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The hot topic of high-rise fire prevention

by and

The fire that killed at least 80 people in London’s Grenfell Tower in June, as well as similar apartment building blazes that recently occured in Dubai and Hawaii, has brought the world’s attention to the issue of safety in high-rise residences.

Grenfell Tower was relatively old and it’s been reported that the exterior materials used were inappropriate and directly caused the fire to spread upward along the outside of the 24-story building. Dubai’s unfortunately named Torch Tower, however, is a brand-new luxury condo, and while no one died as a result of the fire, the fact that the conflagration so quickly raged out of control calls into question just how safe residents of skyscrapers are, even with all the knowledge we have of structures and fire prevention.

These questions are especially relevant in Tokyo, where construction of high-rise apartment buildings has been proceeding at a rapid pace for the last two decades. The local news media has shied away from examining the safety of Japan’s so-called tower mansions, even as they breathlessly covered the London fire, but public broadcaster NHK did address the matter on its explanation series, “Jiron Koron,” in early August. The mention was, however, mainly in relation to the Grenfell Tower fire.

Using a diagram of the building, the NHK announcer explained that there was only one stairway in Grenfell and it was located in the center of the building. Since Grenfell was not equipped with fire doors, which when closed, can stop fire and smoke from spreading throughout the floor of a building, the one stairwell filled with deadly smoke. The program also talked about the exterior of the building. Basically, it was the insulation behind the exterior panels that ignited so readily.

According to NHK, there haven’t been many apartment fires in Japan that spread the way the Grenfell fire did, and none as deadly. Though there are no specific national regulations in Japan governing the materials used for exterior panels and insulation, the panels themselves must be at least 90 centimeters thick to discourage the spread of flames. Also, almost all collective housing buildings in Japan have verandas, one of the purposes of which is to make the spread of fire more difficult since they act as vertical fire breaks. In those rare high-rise apartments that don’t have verandas, exterior panels must be more than 90 centimeters thick.

NHK talked to experts and building-material manufacturers, and some said that Japan’s lack of nationwide regulations governing exteriors and insulation (many local governments have their own rules) is worrisome. Just because there has been no major debacle like Grenfell doesn’t mean it can’t happen here. Many manufacturers, however, told NHK that they test their insulation thoroughly to ensure fire-retardancy. The implication is that not all manufacturers do this. Apparently, the construction ministry is currently studying the Grenfell fire to see what new regulations may be needed.

According to current Japanese law, an apartment building is considered a high rise (kōsō) if it is more than 31 meters tall, or about 11 stories. Buildings that are higher than 96 meters are classified as extreme high rises (chōkōsō). The first high-rise apartment in Japan, 18 stories, was built by the construction company Kajiwa Corp. in 1974 as a family residence for its employees, and the first extreme high-rise condominium — 36 stories — was built in Osaka in 1987.

Between 2003 and 2013, the number of buildings in Japan of 15 stories or more increased by a factor of 2.6. Consequently, the number of high-rise fires also increased. There were 908 such fires in 2015 that occurred in tall buildings, 477 of them condominiums. There were another 689 cases that occurred in buildings of between 11 and 15 stories.

The closest thing to a Grenfell-like fire happened in 1996 in a 20-story building in Hiroshima. The fire started on the ninth floor and spread all the way up to the top floor. The main reasons were the laundry left to dry on verandas and the verandas themselves, which contained acrylic dividers that caught fire easily. Now, many condominiums and apartment buildings do not allow people to air laundry on their verandas, ostensibly for cosmetic reasons but also to discourage the spread of fire.

Anyone who lives in Japan, however, will notice right away that a lot of residents don’t follow this rule. Apartment management also usually prohibit residents from storing items on their verandas, since they can also be fire hazards. They also prohibit kerosene heaters, but that doesn’t mean people don’t use them.

Any building taller than 11 stories must have a sprinkler system, which is in place to restrict any fire to the unit where it starts. Fire doors are also mandatory in high rises where stairwells and elevators are located in the center of the building, as they were in Grenfell. Unlike Grenfell, though, high rises in Japan usually have two stairwells, one of which is reserved for emergencies.

There should also be at least one elevator designated for emergencies, with cables strong enough to withstand intense heat. These elevators can be used by firefighters to reach higher floors in a building since exterior ladders and fire hoses can’t access fires above the 11th floor. That’s why there are banks of fire hydrants on all floors of a high rise, so firefighters can connect hoses. The main problem is that if the sprinklers have been activated, the water pressure in the building drops significantly.

When we lived in a high rise in Tokyo from 2000 to 2011, the only fire precautions that were regularly carried out were inspections of smoke detectors. There were no drills, and our tenant’s package didn’t even include instructions on what to do in case of a fire. Instinct says that you should evacuate the building as soon as possible when the fire alarm goes off, but if the fire is on a lower floor, experts say you should do the opposite — go upward, away from the fire, and wait for assistance. You should never take the elevator when there’s a fire, and due to the chimney effect, stairwells can quickly fill with smoke — most people who die in high-rise fires succumb to smoke inhalation.

Fire doors in high rises should activate automatically, and if you do leave your apartment make sure your entrance door is securely shut, since apartment entrance doors are designed to be fire-proof. Some high rises also have hatches in the floors of the verandas, so that residents can move from one floor to another in the event they can’t move into the inner hallways. Also, partitions between units on verandas are designed to be knocked down easily. If you do need to go through smoke-filled corridors, keep close to the floor and hold a wet towel over your nose and mouth.

Since fire regulations in Japan aren’t as strict as they should be, it’s up to high-rise residents to aid in prevention. Buy curtains and rugs that are flame-resistant, and while most buildings, whether rentals or condos, require fire extinguishers in each unit, it’s the individual resident who needs to make sure they are easily available and in working order. You can’t really do anything about irresponsible, careless neighbors, but you can try not being one yourself.

Philip Brasor and Masako Tsubuku blog about Japanese housing at www.catforehead.wordpress.com.