The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has released its final report on its study of the June 18, 2007, fire at the Sofa Super Store in Charleston, S.C., that trapped and killed nine firefighters, the highest number of firefighter deaths in a single event since 9/11. The final report was strengthened by clarifications and supplemental text based on comments provided by organizations and individuals in response to the draft report of the study, released for public comment on Oct. 28, 2010. (HERE)
The revisions did not alter the study team’s main finding: the major factors contributing to the rapid spread of the fire at the Sofa Super Store were large open spaces with furniture providing high-fuel loads, the inward rush of air following the breaking of windows, and a lack of sprinklers.
Based on its findings, the study team made 11 recommendations for enhancing building, occupant and firefighter safety nationwide. In particular, the team urged state and local communities to adopt and strictly adhere to current national model building and fire safety codes. These codes are used as models for building and fire regulations promulgated and enforced by U.S. state and local jurisdictions. Those jurisdictions have the option of incorporating some or all of the code’s provisions but often adopt most provisions.
If today’s model codes had been in place and rigorously followed in Charleston in 2007, the study authors said, the conditions that led to the rapid fire spread in the Sofa Super Store probably would have been prevented.
- Specifically, the NIST report calls for national model building and fire codes to require sprinklers for all new commercial retail furniture stores regardless of size, and for existing retail furniture stores with any single display area of greater than 190 square meters (2,000 square feet).
- Other recommendations include adopting model codes that cover high fuel load situations (such as a furniture store), ensuring proper fire inspections and building plan examinations, and encouraging research for a better understanding of fire situations such as venting of smoke from burning buildings and the spread of fire on furniture.
- Two of the recommendations in the draft report were slightly modified to increase their effectiveness.
- The recommendation “that all state and local jurisdictions ensure that fire inspectors and building plan examiners are professionally qualified to a national standard” was improved by listing three nationally accepted certification examinations as examples of “how professional qualification may be demonstrated.”
- Another recommendation has been enhanced by urging state and local jurisdictions to “provide education to firefighters on the science of fire behavior in vented and non-vented structures and how the addition of air can impact the burning characteristics of the fuel.”
Based on their model and the data collected, the NIST researchers determined the following sequence of events on June 18, 2007, at the Sofa Super Store:
- The fire began in trash outside the loading dock and spread into the enclosed loading dock. The fire spread from the exterior to the interior of the loading dock, which was used for staging furniture for delivery and repair. The fire spread quickly within the loading dock and moved into both the retail showroom and warehouse spaces.
- During the early stages of this fire, the fire was unable to access enough air, a state that slowed its growth. However, the lack of sufficient air for complete combustion did result in large volumes of smoke and combustible gases flowing into the space below the roof and above the drop ceiling of the main retail showroom.
- The fire spread to the rear of the main showroom through the holding area and ignited additional fuel in the rear of the main showroom, at which time it became more visible to firefighters in the main showroom.
- The growth of the fire at the back of the main showroom was still slowed by the lack of air. As the fire burned in the rear of the main showroom, the fire pumped more hot unburned fuel into the smoke layer below the drop ceiling. The lack of air prevented the unburned fuel in the smoke layer from igniting.
- When the front windows were broken (approximately 24 minutes after firefighters arrived at the store), additional air flowed in the front windows, along the floor and to the rear of the showroom, and became available to the fire. The additional air allowed the burning rate of the fire to increase rapidly and ignite the layer of unburned fuel below the drop ceiling.
- The fire swept from the rear to the front of the main showroom extremely quickly, then into the west and east showrooms, trapping six firefighters in the main showroom and three firefighters in the west showroom.
- Furniture and merchandise in the showrooms and warehouse continued to burn for an additional 140 minutes before the fire was extinguished.
NIST is working with various public and private groups toward implementing changes to practices, standards, and building and fire codes based on the findings from this study.
The complete text of the final report, Volumes I and II, may be downloaded as Adobe Acrobat (.pdf) files from the links below;
- For a detailed summary of the Sofa Super Store study, its findings and recommendations, and links to supporting materials such as graphics and video segments from computer simulations of the fire, go to “NIST Study on Charleston Furniture Store Fire Calls for National Safety Improvements” at www.nist.gov/el/fire_research/charleston_102810.cfm.
- Volume I: http://www.nist.gov/manuscript-publication-search.cfm?pub_id=908200,
- Volume II: http://www.nist.gov/manuscript-publication-search.cfm?pub_id=908201.
Other Resources on the Charleston Fire from NIST Here;
- Volume I: NIST Technical Study of the Sofa Super Store Fire – South Carolina, June 18, 2007
- Volume II: NIST Technical Study of the Sofa Super Store Fire – South Carolina, June 18, 2007
- Statement to the Media Delivered at NIST Charleston Fire Study Press Briefing, Oct. 28, 2010, by Nelson Bryner, Lead, Study Team
- PowerPoint Presentation Accompanying Statement at Press Briefing
- Video B-Roll on the NIST Charleston Fire Study (mp4)
- Graphic Showing Floor Plan of Charleston Sofa Super Store
- Graphic Showing Smoke and Fire Movement at Six Points During Charleston Fire
- Graphic Showing Temperature Levels at Six Points During Charleston Fire
- Graphic Showing Oxygen Levels at Six Points During Charleston Fire
jurisdictions have the option of incorporating some or all of the code’s provisions but generally adopt most provisions.
Recommendations from the NIST Study of the Charleston Sofa Super Store Fire
1. High Fuel-Load Mercantile Occupancies: NIST recommends that, at a minimum, all state and local jurisdictions adopt a building and fire code based upon one of the model codes, covering new and existing high fuel-load mercantile occupancies, and update local codes as the model codes are revised.
2. Model Code Adoption and Enforcement: NIST recommends that all state and local jurisdictions implement aggressive and effective fire inspection and enforcement programs that address:
a) all aspects of the building and fire codes;
b) adequate documentation of building permits and alterations;
c) the means of inspecting fire protection systems and detailing record keeping;
d) the frequency and rigor of fire inspections, including follow-up and auditing procedures; and
e) guidelines for remedial requirements when inspections identify deviations from code provisions.
3. Qualified Fire Inspectors and Building Plan Examiners: NIST recommends that all state and local jurisdictions ensure that fire inspectors and building plan examiners are professionally qualified to a national standard such as National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1031.
4. Sprinklers: NIST recommends that model codes require sprinkler systems and that state and local authorities adopt and aggressively enforce this provision:
a) for all new commercial retail furniture stores regardless of size; and
b) for existing retail furniture stores with any single display area of greater than 190 square meters (2,000 square feet).
5. Comprehensive Risk Management Plans: NIST recommends that state and local jurisdictions use comprehensive risk management plans to:
a) identify low, medium, and high hazard occupancies;
b) allocate resources according to risk identified; and
c) develop operating procedures that respond to specific risks.
6. Ventilation of Burning Structures: NIST recommends that state and local authorities:
a) develop guidelines as to how and when ventilation should be implemented during a fire; and
b) provide training to fire fighters on different types of ventilation—vertical, horizontal and positive-pressure—and integrate into daily operations on the fire ground.
7. Research on Upholstered Furniture Flame Spread: NIST recommends that research be conducted to better understand ignition and fire spread on upholstered furniture in order to provide the tools needed by design professionals to improve the fire performance of furniture. The specific areas requiring research are:
a) prediction of ignition of natural and synthetic coverings for current furniture, wall, ceiling and floor lining materials, and room furnishings;
b) prediction of fire spread over actual furniture with and without fire barriers, fire retardants and fire resistive materials; and
c) quantification of smoke and toxic gas production in realistic room fires.
8. Research on Improving Fire Barriers: NIST recommends that research be conducted to provide the tools needed by design professionals to improve the performance of compartmentalization. The specific areas requiring research are:
a) prediction of fire spread through walls constructed of wood, metal and gypsum wallboard;
b) prediction of fire spread through doors constructed of glass, wood, and metal;
c) prediction of fire spread through penetrations; and
d) prediction of performance of roll-up fire doors in actual fires and after extended service.
9. Research on Decision Aids for Allocation of Resources: NIST recommends that research be conducted to:
a) refine computer-aided decision tools for determining the costs and benefits of alternative code changes and fire safety technologies; and
b) develop computer models to assist communities in allocating resources (money and staff) to ensure that their response to an emergency with a large number of potential casualties is effective.
10. Research on Ventilation of Burning Structures: NIST recommends that additional research be conducted to:
a) improve characterization of how ventilation affects the growth and spread of fire within structures; and
b) provide the fire service with guidance on when and how to use ventilation to improve the fire environment during fire service operations.
11. Research on Performance Metrics for Fire Protection: NIST recommends that research be conducted to:
a) develop performance and effectiveness metrics for community fire protection;
b) survey effectiveness of existing fire services; and
c) use metrics to optimize development of new technologies.
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