Wind, fire & high-rises: firefighters & engineers conduct research to combat a lethal threat

In December 1998, three New York City firefighters were making their way along a corridor to reach a burning apartment on the top floor of a Brooklyn building. The occupant had fled and left the door open. The firemen were trying to reach the apartment to close the door. That would give them a measure of control over the situation. It would reduce heat in the corridor, and let them and their colleagues get into position to fight the fire as they had been trained to do. As the three men headed toward the open door, the exterior windows of the burning apartment failed, exposing the fire to the wind. About the same time, the occupant of an apartment at the far end of the hall, about 50 feet away and behind the firefighters, opened the door to the corridor. The windows of that apartment, which was on the left side of the building, were open. The heat of the fire traveled down the hallway toward the far apartment and overwhelmed the three firemen in its path. The official cause of death was termed “thermal shock.”

The heat in the corridor had grown so intense that their bodies had shut down. They had no time to escape. The firefighters were following the procedures they had been taught. In the words of Jerry Tracy, a New York Fire Department battalion chief who would describe the incident years later, “They were doing their job.” But no one expected the wind to drive the fire the way it did. There was little fuel in the hallway but paint. There was also little understanding of the influence of wind on a high-rise fire.

It is to avoid tragedies like this one that the researchers from the Polytechnic Institute of New York University, and the Building and Fire Research Laboratory of the National Institute of Standards and Technology are working with the fire departments of New York City and Chicago to study the dynamics of wind-driven fires. A better understanding of these types of fires will improve safety for firefighters and building occupants, and will guide the development of new training techniques and methods to combat wind-driven fires.

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