A study of post-earthquake building fire performance conducted in 2012 shows that damage to building structural elements, elevators, stairs, and fire protection systems caused by the shaking from a major earthquake can play a critical role in the spread of fire and hamper the ability of occupants to evacuate, as well as impede fire departments in their emergency response operations.

"When the ground stops shaking after a major earthquake, the damage may have just begun,” says Brian Meacham, associate professor of fire protection engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) and principal investigator for the post-earthquake fire study. The study looked at the effects of earthquakes and post-earthquake fires on a full-scale building. Here are some of the impacts on fire and life safety systems that Meacham and his team documented:

  • Structural damage on the second and third levels was significant; while the building didn’t collapse, it had to be shored-up to support gravity loading prior to the fire testing.
  • Damage to the building’s interior and exterior wall and ceiling systems created openings through which smoke and flames could spread; debris from the walls and ceilings became obstacles that would have hampered the evacuation of occupants or the movements of firefighters.
  • A number of doors were unable to be opened or closed (open doors allow fire to spread; stuck doors can cut off escape routes or hinder the movements of first responders).
  • Access to the upper floors was cut off when the staircase became detached from the landing and distortion of the elevator doors and frame on some levels made the elevator unusable. During the fire tests, smoke and hot gasses entered the elevator shaft through the open doors, spreading smoke to other floors and raising temperatures to dangerous levels.
  • Most of the active and passive fire protection systems, including the sprinkler system, the heat-activated fire door, fire dampers, and fire stop materials, performed well.

"Through this research, we have begun to build a base of knowledge that will allow us to design more resilient buildings and building systems, and provide better protection to people, property, and mission. But there is much more to do and a lot more we can learn in subsequent studies,” Meacham says.

To read the complete report, go to http://www.wpi.edu/academics/fpe/policy-risk-engineering-framework.html.