High-Rise Buildings Without Fire Sprinklers are High Risk

By NFSA President Shane Ray

Unfortunately, I recently found myself contributing to yet another NFSA press release responding to a fatal high-rise fire. On February 18th, a fire broke out on the seventh floor of a Silver Spring, MD residential high-rise that left one dead, dozens injured, and hundreds displaced. This tragic fire in Montgomery County, Maryland, represents the severity of modern-day fire. Thanks to Montgomery County Fire & Rescue, and to Fire Marshal Rick Merck, more people didn’t die in the fire.

Occupants, pets, and firefighters are not safe in a high-rise building of any kind if it doesn’t have a fire sprinkler system installed throughout the building, especially a residential high-rise building. Firefighters are at increased risk in any type of residential fire because of the volume of contents we have in our homes and the synthetic material they are made from. The more floors there are in a residential building, the higher the risk, from a townhouse to a high-rise.

Maryland has led the way in the U.S. for its progressive stance on fire protection. The University of Maryland has one of the best fire protection schools in the country, with graduates living and working around the world to keep people and property safe. This fire occurred in their own backyard. It’s not because the State of Maryland and its great fire departments haven’t tried, it’s because the owners of these high-rise buildings fail to comply with fire department orders, and local and state laws.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Maryland State Fire Marshal Brian Geraci. Brian’s dedication to advocating for fire sprinklers in all residences is exemplary. His response to the fire was quick and to the point. Multiple media outlets published articles that included his comments. One headline says it all: Fire Marshal Says, ‘One Sprinkler Head’ Could Have Prevented Deadly Silver Spring Fire. Take the time to read the article and to say thanks to a true fire sprinkler advocate! Our sincere thanks also go to the State Fire Commission for their consistent efforts in addressing this know hazard.

The Presidents Conference on Fire Prevention in 1947, convened by President Harry S. Truman, and the America Burning report from the National Commission on Fire Prevention and Control in 1973, as well as the 2022 United States Fire Administrators Summit on Fire Prevention and Control, all noted the increased severity of fires. When will we heed the warnings? Why does it take a tragedy to draw attention to America’s fire problem?

I must point out that through the consistent and unrelenting efforts of our team and our partners, advances have been made.

  • The Marco Polo High Rise in Hawaii, scene of a 2017 fire in which four people were killed, and 13 others (including 1 firefighter) were injured, has now been retrofitted with a fire sprinkler system.
  • In Minnesota, Senators Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith introduced and passed the Public Housing Fire Safety Act—that created a program to provide support to public housing authorities who wish to retrofit older high-rise apartment buildings with sprinkler systems.
  • The Bipartisan High-Rise Fire Sprinkler Incentive Act of 2021 amends the tax code to encourage building owners to install sprinklers in their structures erected before fire codes required sprinklers. U.S. Senators Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) and U.S. Representatives Bill Pascrell, Jr. (D-N.J.), John Katko (R-N.Y.), and Marie Newman (D-Ill.) introduced the legislation.

Together with our Partners in Progress, we will continue to advocate for fire sprinklers to be included when building all structures, and for the retrofit of the thousands of unsprinklered high-rises across these United States. We have much work to do.