprinkler systems. In terms of the Avalon, Edgewater Mayor Michael McPartland has stated, “Legally, and this is really insane, they can build back today exactly what they had there, according to state rules.”

Brian Crimmins is a battalion chief and tour commander in the Hoboken Fire Department in New Jersey. He has an MPA from John Jay College and a B.A. from Boston College.

Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology and Emergency Management magazines from 2011 to mid-2015.