How (or whether) to evacuate a non-combustible apartment building

| January 13, 2014
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A firefighter. From Wikimedia Commons.

An apartment fire in New York City on the morning of January 5th resulted in the death of a 28-year-old man and put his husband in the hospital in critical condition. The young man’s untimely death is made all the more tragic by the fact that the fire was not in his apartment — it was, in fact, 20 floors below him. The two men were overcome by toxic smoke eleven floors above the blaze,  and if they had stayed in their home they would most likely be alive today.

The Strand, a 42 story condominium apartment building built in 1989 on West 43rd street near the Hudson river, is, in the language of the New York City Fire Department, a “non-combustible” building. That means the structural components of the building — the beams that support the structure, the floors and load bearing walls — are made of materials that don’t burn or have been treated to make them fire resistant. Non-combustible buildings won’t let a fire spread from one apartment to another as long as doors to hallways and stairways remain closed.

During the fire some residents called 911. The emergency operator informed them that they were safer inside with the door closed than in the hallways and stairwells where smoke and heat from the fire can spread. Nadja Atwal and her husband Mickey tweeted that firefighters in the hallway told them to stay inside. She said, “Hubby, son and me seem safe on the balcony.”

Sadly, other residents smelled the smoke and heard their neighbors’ cries and bolted. Resident Maria Lupiano said, “I smelled smoke and I didn’t know where it was coming from. I didn’t know where the fire was so I just said, ‘Let’s go right away.” Another resident, Maria D’Angelo, said, “I was thinking of 9/11 the whole time,” she said. “A fire in a high-rise. I thought of all those people that were upstairs, and did not go downstairs. And so I rushed downstairs.”

Though panic during a fire is completely understandable (it is the primordial fear baked into most terrestrial creatures), former FDNY deputy chief and current president of the New York Fire Safety Institute Jim Bullock, says “The problem is people smell smoke and they run out the door but they’re running out where the danger is.”

Fight or flight can lead you right to the heart of danger, and oftentimes the best action is to sit tight. Bullock points out that an apartment building’s management must send out an updated fire safety guide each year, but after that it is the residents’ responsibility to know what to do in case of an emergency. Here are the official guidelines produced by the New York City Fire Department that can save your life if there is a fire in your non-combustible apartment building:

The fire in a non-combustible Hell's Kitchen high rise..

The fire in a “non-combustible” Hell’s Kitchen high rise. From NYMag.

1. Stay inside your apartment and listen for instructions from firefighters unless conditions become dangerous.

2. If you must exit your apartment, first feel the apartment door and doorknob for heat. If they are not hot, open the door slightly and check the hallway for smoke, heat or fire.

3. If you can safely exit your apartment, follow the instructions above for a fire in your apartment.

4. If you cannot safely exit your apartment or building, call 911 and tell them your address, floor, apartment number and the number of people in your apartment.

5. Seal the doors to your apartment with wet towels or sheets, and seal air ducts or other openings where smoke may enter.

6. Open windows a few inches at top and bottom unless flames and smoke are coming from below. Do not break any windows.

7. If conditions in the apartment appear life-threatening, open a window and wave a towel or sheet to attract the attention of firefighters.

8. If smoke conditions worsen before help arrives, get down on the floor and take short breaths through your nose. If possible, retreat to a balcony or terrace away from the source of the smoke, heat or fire.

Category: Emergency

About the Author ()

Will Kenton is a writer and educator who lives in Brooklyn, NY. He writes on theatre, culture and society.

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