The Tragedy of High-Rise Fires

The year 2020 will certainly go down in the history books for many reasons, but we must focus on the future and the positives that 2021 will surely bring us. Benjamin Ignatius Hayes, a pioneer and the first District Judge in Los Angeles, once said:  

The tragedy of life is often not in our failure, but rather in our complacency: not in our doing too much, but rather in our doing too little: not in our living above our ability, but rather in our living below our capacities..”

In November of 2019, we suffered what appeared to be just another tragic high-rise fire in a string of devastating high-rise fires that span decades. We once again began to ask ourselves if this is the one; the one that speaks to the Honorable Judge Hayes’s quote. We have done so much and yet we continue to suffer tragic high-rise fires. The question is not about what has been done, the question is, are we living “above our ability?” The answer is, “No.” This trend continues despite all that we have accomplished in the model codes. 

An intense blaze in a high-rise fire took the lives of five citizens living in a building managed by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. The fire was a striking example of an at-risk group living in subsidized housing without the benefit of basic life safety protection.  This tragic Minnesota fire prompted action from national legislators to advance the benefits of automatic fire sprinkler and tax incentives for retrofitting. In a letter to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the senators stated: 

“Fire sprinkler systems are widely recognized as essential elements of fire safety. Properly installed sprinklers on all floors of the building may have mitigated the devastation caused by this fire. ”

And yet, on the one-year anniversary of the tragic fire, the building remains occupied without the protection of an automatic fire sprinkler system. The representatives’ say they will re-introduce legislation to require all Minnesota high-rises to be retrofitted with automatic fire sprinkler systems. We applaud these legislators for their continued commitment to support mandatory legislation and tax incentives, but we also must recognize that the issue continues to exist.   

NFSA tax incentives (Cares Act) 

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) took a big step towards addressing these fires with the adoption of the 1997 Edition of NFPA 1-Fire Prevention Code. The code prescribes the minimum requirements necessary to establish a reasonable level of fire safety and life safety from the hazards created by fire, explosion, and dangerous conditions. The Technical Committee targeted residential high-rise buildings lacking automatic fire sprinklers as an undo hazard and acted. The 1997 Edition of the Fire Prevention Code and all subsequent editions have continued to require all high-rise buildings to be fully protected with automatic fire sprinkler systems within 12 years of the adoption of th1997 Edition.  

High-rise Retrofit Guide

NFSA Guide on ELSS 

It has been nearly 34 years since the original requirement, of a minimum safety standard that required the retro fit of high-rise buildings, with automatic fire sprinkler. Seven editions have come and gone, but the requirement remains and yet strongly ignored and avoided. A minimum national safety standard is not optional, nor should we allow it to be ignored by those that are responsible for the enforcement of minimum safety requirements.

So here we are, moving into 2021 and refusing to continue to do “too little” and striving towards reaching above our abilities. The International Codes Council technical committees, citing recent fatal fires, have joined the challenge with the 2021 edition of the Internal Fire Code (IFC) taking additional steps where high-rise is concerned. The new addition simply moved the long time non-enforceable Appendix M to the main body of the standard, setting in motion enforceable requirements for the retro fitting of high-rise building with automatic fire sprinkler systems. The code will require Authorities Having Jurisdiction (AHJ) to notify building owners of the change and the owner will be required to establish a plan of action for compliance, within one year of notification. The AHJ will have enforcement authority over the process which must be completed within 12 years.

The 2021 edition of NFPA 1 Fire Code will also take an additional bold step in the requirement of a public disclosure sign on all high-rises not protected throughout with automatic fire sprinkler systems. Signage shall be posted at all main building entrances approved by the AHJ. The sign will be at least one-inch lettering placed on a contrasting background stating:


This high-rise building is not protected throughout with an automatic fire sprinkler system

The recent tragic fires we see across the nation and abroad continue to make us question if we are living up to our abilities.Again, no, but we will continue to strive above our abilities in our goal to make the world a safer place. 

It has been nearly 34 years since the original requirement of a minimum safety standard that required the retrofit of high-rise buildings with automatic fire sprinkler. Seven editions have come and gone, but the requirement remains and yet is strongly ignored and avoided. A minimum national safety standard is not optional, nor should we allow it to be ignored by those that are responsible for the enforcement of minimum safety requirements. 


 So here we are, moving into 2021refusing to continue to do “too little” and striving towards reaching above our abilities. The International Codes Council technical committees, citing recent fatal fires, have joined the challenge with the 2021 edition of the Internal Fire Code (IFC), taking additional steps where high-rise is concerned. The new addition simply moved the long time non-enforceable Appendix M to the main body of the standard, setting in motion enforceable requirements for the retrofitting of high-rise building with automatic fire sprinkler systems. The code will require Authorities Having Jurisdiction (AHJs) to notify building owners of the change, and the owner will be required to establish a plan of action for compliance within one year of notification. The AHJ will have enforcement authority over the process, which must be completed within 12 years.  


The 2021 edition of NFPA 1 Fire Code will also take an additional bold step in the requirement of a public disclosure sign on all high-rises not protected throughout with automatic fire sprinkler systems. Signage shall be posted at all main building entrances approved by the AHJ. The sign will be at least one-inch lettering placed on a contrasting background stating: