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Risk of high-rise fire deaths in U.S. has dropped

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The horrors of the deadly high-rise fire in London happen every year in this country, according to a report on high-rise fires, but the risks are only a fraction of what they were decades ago.

An average of 40 people die and 520 are injured every year in high-rise building fires, mostly apartments, according to the November report from the National Fire Protection Association.

If you live in a high rise and want to know your own risk, Robert Solomon has a simple answer for you. Does it have a modern automatic sprinkler system? If so, you should be safe.

“We have a really good track record with our high-rise buildings in the last 20 to 25 years,” said Solomon, head of the Building and Life Safety Codes division at NFPA.

London high-rise apartment fire death toll rising

The first requirements for apartment-building sprinklers went into effect in the mid-1970s. Over time, the rules enforced better systems. Now any death in a building with a sprinkler is “so rare” that it gets special review, he said.

“We probably have zero fatalities in a high-rise building in the U.S. that’s protected with an automatic sprinkler system,” he said. “It’s zero or approaching zero.”

But that doesn’t mean everyone is safe. Older high-rise apartments often lack sprinklers.

Early reports from witnesses at the London fire indicated that there were no sprinklers and that alarms may not have sounded.

Almost 60 percent of fires in U.S. high-rise apartments occur in buildings that do not have automatic sprinklers, according to the NFPA report on fires in high-rise buildings seven stories or higher. The report looked at fires from 2009 through 2013. But that rate compared favorably to low-rise apartments, where 85 percent of fires happened in buildings without automatic sprinklers.

Almost all fires in both high-rise and low-rise apartments were in buildings that had smoke detectors or alarms.

The good news for high-rise apartments, hotels, dormitories, offices or medical facilities is that stricter rules for sprinklers, building materials and alarms mean that fires there are much more likely to be contained to just one room or one floor. The report said just 4 percent of high-rise apartment fires spread from room to room, and only 2 percent spread to another floor. The share of fires spreading to more rooms or other floors in low-rise apartments is more than twice as high. Similarly, high-rise hotels and offices had fewer fires spreading across rooms and floors than low-rise buildings did.

Improved safety has not been uniform across the country. Rates of death in fire are about twice the national average in a cluster of southern states: Mississippi, Arkansas, Alabama, South Carolina, West Virginia, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Tennessee. The District of Columbia is almost 50 percent higher than the national average. New York, New Jersey and most of New England have below-average rates, as do Florida and most of the states on the West Coast where a greater proportion of the housing is newer. Maryland and Virginia are both very close to the national average of about 1 person out of 100,000 dying from fire each year.

“That’s not just some random thing,” Solomon said of the regional differences. “When we look at some of those southern states, the fire loss data in general for high-rise or single-family homes, those rates are going to tend to be higher.”

Activists in London complained that the safety standards for the building were low because the tenants were lower income. Solomon said that poverty could be a factor in the higher fire rates in the southern United States. Black children and seniors have greater risk of dying in fires, according to a 2010 NFPA report that gathered together various demographic studies of fire risk, but that risk evens out in wealthier areas.

The disparity in fire rates in the south could potentially come from weaker enforcement of fire codes, according to Solomon, as well as poorer quality housing. However, resistance to retrofitting older buildings with better fire protection, he said, happens in expensive developments as much as in affordable housing.