The National Institute of Standards and Technology, or NIST, released a three year study on the 2007 tragic Sofa Super Store fire in Charleston that killed nine firefighters. One element that NIST study leader Nelson Bryner says played a key role in the spread and growth of the fire was the lack of sprinklers at the store.
The computer simulations demonstrate that the sprinklers would have activated in 50 to 75 seconds and would have controlled the fire on the loading dock. The fire would not have spread to the showrooms.
In a press briefing today, Bryner used state-of-the-art computer simulations to show the technical parts of the study. The simulations were used to show what the temperatures were like during the fire, the spread of the fire, what the oxygen levels were and how much smoke was generated.
Bryner says this particular study was based on the institute’s expertise–fire science.
We cannot tell you based on our findings how or why the firefighters became trapped. We also cannot tell you whether the decisions made before, during or after the fire were right or wrong. What we can tell you, with reasonable accuracy, is the probable, technical cause for the fire’s rapid spread and what actions can be taken to hopefully prevent loss of life from a similar fire in the future.
Bryner says their study began just 36 hours after the fire. He says when NIST arrived on scene they immediately began gathering as much information as possible.
Its contents on the day of the fire, the fire event itself, we gathered records about the building, we gathered videos and photographs of the store before, during and after the fire, radio transmissions from first responders, we conducted informal discussions with store employees, interviews with firefighters and reviewed other public material.
The blaze progressed at a rapid rate due to several important factors. These factors include:
Large open spaces and doorways that remained open, allowing the fire to move from the loading dock, to the showroom and between the various showrooms. High fuel loads provided by the high-foamed furniture. The lack of automatic sprinklers to suppress the fire in its early stages. Metal walls that allowed the heat from the fire to move from the loading dock to the showrooms to the warehouse. The venting of smoke by breaking the store’s front windows provided additional air to the fire.
Those findings led NIST to several recommendations:
All states and local jurisdictions should adopt model building and fire codes that specifically address high fuel load commercial spaces. Second, all state and local jurisdictions should implement aggressive fire inspection and enforcement programs. Third, all state and local authorities should adopt and enforce model codes that require automatic sprinkler systems for all new commercial retail furniture stores, regardless of size.
Bryner says NIST is giving the public a chance to make comments and recommendations, as well. Here’s how:
When NIST issues a report of a fire study like this one, we often provide it in draft form so that comments from public can be considered. We urge that all parties review the draft report and send us their comments by December 2 to firstname.lastname@example.org. Directions for submitting comments are provided on our website at www.nist.gov.
The Sofa Super Store fire had the highest number of firefighter fatalities since 9/11.