Cause for alarm: Some question fire alarm systems in Pacific base towers
January 30, 2005
Two tower apartment fires last year at Yokota Air Base, Japan, left many residents troubled to learn that fire-evacuation alarm systems in their high-rise housing are designed to alert only three floors — the fire floor, the level below and the one above.
A Pacificwide query of U.S. military installations showed procedures and equipment meant to protect tower residents vary widely among the bases, and, sometimes, from building to building on a single base.
The region features more than 100 high-rise family housing units. Some have sprinklers, while others don’t. Alarms run the gamut from state-of-the-art to systems that housing officials admit fail to meet current standards. Bringing the outdated versions up to code, officials say, must wait until budgets allow overall renovation of the housing units.
But military officials defend the alarm arrangements, pointing to impeccable safety records, sturdy firewalls and doors, and the compartmentalization approach to each apartment unit — standards that mirror those set forth by the U.S. National Fire Protection Association.
Host-nation governments are primarily responsible for the design and maintenance of base housing towers. Building codes continually evolve, so alarm systems differ based on established guidelines used at the time of construction.
“The codes constantly change,” said Mark S. Lawler, fire chief for the 374th Civil Engineer Squadron at Yokota Air Base. “All my buildings have different alarm systems and infrastructure. During major renovations, we do work to catch them up to code by upgrading alarms and installing fire sprinklers.”
Lawler said the buildings are required by law to comply with the government of Japan’s fire codes, but base officials work with Japan to incorporate U.S. safety codes in the construction.
Firefighter discretion at the scene offers the most practical assessment of what alarms to sound, officials say, typically preventing unnecessary and unwanted disturbances for those seemingly out of danger’s path. Still, some wonder why the buildings aren’t equipped to warn every resident in the face of a fire.
It certainly spawns a few questions: Just how safe are apartment tower residents? And is the absence of a universal alarm system a recipe for disaster?
Senior Airman Clifton Kennedy, who moved to Yokota last July with his wife, said they’ve twice come down the fire escape from their eighth-floor apartment in Building 3000 for false alarms.
“The alarm was going off on the seventh and eighth floors. The other alarms weren’t sounding,” he said. “We had to leave, but everyone else was still in the building.
“I feel if it’s a fire, everybody in the building needs to get out. Fire can spread easily. If the alarm goes off, everybody in the building should know about it — ’cause fire can spread in seconds.”
Senior Airman Matt Ulibarri, who lives on the sixth floor of Building 3000, said he and his wife once used the regular stairwell in the building’s interior while evacuating during an early-morning false alarm. He expressed concern about the three- floor alarm system.
“I’d rather it go off in the whole building,” Ulibarri said, “but I’m confident we’d be able to get out if there was a fire. I’m not worried about being trapped. We’ve got a bunch of different options: go out the fire escape or the front door.”
So if you happen to reside in a tower apartment’s upper half — and a blaze breaks out on the lower levels — would it have to climb several floors and permeate the building with deadly smoke before others are alerted?
“Absolutely not,” Lawler said. “If those conditions were present, the firefighter would sound the building’s general alarm. Occupants can evacuate from their units without having to enter the main hallways.
“The construction of the towers allows for a safe haven if fire occurs on a different floor. Additionally, the fire alarm rings automatically on three floors. After fire crews arrive, if the incident command decides to evacuate the entire building, the firefighters can sound the building’s general alarm, which will signal on all floors.”
It would be difficult for any blaze to penetrate a tower unit, he said, with a two-hour firewall guarding the concrete front door and a three-hour separation per apartment.
“They’re all compartmentalized apartments,” Lawler said, “and that’s what they’re rated. They’re wonderful things. Plus, it’s rare that you get multiple sprinkler heads activated. Normally, one will come on and extinguish the fire before it has a chance to spread.
“The most incredibly safe features of these towers are the four dedicated fire escapes that are reached by exiting onto the master bedroom patio and entering the fire escape stairway. Even in a worst-case scenario, if a fire gets really out of hand in an apartment that’s not sprinklered, the compartmentation would enable us to sound the ‘all-call’ alarm on the first-floor panel and get everyone out of the building using the fire escapes.”
The three-floor alarm system is common practice in U.S. skyscrapers as well, he added: Isolate the smoke or flames while avoiding a panic-induced stampede for the exits.
“It’s rare that we’ll evacuate a whole building. It’s usually much safer to keep people sheltered and in place, particularly if there’s no immediate danger,” Lawler said. “It’s a judgment call, but anytime you evacuate a whole tower, you’re going to risk more injuries — with all those families trying to make their way out.”
Misawa adjusts system
Chief Master Sgt. Dan Vogel, Misawa Air Base’s fire chief, said a 2001 modification changed the fire-alarm system from Yokota’s model to one that now sounds on every floor.
It used to be “the floor above, the floor below and the affected floor,” he said. “That’s the requirement. We went above and beyond the requirement.”
The three-floor alarm system is an anti-nuisance device; nine floors of families don’t have to evacuate every time kitchen smoke trips a smoke detector, Vogel said. “For tower residents, that gets old, particularly in the colder months.”
But at Misawa, “it probably came up as an issue that they would rather put up with the possibility of evacuating versus being in a facility that’s on fire and they’re not being evacuated,” Vogel said of tower residents.
The No. 1 cause of fire at Misawa is unattended cooking — a trend mirrored across the Pacific. Several fires occur annually at Misawa, Vogel said, plus each tower is evacuated at least once yearly “for nuisance alarms — some of them five, six, seven times a year.”
But Senior Airman Niko Punsalang, a tower resident, said he’d rather evacuate for a false alarm than risk not knowing about a real fire as near as two floors away. If alarms didn’t sound throughout the building when a smoke detector went off, he wonders whether the fire department would have the technology to quickly detect heat or smoke levels. “If the sensors don’t have that capability, I’d rather evacuate,” he said.
The last major fire in Misawa’s base housing took place in July 2001, when a single unit in the 800 area was lost in a fire started by candles.
“Air Force fire-prevention programs and facility construction far exceeds anything you’re going to find in municipalities or anything outside the gate,” Vogel said. “Nobody is 100 percent safe from fire, but I think we do all that we can to protect our occupants.”
Alarm responses vary
In high-rise apartment towers throughout the Commander, Naval Forces Japan region — encompassing Yokosuka, Sasebo, Atsugi and other outlying facilities on the mainland and Okinawa — officials use the three-floor fire-response model, with the ability to activate a building’s general alarm if necessary.
“This type of system is not unique to Japan,” said Daniel B. Marshall, CNFJ’s regional fire chief. “If there was an actual fire and it continued to travel through the upper floors, alarms on those floors would also activate.”
Unattended cooking also is the chief culprit for fire emergencies on CNFJ installations. In 1997, the command’s regional fire department officials installed “Range Queen” stove-type fire extinguishers in an effort to boost prevention.
However, a blaze broke out in a Yokosuka high-rise in December 2000 that caused $510,000 in damages. It was contained in the apartment and no one was injured. Officials blamed carelessly discarded smoking materials.
Since then, CNFJ officials have not encountered a tower fire that’s exceeded $500 in damage. Marshall credits the Range Queen and newly installed sprinkler systems in renovated apartments.
“These facilities are only as safe as the occupants themselves,” he added. “If common fire-safety practices are adhered to by the occupants, then the facility is extremely safe.”
Iwakuni Marine Corps Air Station officials get an inordinate amount of false alarms, according to Fire Chief Devin Johnston.
“That’s partly because some of the technology is about 10 years behind, and when involved in contracting and going with the lowest bidders, you can wind up with a cheaper system,” Johnston said. “The false alarms sometimes are set off by heavy rain, strong wind gusts or very high humidity. That is in part because they are spring-loaded systems and easy to set off.”
Still, other false alarms can be traced to more suspect origins.
“We do have a problem with that, but we do not include those when looking at how many false alarms we have,” he said.
High-rises in South Korea
There aren’t many high-rise housing units on U.S. military bases in Seoul. Hannam Village has a few 15-story buildings, but the tallest structures at Yongsan Garrison are a couple of five-story units for junior officers and the Dragon Hill Lodge, according to Leopold Dumond, the chief of fire and emergency services for South Korea.
Alarms are designed to notify residents in close proximity to suspected fires, following the three-floor alert system, he said.
“You don’t want to evacuate a 15-floor building for a small fire,” Dumond said. “It’s a judgment call on the part of the senior fire officials.”
But in a policy change implemented Jan. 1, fire alarms in most U.S. Army buildings throughout South Korea no longer automatically notify fire departments when activated, a situation that concerns Dumond, who said that could be problematic at night, possibly delaying emergency responders.
The change was made because the Army needed to adapt the radio frequencies it uses for the alarms to a narrower band the South Korean government began using a few years ago. With 1,314 buildings to convert throughout the peninsula by the end of this year, fire officials are reminding people who frequent Army buildings to first pull an alarm in the event of fire and then call 911. Only a phone call will ensure the fire department’s response, Dumond said.
On Camp George in Taegu, a fire in one apartment triggers an alarm in that unit only, said Area IV fire chief Bobby Purvis.
“It was determined years ago that there’s no need to alert the whole building on a local alarm because most of the time it’s burnt popcorn,” he said.
“Folks are taught that for a real emergency — fire alarm pull station.”
Over the past year, Area IV firefighters responded to about six residential fires, Purvis said. None involved injuries, but some personal items and government property were lost.
Systems differ with age
Air Force officials maintain all the tower apartments on Okinawa, a challenging endeavor at times because of their varying ages.“Over time, the fire codes have changed, (so) the fire alarm systems have some variations in their design,” said Patricia Miyagi, an 18th Wing spokeswoman on Kadena Air Base. “As the towers age and require extensive renovation, the fire-alarm systems are updated to meet the current U.S. fire codes.”
Each unit is fortified with a four-hour firewall in an effort to keep blazes from spreading to another apartment or hallway, she said. Alarm systems shoot a direct signal to local fire departments, where the general response time is less than five minutes.
“Once on scene, the fire chief determines whether the entire tower needs to be evacuated for safety purposes — and if it does — activates alarms on all floors,” she said.
According to Miyagi, Kadena experiences about 10 housing fires per year. Statistics were unavailable for other bases on the island.
No towers on Guam
Unlike in Japan and other parts of the Pacific, there are no family housing towers on Guam military bases, according to U.S. Naval Base Guam officials. But a significant amount of time is devoted to fire prevention.
“The safety and well-being of our servicemembers and their families in Guam are always our top priority,” said Petty Officer 2nd Class Ben Keller, a U.S. Naval Base Guam spokesman. “Our housing and fire safety personnel work hard to make safety their paramount concern and to provide functional and reliable safety equipment and warning systems.”
No universal standard
While alarms and smoke detectors lack a universal standard within the Pacific’s U.S. military community, base officials aren’t concerned with any perceived glitches in the overall fire safety package. Education remains a critical key in the fight against one of nature’s deadliest forces, they say.
Lawler, the Yokota fire chief, and his staff constantly analyze information and look for combustible materials in an effort to promote safety and eliminate prospective hazards.
Just as building codes and guidelines remain in perpetual flux, so do the methods for combating blazes and responding to fire alarms — especially in tower apartments with large populations.
“Is there a golden rule of high-rise evacuations?” Lawler said. “No. 9/11 sparked a whole new debate. You’ve got to look at each building — look at its compartmentation, whether they’re sprinklered and the integrity of evacuation quarters. You can’t just make one rule.”
Jennifer Svan, Greg Tyler, Juliana Gittler, Teri Weaver, Franklin Fisher, Fred Zimmerman and David Allen contributed to this report.
Fight fire with planning
As fire chief for the 374th Civil Engineer Squadron at Yokota Air Base, Japan, Mark S. Lawler knows to respect a blaze.
“Fire is so powerful, so quick,” he said. “People underestimate the power of fire.”
But with a little planning and knowledge, on-base residents don’t have to be powerless against fire, suggest fire safety officials across the Pacific. Among their tips:
In your apartment, check fire alarm batteries regularly and be particularly aware of fire hazards in the kitchen — where, officials say, most on-base housing fires start.Know how to find the nearest fire exit, fire escape and fire alarm — and keep handy the phone number of the base fire department.Most base firefighting offices have vigorous public safety and education programs. Check out yours for recommendations both on how to prevent fires and how to survive them.Lawler also encourages Pacific residents to invest in fire insurance, which covers the restoration and recovery of housing units and possessions. Policies vary, he said, but the cost is roughly $180 annually.—Stars and Stripes