The District of Columbia is considering legislation that would establish a panel to study the need for sprinkler systems in buildings similar to the 11-story Postal Service facility at L'Enfant Plaza that was hit by fire on Monday night.
At present, the use of sprinklers is necessary only in four instances in buildings that are under the District's jurisdiction: underground parking garages, above-ground enclosed parking facilities, high-rise buildings with atriums, and sales and storage areas of 2,500 square feet or more where combustible or flammable goods are made, stored or sold.
A bill introduced by council member Wilhelmina J. Rolark (D-Ward 8) and currently in the council's Judiciary Committee, which Rolark chairs, would establish a commission to study whether sprinkler requirements should be toughened.
Deputy Fire Chief Hubert Clark said the fire department supports new rules mandating that any buildings of six stories or more have sprinklers, and believes the rules should cover existing construction as well as new buildings. There has been no action on the study commission bill.
Sprinkler standards already exist in many major metropolitan areas. "Connecticut has had a code for 10 years that any building over three stories has to have sprinklers," said Roger Lanahan, director of the office of health and safety of the U.S. Fire Administration, a federal agency that promotes fire safety. He said New York City has had a rule since 1975 that requires office buildings with 10 or more stories to have sprinklers.
The Postal Service building at L'Enfant Plaza did not have a sprinkler system. Lanahan said the fire protection community recognizes that such a structure should have sprinklers.
"In a three-story building, the fire department can put up ladders and attack the fire from the outside," he said, but ladders are not tall enough to fight high-rise fires. "That is why is it important to have sprinklers in high-rise buildings . . . . The sprinkler system discharges water and either extinguishes or controls the fire and the damage it causes."
He said the cost of installing a sprinkler system in a high-rise building can vary significantly, from as little as $2 a square foot to as much as $10 a square foot.
For the L'Enfant Plaza building, which contains about 650,000 square feet, that works out to a sprinkler installation cost ranging from $1.3 million to $6.5 million -- considerably less than the estimated $100 million damage that was reported.
But the L'Enfant building managed to fall through the cracks of the fire protection policies developed by local and federal government.
The building was acquired by the U.S. Postal Service in 1972, about the same time the agency began systematically requiring that all newly constructed postal facilities be equipped with sprinkler systems.
The L'Enfant building was not in that category because it had been built two years earlier by a private developer for private use and subsequently was purchased by the Postal Service.
Now, 12 years after the Postal Service adopted its sprinkler rule, agency spokesman David McLean estimates that about half of all the agency's square footage is equipped with sprinkler systems -- including, locally, the Merrifield mail-processing facility and the Largo bulk-mail center.
The Postal Service also now has a general policy of installing sprinkler systems in existing buildings in which major renovations have been made, McLean said.
"It is incontestable that a sprinkler would have limited the damage in the Monday fire ," McLean said. "But we also would say that we don't feel that the absence of sprinklers made it the L'Enfant Plaza building an unsafe bulding."
He said that it had a fire-alarm system wired into the fire department and a 24-hour security patrol.
Postal officials, who were still trying yesterday to determine the extent and amount of damage to the building, said that they don't know whether a sprinkler system would be installed as part of the renovation that will be necessary before the building can be used again.