The First Interstate Tower had no perimeter fire containment installed.
The First Interstate Tower had no perimeter fire containment installed.

At 10:22 p.m. on May 4, 1988 the first smoke detector sounded on the 12th floor of the 62-story First Interstate Tower in downtown Los Angeles. Over the next four minutes seven more 12th floor detectors went off. Six minutes after the first alarm, a frightening chorus of alarms blared in unison across floors 12 through 30. Four hours later, firefighting officials declared the spectacular First Interstate Tower fire under control, killing one, injuring 40, destroying five floors, and causing $50 million in damages.

It was a horrific tragedy. Yet the disaster yielded many powerful lessons that have helped to inform high-rise building design and construction. Chief among them: The tower’s lack of a passive fire resistive perimeter system helped inspire a generation of fire compartmentation strategies that have improved the safety of the high-rise build environment.

With so many lessons learned and many now code-enforced, a similar calamity is unthinkable in newer or modern buildings, right? Nathan Wittasek, P.E., C.F.E.I., LEED AP, and vice president and principal of Simpson Gumpertz & Heger, a national engineering firm, isn’t so sure.

“The building codes have changed dramatically to give you an ‘atta boy’ for installing an active fire suppression system, like sprinklers,” says the fire protection engineer. “So it’s tempting to relax fire containment standards. But what happens if the sprinklers fail?”

The question isn’t so far-fetched says Wittasek. One good reason why: seismic events.

“Every time I look at a new earthquake I realize how little we know about them. This points out how important a belt-and-suspenders approach is. Sprinklers may not be there to save us.”

Applying fire compartmentation principles to modern building design can be a challenge, given the changing dynamics of materials, systems, sustainability goals, and design innovation.

What fire containment approach is best? What’s best practice? How can tall building design prevent the unthinkable, giving occupants every chance to survive a fire?

The video below offers timely insights from Wittasek.

Owens Corning AIA San Francisco Hightlights

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