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A Tale of Two Fires

Schaumburg Fire Marshal Terrence Simale

Submitted by Terrence Simale, Fire Marshal, Schaumburg Fire Department

This is a story of comparisons and contrasts of two similar fires that occurred in Schaumburg in 2012. The fires occurred in two different buildings that were similar in construction (Type I Fire Resistive) and layout. The central core contained the elevator shafts, and the residential wings branched from the core with a stairwell at the far end of each residential wing. The fire cause in both incidents involved the careless use of candles. One fire occurred on the fourth floor of a six-story, 136-unit building, and the other on the sixth floor of a twelve-story, 328-unit high-rise building. Both buildings were equipped with standpipes in the stairwells.

From there, the similarities end. The high-rise building was protected throughout by an NFPA 13 automatic fire sprinkler system, while the six-story building was unsprinklered.

Unfortunately, the fire in the unsprinklered building involved one fatality. The occupant of the fourth-floor unit where the fire originated attempted to extinguish the fire, and in the process was severely burned. The fire originated in the bedroom and spread throughout the unit. The intense heat and smoke also spread into the hallway, making it difficult for resident egress and firefighting operations. Extra alarms were necessary to bring the firefighting resources needed to fight a fire in a large multistory, multifamily occupancy. Firefighters connected their hose packs to the standpipe and led out their lines down the long fourth-floor hallway. Many residents were assisted to the stairwells by firefighting personnel, and several unit doors were forced to search and ventilate. Six units on the fourth floor in the building wing where the fire occurred were left uninhabitable due to heavy smoke and water damage. Several unit entry doors were forced open and windows ventilated during firefighting operations. The third-floor ceiling in the hallway below suffered water damage and needed replacement. Extensive carpet replacement was necessary, and the entire building interior was repainted due to smoke damage. During the course of the incident, the water main in the front of the building ruptured and flooded the first-floor mechanical room, thus complicating operations. Damages totaled in excess of $300,000 dollars.

The fire that occurred in a unit on the sixth floor of the sprinklered high-rise building was also caused by the careless use of candles, but a single fire sprinkler extinguished this fire. The quick sprinkler activation extinguished the fire in its early stage and minimized damage beyond the point of origin.  Heat and smoke damage were minimal, and minor water damage occurred to two units below the fire floor. A fraction of the initial fire response was needed to assist the building staff with salvage operations. Firefighters were not faced with high heat and heavy smoke, and did not need to stretch hose lines, force doors, ventilate windows, evacuate residents, or conduct extensive search and rescue. Occupant displacement was minimized while water removal was performed and carpeting replaced. The amount of damage incurred did not meet the insurance deductible, so no insurance claim was filed. Fortunately, there were no injuries at this incident.

If it were not for the presence of the fire sprinkler system, the outcome of this second fire would have been similar to the fire described earlier.

In 2004, through the effort of Fire Chief David Schumann, the Schaumburg Village Board enacted a fire sprinkler retrofit ordinance for all unsprinklered high-rise buildings. The retrofit ordinance affected five commercial buildings and two residential buildings, one of which was the high-rise building in which one of these fires occurred. The ordinance established timeline benchmarks and a completion deadline. The ownership of the high-rise building where the fire occurred aggressively pursued the retrofit and completed the installation well ahead of the installation timelines.

In conclusion, there were many similarities between the two incidents. Both occurred in large residential buildings of identical construction and layout, and both fires involved the careless use of candles. However, there is one significant difference that affected the outcome – automatic fire sprinklers. One fire was controlled and extinguished by firefighting personnel, while a single fire sprinkler extinguished the other – quite a contrast between two very similar fires.

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