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N.Y. skyscraper blaze points up need for US fire code

The adoption of a "Life Safety Code" could dramatically cut down on the number of office building fires, such as the blaze in a Manhattan skyscraper June 24 which injured 125 persons.

This is the view of both the National Fire Prevention Association (NFPA), a nonprofit organization of business and fire prevention officials which has drawn up the code, and the Fire Marshall's Association of North America in the wake of the 20th-floor fire in the 42-story structure across the street from the plush Waldorf-Astoria Hotel on Park Avenue.

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So far only 24 states have adopted the NFPA code, considered to provide the most stringent fire prevention guidelines anywhere in the world. In addition, some of the states that have adopted the code cannot adequately enforce it because of budget restrictions, NFPA spokesmen say.

Neither New York City nor New York State has adopted the NFPA code, and while NFPA spokesmen are not saying the recent office building fire would have been prevented if they had, these fire-safety experts stress the code requires urgently needed protective measures.

In fact, if New York and the other 26 noncomplying states adopted the code, thousands of lives would be saved every year, says Robert Barr of the NFPA, which is headquartered in Boston.

Briefly stated, the code requires an adequate number of building exits, the proper arrangement of these exits, protection of vertical openings (stairwells), regular and tightly monitored fire drills, and many other safety steps. These provisions are enforced by either state fire marshalls or local fire departments.

Assistant New York City Fire Commissioner John Mulligan told the Monitor that the city's own fire-safety code was sufficient. However, one deficiency of the city code is that it does not require sprinklers in office buildings, such as 299 Park Avenue where the fire took place. The NFPA code requires sprinklers or some other type of fire-suppression devices.

Some New York City Fire Department officials say cuts in manpower over the last five years have weakened enforcement of the city's own safety code for offices. In 1974, New York employed about 14,000 firemen; today it has 11,500.

This downward trend, mostly because of budget cutting, is seen in cities across the country, says Skip Smith of the Fire Marshal's Association of America , adding that some small departments have been cut by as much as one-third.

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This kind of manpower decline obviously also affects the extent the NFPA code is enforced. In some instances, the code is not well enforced, association spokesmen say. On the other hand, the adoption of the code appears to signal a commitment to tough standards.

Moreover, communities without the NFPA code tend to rely on building-code regulations as a means of addressing fire safety, says NFPA Life Safety Code expert Jim Lathrop. But often these codes, as they relate to fire protection, apply only to new buildings and "are not retroactive."

In addition, buildings often are not inspected on a regular basis. The NFPA code has to be enforced by fire officials, usually providing an extra layer of regulation and protection.

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