Death by Fire? Probably Not: Full Transcript

Death by Fire? Probably Not

Stephen J. Dubner: So imagine it’s a Thursday night. You just got off work, you’re meeting some friends at a club. One of your favorite bands is playing. You get there, you get a beer, your friends are in a good mood, one of them just got a promotion, the opening act isn’t bad. And then the headliner comes on. As they bang out the first few chords, you see a shower of sparks up near the stage. You think, hey, cool: a good old-fashioned rock-and-roll pyrotechnic show. But something goes wrong. The sparks catch the wall on fire, and next thing you know flames are shooting out from the stage, right toward you.

Dan MADRYZKOWSKI: And now flames were rolling the ceiling over the dance floor. And the hot gases and the smoke, and the toxic smoke, started coming down from the ceiling, which is about 12-feet tall or so. And it was down to within eighteen inches of the floor in less than ninety seconds after ignition.

So you can imagine just people trying to get out of there. In this particular case, a lot of bodies ended up. People were pushing and trying to get out and they ended up stacked on each other in the doorway. There were other collections of bodies throughout the nightclub that were found, found dead. Really, really a tragedy. So, about 25 percent of the people that were in the nightclub that night died. And about 50 percent of the people that were in the nightclub that night were seriously injured, many of them having to get multiple surgeries, you know, ears burned off, hands burned off or damaged, just horrible, horrible injuries. All they wanted to do was go out and relax and have a night of fun. And things drastically turned in 90 seconds.

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ANNOUNCER: From WNYC and APM, American Public Media, this is Freakonomics Radio. Today: underappreciated improvements in fires safety. And how a century-old fire is keeping you safe right now. Here’s your host, Stephen Dubner.

DUBNER: You probably remember the story of that nightclub fire. It was February 23, 2003. The club was called the Station. It’s in West Warwick, Rhode Island, an old mill town. One hundred people were killed; another 230 were injured.  It was one of the deadliest fires in American history. It’s also the kind of thing that just doesn’t happen much anymore. Over the past hundred years, the U.S. death rate from accidental fires has dropped roughly 90 percent. About a hundred years ago, some 9,000 people died in fires every year, a rate of about 9 per 100,000 people. Today, there are about 3,000 fire deaths a year, a rate of about one per 100,000 people. That’s a remarkable improvement.  One of the most underappreciated improvements I can think of. Dan Madrzykowski is the latest in the long, long line of people to whom we owe our thanks. He’s a fire protection engineer at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, or NIST. The day after the fire at the Station nightclub, Madrzykowski arrived on the scene. It was raining.

MADRZYKOWSKI: You know, there were still cars in the parking lot from victims. Family members and friends of victims were coming by to leave flowers and teddy bears, and you know, collect the vehicles. And needless to say, with the rain and whatnot, it was quite the setting for, deservedly so, a lot of sadness and grieving. We collected the information we could. We made measurements the best we could so that we could develop a simulation and re-creation of this fire so we could get a better understanding.

DUBNER: The understanding they reached was pretty simple: The pyrotechnics ignited some polyurethane foam insulation — soundproofing, Madryzkowski says, that the club put up in response to neighbors’ complaints about noise. The exits were hard to get to. There weren’t any sprinklers. Nobody at the club had a fire plan. After the Station fire, Rhode Island changed its codes. Simple things, like … posting exit signs near the floor, so if you’re crawling through smoke, you can find your way out. They ditched a “grandfather clause” that exempted old buildings from modern safety requirements like sprinklers. Things catch on fire sometimes; that probably not going to change anytime soon. But people dying in the flames? To a modern fire scientist like Madrzykowski, even 3,000 deaths a year is unacceptable.

MADRZYKOWSKI: That’s still too many. I mean that’s a terrible way to go, and the cost of fire continues to go up.

DUBNER: Something as bad as the Station fire, with its big fatality count — it’s bound to grab the headlines. But do you know the median number of deaths in a fatal fire in America? It’s one. More than half of all fatal fires in the U.S. have just one fatality. And 85 percent of fatal fires happen not in a nightclub or an office building or a school — but at home. That’s where Dan Madrzykowski is trying to help.

MADRZYKOWSKI: Sort of the ultimate thing right now for residential occupancies are residential sprinklers. The big difference between a smoke alarm system and a sprinkler system is the sprinkler system controls the hazard; it starts to shut the fire down. It reduces the amount of toxic gas that’s being produced. It reduces the amount of heat that’s being produced, and it gives the firefighters a better environment to work in when they get there to save your home or to save anyone who’s still trapped in an apartment building, in an adjacent apartment, or things like that.

DUBNER: So, Dan, if you were in charge of the world, or at least this country for a little while, would you want every home in America to have to have a sprinkler system?

MADRZYKOWSKI: That would certainly be the direction, and there are many counties and states that are moving in that direction. At the same time, even though the national model codes have called for sprinklers in the home, local authorities can say we’re not going to adopt that part of the model. So, just recently in Pennsylvania, just the other day, they voted to not accept the residential construction code as it is with the sprinkler requirement in it. They’re going to defer implementing the sprinkler requirement in all new homes in that state. On the other hand, California just adopted the regulation, and every new home in California will have sprinklers in it, automatic fire sprinklers.

So the trend is coming, it’s coming. One of your challenges is fire is also a bit of a socio-economic problem. If you’re poor, if you’re very young under 5, or if you’re elderly over 65, you have a higher chance of dying in fire than the rest of the population in the United States.

DUBNER: Dan, I know that smoking is a leading cause of fatal fire. If you have a few too many drinks, you kind of lose track of where the cigarette is. That kind of makes sense, a cigarette is a pretty good little torch. You have any good solutions for that?

MADRZYKOWSKI: So, NIST has been conducting research for the past 20 years looking at cigarette ignition, looking at ways to improve the safety or the fire resistance of furnishings, because typically it’s a cigarette, somebody’s smoking in bed, the cigarette falls on the bedding, and then gets the mattress involved in the fire. Or the cigarette falls in the sofa and starts the sofa on fire. So NIST has been looking at this on multiple fronts. One is trying to improve the furnishings, and then two how do we make a safer cigarette? In the past, cigarettes if you start to smoke it, and leave it in the ashtray, and you forget about it, it’s going to basically burn itself up completely. And this is also a high cost to the consumer that are smoking.

DUBNER: Wait a minute, wait a minute you’re telli
ng me you’re concerned about the poor people who buy cigarettes and don’t get to smoke the whole thing?

MADRZYKOWSKI: I’m just saying that’s a side benefit.

DUBNER: You’re a good guy Dan, you’re a good guy. You care about everybody.

MADRZYKOWSKI: We’re trying to make as many win-win situations as we can here.

But the bottom line is now with the less fire-prone cigarette, when you light it, it should self-extinguish. So that means it won’t be smoldering in the bedding, it won’t be smoldering in the sofa, and there’s less chance for it to start a fire. It’s not a completely fire-safe cigarette, but certainly it’s a great improvement. All fifty states have now voted to require only those types of cigarettes to be sold in their state. And according to NFPA,  the National Fire Protection Association, there’s been a decrease already in smoking fires, smoking related fires. So, as this is starting to spread across the states, we’re hoping that that part of the fire problem can almost be eliminated. So that would be a big chunk if we can get rid of those fatalities, that’s almost a third of the number of fatalities that occur in people’s homes. So that’s a big start.

The next big number so to speak would be the cooking equipment. About 17 percent of civilian fatalities happen as a result of cooking equipment fires, or fires involving cooking equipment. But the reality is typically it’s unattended cooking. So, you know, when you have these fires again, people don’t appreciate the magnitude, how it can go from sort of nothing to full fire involvement. Flashing over a room where we have flames floor to ceiling and smoke, just toxic smoke pushing throughout the entire structure. What can be done to examine cooking equipment, and perhaps make it so it will shut itself off, so that if no one is around the stove for 20 minutes, maybe due to a motion sensor, it just stops cooking, or that it has maybe a temperature regulator on it so if the pan starts to get too hot, close to the auto-ignition temperature, where basically oil or food in the pan would just burst into flames, it will prevent it from getting to it’s auto-ignition temperature, or smart sensors. So NIST is working with a group of fire professionals to try and see what can be done about this cooking problem because that’s the next big number we want to try to try to attack to bring down.

DUBNER: Coming up, one of the worst fires in history, and how, eventually, it saved a lot of lives.

Forty people going down the steps, we all tumble one right after another. And I saw people throwing themselves from the window. And as soon as we went down, we couldn’t get out, because the bodies were coming down. It was terrible.

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ANNOUNCER: From WNYC and APM, American Public Media, this is Freakonomics Radio.

DUBNER: Exactly 100 years ago, in March of 1911, there was a fire in the Asch Building — that’s A-S-C-h — in Manhattan. The building housed a garment factory, for a company called Triangle Shirtwaist. The fire started on the eighth floor, probably when someone tossed a match or a cigarette into a pile of clothing scraps. A lot of things went wrong from there — the seamstresses on the ninth floor weren’t promptly told about the fire, the exit door was locked, the fire escapes collapsed — and 146 people were killed, most of them young women. The irony was that the Asch Building was one of the new breed of “fireproof” buildings that were going up all over New York. It’s an appealing word, “fireproof.” But in this case, it only meant that the building itself wouldn’t easily catch on fire. It was made of steel and masonry. Everything inside the building, though– the wooden floors, the piles of fabric, the seamstresses — they could burn, and they did.

Pauline Pepe was one of the survivors.

Pauline PEPE: I saw the fire in the tables, where they were all filled with lingerie material, you know. And that come up in a flame. When I saw that, I ran out. I went to the door we go out with, but the fire was there, so I went to the door that was closed. I didn’t know that was closed. I went there, and I found the door closed. I just stood there ’til they opened it. Forty people going down the steps, we all tumble one right after another. And I saw people throwing themselves from the window. And as soon as we went down, we couldn’t get out, because the bodies were coming down. It was terrible.

DUBNER: Turn-of-the-century America, the cities in particular, were regularly punctuated by catastrophic fires. Entire apartment blocks, neighborhoods, even whole cities burned to the ground. So what happened? How’d that stop? I asked Robert Solomon.  He manages the Building, Fire Protection, and Life Safety Department at the National Fire Protection Association.  It’s a group that ties together architects and insurance companies and fire departments to study fire and write national standards and safety codes.

Robert SOLOMON: That really was kind of a pivotal fire in U.S. history, where prior to that, even though we had fires with many, many fatalities — we had a school fire in 1908, for example that killed 172 children in a suburb just outside of Cleveland, Ohio — but the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire was kind of that watershed moment when everybody said, “Enough!”  You know, when you look at the building regulations at that time, many of them were really directed at preserving the building itself, the structure, and the contents, but the people, you know, kind of not given a very high priority. So, Triangle Shirtwaist, you know, clearly was the watershed moment that got everybody’s attention, said you know, what can we do, what should we be doing for this concept that we now refer to as life safety? You know, what features, what actions can we take to help protect the occupants?

DUBNER: Before that the aim had been much more about protecting property, right, is what you’re saying? And now the aim has shifted to a large degree to protecting lives, yes?

SOLOMON: Exactly, exactly. And like I said, even though we had these horrible fires, you know, there just seemed to be the right circumstances just weren’t there to do something about it. So

DUBNER: So, a 146 people died at the Triangle fire 100 years ago. One fire in one day in New York City.  In 2009, the last year for which the data are so far available, in all of New York City, for the whole year, seventy-three people died. So literally one half the number in the entire city for the entire year died as in the Triangle fire. How did we get there?

SOLOMON: Well, you know, we got there by starting to, you know, broaden the scope of these different codes and rules, and you know in provisions that had been out there. To say, okay, you know how to do this, can you do it for this notion of occupant protection. So over the years, you know we just see, you know, NFPA telling me how many exits I need from each floor, how wide do the exit doors have to be, how wide do the exit stairs have to be, how do I protect the exit stairs, when do we start to specify early warning systems like building fire alarm systems? You know, we’re now able to automatically notify the fire department. We’re going to put sprinkler systems in. So, just as technology moved forward, and the studies on these horrible fires kind of became a little bit more formal, it gave NFPA and some of these new NFPA committees the chance to come up with some rules and provisions to preclude that type of event in the future.

DUBNER: When I was a kid, we lived in an old wooden farmhouse in the countryside, in the back of beyond, really.  I was pretty scared as a kid —
scared that something bad would happen to my parents, scared that my future Major League Baseball career would be ended by premature injury. But the scariest thing in the world was if I was at school or in town and heard the alarm go off at the fire station. Every time, I was sure it was my house on fire. And I’d jump on my bike and pedal home as fast as I could, uphill all the way, 1.6 miles, and I’d collapse when I got home. My house never burned down. But it could have. The chimney was still scarred from a fire from when the previous owners lived there.

I have kids now, about the same age I was back at the height of my fear. And you know what? They don’t think about our house burning down at all. Like, never. I talked to Dan Madrzykowski, the fire scientist, about this. He said that lack of fear is not necessarily a good thing

MADRZYKOWSKI: People don’t consider fire as a threat. If you were to tell people would you rather have a fire protection system in your home or a burglar alarm system in your home, I think most people would probably vote for the burglar alarm. They’re concerned about crime, perhaps. But people have candles in their home, people really don’t appreciate, they don’t have a feel for I have this little flame, or this small candle, for example, and if that were to get tipped over or the container would break, and flame would spread to my sofa or to my bed or something. They really don’t appreciate just how rapidly the hazard from that fire can build up and threaten their family and their home. I mean, seconds.

DUBNER: Now, I got to…I wouldn’t tell anybody else this, but I was a pretty bad pyro as a kid. Were you?

MADRZYKOWSKI: A little, but, you know, again, this is one of these things where the government has found a good way to put my talents to good use for society.

DUBNER: Yeah, they got me doing radio, that’s not really a good fit.

ANNOUNCER: Freakonomics Radio is a coproduction of WNYC, APM, American Public Media, and Dubner Productions. This episode was produced by Shia Levitt and mixed by David Herman. Our staff includes Suzie Lechtenberg, Chris Neary and Collin Campbell. Subscribe to this podcast on iTunes and you’ll get the next episode in your sleep. You can find more audio at freakonomicsradio.com. And, as always, if you want to read more about the hidden side of everything, visit freakonomics.com.