NIST Conducts High-Rise Fire Experiments

The National Institute of Standards (NIST) conducted experiments in an abandoned high-rise building on New York City’s Governors Island to learn how to better control or suppress deadly heat and smoke from wind-driven fires. The findings reveal that certain firefighting techniques, including positive pressure ventilation fans, wind control devices and hose streams, can be effective in fighting high-rise fires.

According to NIST, 1,600 civilians died and more than 20,000 people were injured in high-rise building fires between 1985 and 2002. In high-rise fires, open doors and broken windows can increase the movement of hot gases and smoke due to temperature differences between the outside and inside of the building. Wind-driven flames, heat and smoke can speed across entire floors and around corridors without warning, while smoke and heat entering stairwells can block evacuation attempts and hinder firefighting operations.

NIST set a series of fires in the abandoned building to better understand the fast-moving spread of flames, smoke and toxic gases driven by wind through corridors and stairways. Fire protection engineers placed cameras, temperature and pressure sensors throughout the building to monitor the fires from a safe ground-floor location. In particular, they recorded the effects of opening or closing doors and windows both near and far from the blaze.

Researchers discovered that positive pressure ventilation fans, prototype wind control devices and high-rise fire suppression nozzles all had a positive impact on controlling the effects of wind-driven fires. They believe these findings can help improve fire service guidelines for high-rise fires, enhance firefighter safety, fire ground operations and equipment use.

NIST conducted the experiments in partnerships with the Fire Department of New York (FDNY) and New York’s Polytechnic University. NIST plans to issue a report on these high-rise experiments in November 2008.

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