One Meridian Plaza
On February 23rd, 1991 the Philadelphia fire department received a call that would change the nation forever. At approximately 2023 firefighters responded to a call at the One Meridian Plaza. The fire was reported to be on the 22nd floor of the 38 floor high-rise tower.
As firefighters arrived on scene, a well developed fire had burned through most of the 22nd floor and had begun moving down into the 21st floor upon arrival. The fire was so overwhelming that firefighters from all over the city were called to the multiple alarm inferno. This fire quickly rose to being a 12 alarm system with multiple companies involved including 15 ladder companies, 11 special units, over 300 firefighters on the ground and 51 engine companies.
According to the incident report, the fire started on the 22nd floor where workers had been refinishing wood in a vacant office. The workers left rags that had been soaked in linseed oil on the floor, and they produced enough heat to ignite a nearby solvent and the fire started to burn. A smoke detector on the 22nd floor was the first notice of a possible fire once the alarm was activated. The signal was sent to the central station fire alarm company and instead of notifying the fire department they called building personal to investigate. After nearly 20 minutes of burning, the fire department was notified by a by standard instead of the building company. The fire had already been burning for quite some time before the first fire department was even notified. By this time, the fire was well advanced and spreading.
Three firefighters lost their life while battling the blaze. Captain David Holcombe and firefighters James Chappell and Phyllis McAllister were the personel lost in this tragic event. Heavy smoke filled the stairwell and insufficient ventilation lead to the unfortunate loss of these lives. As the men were trying to reach the roof in order to start ventation, the oxygen was exchanged with smoke and carbon dioxide and they ran out of air in their SCBA’s.
The fire had spread from the 22nd floor to the 21st through a set of stairs that were completely taken over by heavy smoke. This lead to the tragic loss and almost took the lives of additional firefighters sent in as a rescue unit. There were also a total of 12 injuries to other fire personnel and nearly 8 floors were destroyed before the fire was finally put out.
After failure of the electrical system, water pressure inadequacy and the loss of three firefighters lives, the scene became an unsuccessful battle. Following hours on end of unsuccessful fire attack, multiple floors engulfed in flames, and a increased risk for building failure and collapse, it was deemed necessary to withdraw all personal from the building. There were far too many high risk factors and the only reasonable plan was to withdraw from the fight.
One Meridian was one of the largest high rise fires recorded in US history. It burned for over 19 hours, engulfed 8 floors and took the lives of 3 firefighters all while causing over 800 million dollars in damage. The building was eventually deemed a total loss and torn down.
Lack of installed automatic sprinklers, insufficient water pressure and failure of the electrical system lead to the massive destruction. The fire spread nearly 8 floors until it finally reached the 30th floor which was the only floor that had an automatic sprinkler system installed. After burning for nearly a full day out of control and taking 3 lives, the fire was brought under control by only 10 sprinklers.
At the time of building construction in 1972, the buildings fire code did not require there to be a sprinkler system installed on every floor. The only floor that had them was the 30th and only due to the fact that a tenant had requested them. What took the lives of 3 men and blazed for almost a full day uncontrolled, was stopped with the help of 10 automatic sprinklers in nearly no time at all.
This lead to the huge realization that fire sprinkler systems were a necessity and could drastically control fires and reduce amount of damage. This fire proved that automatic sprinkler systems needed to be a required installation in all high rise buildings and could be a huge asset when it comes to fire protection. Therefore, fire codes were changed following this incident.
Nobody understood the magnitude of this monster of a fire and the story it would become. Nearly 19 hours later, the fire was finally declared under control. The 12 alarm fire not only took almost a full day to control, but also took the lives of three firefighters, injured 12 others and one of tallest high-rises in the city was lost. The blaze, over 20 years ago , changed the city’s skyline and the way the nation fights high-rise fires. Following the fire at One Meridian Plaza, it became mandatory that all high-rise buildings be retrofitted with sprinkler systems in order to avoid incidents like this one.
One of the most devastating aspects of the One Meridian Plaza Fire was the failure of the Fire Alarm System and the Alarm Monitoring Service. A smoke detector on the 22nd floor of the building was the first sign of a possible fire, however the smoke detector failed to activate before the fire spread throughout the building. In addition, the private service that monitored the fire alarm system failed to alert the fire department when the alarm was first activated.
To prevent scenes like this from happening in the future, the Fire Code was amended after this incident, requiring the routine maintenance of fire alarm systems, notification of alarms, and providing for penalties. Fire codes for section 5-1105, 5-110, 5-1400, 5-3400 and 5-3105 were the ones that needed immediate attention and were changed accordingly, specifically due to this fire.
Fire alarm systems section 5-1105 and 5-1106 of the Fire Code requires that:
Fire alarm systems and other protective signaling systems be maintained in operative condition at all times. Fire alarm systems and other protective signaling systems be inspected at least annually by qualified personnel and inspection records maintained by the owner, tenant, or operator of the building. The fire department be notified immediately of the activation of any fire alarm signal including alarm signals by manual fire alc boxes, automatic fire detectors, water flow alarms for automatic sprinkler systems and other fire suppression systems or equipment. Central station services must immediately retransmit alarm signals to the fire department .
Fire alarm Section 5-1400 of the fire code was amended to require: Sprinkler systems, standpipe systems, and any other protective or extinguishing systems to be maintained in operative condition at all times.All fire department intake connections to sprinkler and standpipe systems to have two or more two and one-half inch female National Hose (NH) standard thread intake fittings. And that improperly installed standpipe valves throughout the building made it difficult for firefighters to extinguish the fire because the pressure reducing valves that were installed were set too low to produce effective hose streams so they were required to adjust settings.
Section 5-3400 “High Rise Buildings” issues were amended to require: Smoke detectors connected to the building’s electrical system in each dwelling unit and installed within two years of the amendment date. Doors from dwelling units opening into a common corridor must be self-closing within one year of the amendment date.High rise buildings to install water supplies to all floors of the building, and comply with sprinkler and standpipe requirements.
Install fire suppression systems in 20% of the floors of the building within 30 months, 40% of the floors of the building within 39 months, 60% of the building within 48 months, 80% of the building within 57 months and 100% of the building within 55 months. Within one year of the effective date of these amendments, every existing high-rise building is required to provide a detailed written description of the methods and schedule to be used to come into compliance with the above requirements
Section 5-3105 changed by making: all existing high-rise buildings where standpipes exceed 275 feet from the fire department connection to the roof or highest action must be equipped with wet standpipe systems Testing of standby and/or emergency electrical systems to be conducted at least annually by authorized personnel.
With all of the issues, and the loss of three innocent lives, it only seemed appropriate to choose this fire as an incident that had impact on fire building codes. Not only was this a significant fire for the city of Philadelphia, but is an obvious fire that should have impacted changes in fire codes throughout the nation. High rise fires are not only dangerous to fight, but can spread rapidly from floor to floor as seen in this case, and codes need to be updated in order to keep advancement on controlling these types of incidents quickly and productively. Following the One Meridian Fire, many changes were amended to the current fire section codes and have paved a way to fighting such fires such as this one.