Viewpoint Dedicated to Safety: Retroactive Sprinkler Requirements
By Patricia J. Lancaster | Fire Protection Engineering
The New York City Department of
Buildings regulates construction in a city with more than 950,000
buildings. Part of this job entails working with the New York City Fire
Department and real estate and development industries to identify safe
and cost-effective means of protecting structures from the risks
associated with fires. Each year, the agency's staff carefully considers
proposals to increase public safety. Increasing the use of sprinklers
is a good example.
Over time, there have been various
changes to the New York City Building Code to require sprinklers in
different building types for enhanced fire protection. In many
instances, those requirements were prospective.
History has shown that most legislative
reform is prompted by a significant event that highlights risk. In New
York City, many code changes were instituted in response to great
tragedies. For example:
The Triangle Shirtwaist fire in March 1911 (146
fatalities) gave birth to the modern building and fire codes.
The Blue Angel Nightclub fire in December
1975 (7 fatalities) led to the creation of what is probably the most
comprehensive and rigorous place of assembly regulations in this
The World Trade Center collapse (nearly 3,000 fatalities) led to the
adoption of new standards for high-rise construction and retrofit
requirements that will increase the success of building evacuation.
In response to the unprecedented events
of September 2001, New York City and its Buildings Department were able
to come together and agree on significant retroactive requirements for
its high-rise office buildings.
The City of New York realized it needed to
develop new code regulations that could work to further protect the
people who live, work, and visit here.
Over a period of eleven months, the World
Trade Center Building Code Task Force gathered input from other
governmental entities, professional design and engineering societies,
the construction industry, private real estate owners associations,
private academic experts, and individuals directly affected by the
disaster. In February 2003, the Task Force issued its 21
recommendations. There were different strategies for implementation, but
most were legislative.
On June 24, 2004, New York City Mayor Michael R.
Bloomberg signed Local Law 26 of 2004, which amended the Building Code
and Fire Prevention Code to reflect many of the Task Force's ideas. One
of the most sweeping provisions is a 15-year retroactive sprinkler
requirement for all high-rise office buildings greater than 100 feet in
height. Local Law 26 also includes requirements for photoluminescent
markings in emergency exit stairwells along with provisions for
impact-resistant stairwells and elevator shafts in high-rise office
This is remarkable legislation for many reasons, but most
significantly because it can be difficult to pass laws that require the
retrofitting of existing structures. In 1999, when New York City adopted
sprinkler regulations for residential buildings with four or more units
(Local Law 10 of 1999), those provisions applied only to new
construction and major alterations.
There has always been a general consensus
among fire safety advocates that sprinklers are the best method of
providing active fire safety for high-rise buildings, especially in New
York City. Yet, because of a number of factors, cost being one of the
most significant, the laws did not always require retrofitting actions.
For practical purposes, the Buildings
Department established a 15-year window to allow office buildings to
plan, design, and implement the new fire safety regulation. During this
time, the Buildings Department will work with management companies to
The New York City Department of Buildings and its team of
architects, engineers, inspectors, and experts continue to work hard to
develop and amend building code regulations to further enhance the
safety of all New Yorkers. Retroactive sprinkler requirements are just
one component. The agency's staff is dedicated to enhancing the quality
of life for all New Yorkers and making the city a great place to live,
work, and build.
Patricia J. Lancaster is the Commissioner of the New York City Department of Buildings.