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Multiple-Death Fires and Older Structures

On January 5, 2022, a fire in a Philadelphia row house resulted in 12 deaths. A few days later on January 9, 2022, a fire in a Bronx highrise led to 17 deaths. Using data from NFPA, a profile of catastrophic multiple-death fires in the U.S., between 2002 and 2020, is shown below.

Catastrophic multiple-death fires, defined by NFPA as "residential fires that kill five or more people or nonresidential or nonstructural fires that kill three or more people", accounted for approximately 4% (+/- 2%) of overall deaths in the U.S. between 2002 and 2020.


Not surprisingly, a review of these incidents shows that they occurred in structures with no sprinkler systems; buildings were more than 50 years old, and in some cases, over a century old. With most building and fire codes grandfathering older structures from modern fire protection requirements, such as sprinkler systems, early occupant notification, and compartmentation become critical fire safety features. In several of the multiple-death incidents reviewed, non-functional alarm systems and early compromise of egress pathways were common themes, which highlights the need for risk assessment and inspection, testing, and maintenance to combat fire safety challenges in older structures.

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