Smoke inhalation is the number one cause of death during fires and is responsible for approximately 70% of all building-related deaths. Breathing in toxic smoke usually incapacitates a person to the point that they cannot make it to their exit route. Fire and life safety systems are required to be maintained by fire and building codes to prevent the spread of smoke and protect building occupants in the case of a fire.
Although one may not think of it as the most deadly, smoke contains particles, vapors, and toxic gases that are extremely harmful to breathe in. Particles of partially or completely burned substances that are small enough to make it into the respiratory system or become lodged in the lungs can make it difficult to breathe. These particles may also get into the eyes, making it difficult to see the path to clean air. Smoke also contains poisonous vapors that can be inhaled or absorbed through the skin. Toxic gases contained in smoke, such as carbon monoxide, are likely the most deadly as they make their way straight to the bloodstream after inhalation.
The best way to reduce the amount of smoke inhalation during a fire is to inspect and test your life safety systems regularly. Ensuring that your smoke and combination fire/smoke dampers will close will prevent smoke from moving through the air ducts, while proper firestopping will prevent smoke from moving across compartments through the walls, ceilings, and floors. Just a small, pencil-sized penetration will allow smoke to fill the next room over in approximately 3 minutes and 40 seconds. There are no “second chances” for life safety systems. They need to be functioning properly at all times to prevent any death or injury in case of a serious emergency.
MGM Grand, Las Vegas – 1980
The MGM Grand fire occurred on November 21, 1980 at the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas NV. The fire started in a restaurant on the second floor, but most of the deaths were on the upper floors of the 23 story hotel and were caused by smoke inhalation. Untreated penetrations in vertical shafts and seismic joints allowed toxic smoke to spread and rise to the upper floors. Faulty smoke dampers also allowed toxic fumes to circulate throughout the hotel’s air ducts and accelerating the distribution of the smoke. The fire killed 87 people and injured 700 others. Had the life safety systems in the building been working as designed, these lives may have been saved.
Montefiore Medical Center, The Bronx – 2011
One “success” story in which life safety systems saved lives was at the Montefiore Medical Center in The Bronx, New York. In 2011, a fire broke out in the basement of the hospital. In a few short minutes, toxic smoke started to make its way through the facility’s ventilation. The life safety systems in place, such as fire/smoke dampers, functioned properly to control the smoke from travelling through to patient rooms and hallways. The fire was also maintained and put out without problems by other life safety systems in place at the hospital. The emergency department at the time of the incident housed approximately 150 patients, adults and children, while the intensive care units cared for about 20 patients. Thanks to the properly functioning life safety systems, the hospital did not experience any serious injuries or death.
Both of these incidents had very different outcomes. While Montefiore was safe, it could have easily escalated to a similar tragedy as the incident at MGM in Las Vegas. Codes and compliance that have been put into place over the years have done their part to helping keep these tragedies at a minimum. However, it is up to facility managers to make sure they are staying up-to-date, so they can avoid any unnecessary tragedies. The 2011 incident in The Bronx could have been a nightmare for the people involved, but from an engineer or facility manager’s standpoint, it played out as a “best-case-scenario” because their life safety systems did not fail them. This instance of passive life safety systems functioning as they should in a real-life emergency is the perfect example of how important it is to maintain the systems in place at your facility.
PREVENT can help you maintain your life safety systems to ensure your facility is prepared in case of a fire. Our technicians understand the importance of doing the job right the first time and go above and beyond to ensure your facility is compliant. Give us a call today at 877-392-6074 to schedule an appointment or request a free quote online.