Fast moving high-rise fires, have fire safety experts at the National Fire Safety Association (NFPA) concerned and investigating a variety of metal panels used to construct the exterior of buildings.
“This is a global issue,” said NFPA’s Robert Solomon. “We have seen these fires occur essentially on every continent now.”
Chicago’s skyline reveals plenty of metal-paneled buildings. Do they have a flammable core, similar to what is on the River East Center, or a fire retardant core? The Department of Buildings for the City of Chicago, is trying to figure out the best way to investigate and answer the question. They have not found any yet.
“Not yet, but we are just now developing criteria of what we are looking for in studying it,” said Building Commissioner Judy Frydland. “What we should be concerned about.”
Many buildings in the U.S., and overseas, should be investigated says the NFPA which creates fire safety codes.
“We suspect that there are perhaps, you know, dozens in some jurisdictions,” said Solomon. “Maybe hundreds of buildings that might have material that’s suspect.”
Solomon says the use of metal panels really began in the late 1980s, but stricter codes were not put in place until around 2000. And he says older buildings often failed to maintain plans and specifications about the materials they used.
An Atlantic City hotel burned in 2007, before it was completed. Combustible panels were blamed for helping fuel the blaze. The same thing was true at the Marina Torch building in Dubai, which burned twice in two years.
Grenfell Towers in London caught fire this summer, prompting the government to test 600 metal-clad buildings. They found at least 250 with combustible panels and not just Reynobond PE. Other companies manufacture these panels too.
“Probably at least 20 globally,” said Solomon.
It is hard to know if any of these products were used on Chicago high-rises, the building department says some paper records were only saved for seven years. The department now uses an online permit and inspection system.
The city did not know until now about the combustible panels on the River East Center complex, and now they must determine if there are other high-rises with the same potential danger.
“My concern is going forward,” said Frydland. “What do we do to keep our residents safe.”
The city plans to use a risk assessment toolkit being created by the National Fire Protection Association. When building material records no longer exist, building owners can use this toolkit to help identify and evaluate the metal panels. The toolkit also will give options for dealing with flammable panels.