Fire Risk Lower in High-Rise Buildings: Report

By | December 29, 2011

Fires in high-rise buildings cause about $230 million in property damage and take more than 50 lives a year.

But high-rise buildings tend to present a lower risk of fire and associated losses than lower-rise building, according to a report by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).

Overall, an estimated 2.6 percent of all 2005-2009 reported structure fires were in high-rise buildings.

According to the report, “High-Rise Building Fires,” in 2005-2009, there were an average of 15,700 reported structure fires in high-rise buildings per year and associated losses of 53 civilian deaths, 546 civilian injuries, and $235 million in direct property damage per year.

Four property classes account for roughly half of high-rise fires: office buildings, hotels, apartment buildings, and facilities that care for the sick. In these four property classes for the 2005-2009 period, there were 7,800 reported high-rise structure fires, 30 civilian deaths and 352 civilian injuries per year. Structure fires in these four property classes resulted in $99 million in direct property damage per year. (The report notes this figure may be somewhat inflated by the influence of one 2008 hotel fire, whose $100 million loss projected to nearly $40 million a year in the analysis.)

The NFPA report emphasizes these four property classes and notes that some other property uses – such as stores and restaurants – may represent only a single floor in a tall building primarily devoted to other uses. Also, some property uses – such as grain elevators and factories – can be as tall as a high-rise building but without a large number of separate floors or stories.

There has been a downward trend in high-rise fires over the last few decades. The trend appears to track with growing use of fire prevention systems including wet pipe sprinklers in tall buildings and changes in building codes and standards. However, the downward tend could also be partially due to fewer large cities participating in the fire reporting system, according to NFPA.

But the report still concludes: “By most measures of loss, the risks of fire and of associated fire loss are lower in high-rise buildings than in other buildings of the same property loss.”

Other findings from the report:

  • Most high-rise building fires begin on floors no higher than the sixth story. The fraction of 2005-2009 high-rise fires that began on the seventh floor or higher was 32 percent for apartments, 22 percent for hotels and motels, 21 percent for facilities that care for the sick, and 39 percent for office buildings. The risk of a fire start is greater on the lower floors for apartments, hotels and motels, and facilities that care for the sick, but greater on the upper floors for office buildings.
  • High-rise apartments have a slightly larger share of their fires originating in means of egress than do their shorter counterparts (4% vs. 3%) but in all four property classes, the differences are so small that there really is no evidence that high-rise buildings have a bigger problem with fires starting in means of egress.

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