Towering above Charlotte’s recent apartment boom are several high-rise projects in or near uptown that mark a rebounding economy and a desire by young professionals to live in the center city. But with the growth, firefighters see challenges.
Fires in high-rises – buildings over 75 feet – can be some of the most technically challenging to put out. Although high-rise apartments and condos are generally safer than single-family homes, adding hundreds of people on dozens of floors increases complexity for firefighters.
Battalion Chief Kent Davis of the Charlotte Fire Department said the department responds to alarms in commercial high-rises all the time. But, he said: “People aren’t asleep when a fire happens in a commercial building.”
Among the new development, the two SkyHouse towers on North Church Street will have almost 700 apartments between them. Childress Klein plans a 392-unit apartment tower atop the Mint Museum on South Tryon Street. And developer Greystar is planning a 300-unit apartment tower across from Romare Bearden Park.
Charlotte firefighters don’t anticipate increasing staff in the uptown area, which has most of the city’s high-rises. They say most of their safety efforts happen before construction begins. Fire officials and inspectors work with builders on strategies for evacuation stairs, sprinklers and communication equipment that can help residents survive fires, Davis said.
‘Prepare for the worst’
Once firefighters get to the address of a high-rise fire, they’ve still got to get to the floor where the fire is. And their biggest tool – the truck – can’t come with them.
“When you have the truck, you control your variables a whole lot more,” said Capt. Jay Adams, who’s stationed in Fire Station No. 4 at Church and Ninth streets uptown. “If you’re 15 stories up, you don’t have the luxury of going back to the truck for something you’ve forgotten. We’ve got to prepare for the worst.”
The worst includes power lines that might have been severed, elevators that may not work, and water pressure that might not reach the top of a building. Even a breeze through a broken window can feed oxygen to a fire, turning it into a blowtorch of sorts.
And there’s no uniform plan – each high-rise requires a separate plan of attack. What’s the best way to evacuate the building? What’s the best way to ventilate smoke? Is it safer for people to stay in their units, or do they have to get out as quickly as possible?
To further complicate things, of the city’s 150 high-rises, about 20 – including some apartments – are high-risk buildings that don’t have sprinklers or other modern fire suppression technology.
Even modern building codes aren’t always enough to prevent deaths.
In January 2014, Daniel McClung, a New York playwright, died in a high-rise fire when he tried to escape down a stairwell that firefighters were using to vent smoke, according to The New York Times. Had he stayed in his home, he likely would have survived.
Chris Jelenewicz, the senior manager for engineering practices at the Society of Fire Protection Engineers, said the X-factor in high-rise fires is often residents themselves.
“The thing about residential occupancy is that you have people who are sleeping, or under the influence of alcohol,” Jelenwicz said. “You might be resting off a cold or have taken some medicine.”
Despite the challenges, a person is less likely to die or be injured in a fire if he lives in a high-rise.
In a study of fires in apartments, the National Fire Protection Association concluded: “The risks of fire, fire death, and direct property damage due to fire tend to be lower in high-rise buildings than in shorter buildings.”
The buildings can be safer because they’re made of steel and concrete, which don’t burn, and are required to have sprinkler systems to contain fires.
In most cases, if a fire happens in one unit, it’s contained by concrete walls and controlled by sprinklers. In many cases, buildingwide alarms alert people to fires before they’re in serious danger. Some communication systems do more than just blare a siren – they give instructions about what residents should do to remain safe.
People a few floors or a few doors away may not be affected at all. The safest thing to do in some instances is to “defend in place,” stuffing wet towels under doors to prevent smoke from seeping in and following instructions of fire officials.
“Nowadays, they’re all going to have sprinklers,” Davis said. “And concrete doesn’t burn. The fire spread is not as big an issue.”
How they respond
Four engines, four ladders, two battalion chiefs and a heavy rescue truck respond to every high-rise fire alarm.
But Davis says the planning that goes into fighting high-rise fires matters just as much as the numbers.
Before Charlotte hosted the Democratic National Convention, the city did an inventory of all its high-rises.
To illustrate, Davis fired up the laptop computer in his department-issued SUV. He typed in the name of a high-rise near Time Warner Cable Arena. In seconds, he was able to see a game plan of sorts for how to fight a potential fire.
The satellite map identifies where firefighters should connect hoses. It identifies stairwells that go to the roof and ones that will allow occupants to exit the building. Firefighters can access these plans at a fire scene or before responding.
“It’s a ballet,” Davis said. “It’s all orchestrated and planned out ahead of time.”
If there’s a fire in a high-rise
▪ Call 911. In addition to getting firefighters to the scene, the dispatcher can sometimes advise you of the best thing to do in a high-rise fire.
▪ Be familiar with your building’s fire safety plan. Some require residents to evacuate a building. Others say a safer plan is to “defend in place,” as sprinkler systems and fireproof walls and floors will stop the blaze from spreading.
▪ In some high-rises, firefighters designate an attack stairwell and an exit stairwell. Familiarize yourself ahead of time with the best way to get out of the building.
▪ Be patient. It may take hours for a high-rise to be fully evacuated.