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Dedicated to Safety: Retroactive Sprinkler Requirements
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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 country.
  • 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 buildings.


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 monitor compliance.


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.

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