MCFRS News Release

Non-Sprinklered Hi-Rise Building Fires - Cause for Alarm

Several recent building fires - Similar type fires, different outcome

Around 7:30 a.m. on Friday, December 7, 2007 units from the Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service were dispatched for a report of building fire at 10210 Grosvenor Place, in Bethesda at the Grosvenor Park Apartments. First arriving firefighters encountered a fire and heavy smoke conditions on the 8th floor of the 17-story high-rise residential building. The building was being evacuated. A precautionary 2nd alarm was requested bringing about 75 firefighters to the scene.

The fire was quickly brought under control and the fire was confined to the apartment of origin. There were no injuries related to the fire. Several residents were evaluated with pre-existing medical conditions, but were not transported. Over one hundred and twenty-five residents, many of whom are elderly, were evacuated without incident.

Montgomery County Fire and Explosive Investigators believe the fire was accidental and originated in an electric wall heater unit in the dining room area. One resident was home at the time in another room when the fire started and was alerted by an activated smoke alarm. The resident exited the apartment to make notifications. Damage is estimated to be $100,000, including $75,000 to the structure and $25,000 to the contents. One family is displaced. The high rise apartment building is not sprinklered. In addition to the apartment unit's smoke alarm, the building's fire alarm system did activate.

Shortly after 7 p.m. last Friday, November 30, 2007, many of the same fire and rescue units responded to another high-rise residential building fire at the Promenade Apartments located at 5225 Pooks Hill Road, in Bethesda. The Promenade is an 18-story non-sprinklered high rise residential building. The fire was located on the 12th floor. Firefighters arrived to find heavy fire and smoke conditions. The building's fire alarm system was inoperable (had been disabled) and many of the occupants were unaware for the fire. Firefighters found one resident, a 21 year-old female, in the fire apartment. She was rescued and remains in critical condition with burns and suffering form smoke inhalation. Many other residents were alerted by firefighters and needed assistance evacuating.

About 30 apartment units were temporarily affected by the fire. Eight families were displaced. Damage was estimated to be $1.1 million dollars. Montgomery County Fire and Explosive Investigators believe the area of origin was a bedroom of the 12th floor apartment. The cause of the fire remains under investigation. Several fire code violations are also being investigated.

There are about 90 non-sprinklered residential high-rise buildings in Montgomery County. All commercial high-rise buildings are sprinklered. If a fire alarm activates in a residential building the law is clear, "hear the fire alarm, evacuate the building or request assistance via phone and provide your location." It may be the belief of some residents of high rise that they don't have to evacuate if they don't see or smell smoke - this is NOT the case. As previously stated - "hear the alarm - evacuate."

Fire Inspectors assigned to the Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service, Fire Code Enforcement Section have been inspecting public assembly and retail occupancies throughout Montgomery County, Maryland during the holiday season. However, inspections of fire alarm and fire protection systems in residential high-rise buildings have been taking place for several months.

The Fire Code Enforcement Section is comprised of dozens of uniformed Fire Inspectors and several civilian Fire Inspectors. Fire Code inspections performed by the Community Risk Reduction Division and local fire departments insure compliance with applicable State and County fire and life safety codes. The division inspects all new businesses and multi-family dwellings, and Family Day Care Centers.

In the next several weeks Inspectors assigned to the CENT will inspected many public assembly occupancies, such as restaurants, nightclubs, bars and particularly retail stores. The most common issues of concern are kitchen fire extinguishing systems needing service or upgrade, fire alarm systems needing maintenance, emergency lighting needing service or maintenance and fire sprinkler systems overdue for service, blocked exits and storage. During this busy shopping period lack of adequate storage areas often produces many potential life safety hazards.

There have been a few instances of over crowding, a moderate number of locked or blocked exits and inappropriate storage in some cases blocking isles. Several electrical problems and exit marking were also detected.

E - Exits, unlocked, not blocked and proper signage;
S - Storage, clean, orderly and not excessive;
C - Capacity, does not exceed number on use and occupancy certificate, posted in a conspicuous location;
A - Access/Aisles, keep aisles free and clear at all times, provide 6-inch high address numbers that are easily visible from the street;
P - Protection, smoke detection, fire alarm and automatic sprinkler systems are in proper working order and tested regularly;
E - Emergency Lighting, working properly and tested every 30 days. Prior to and during the inspection, occupants/operators are provided with information concerning the focus of each inspection.