Sunday's apartment fire shows importance of construction codes
by Amanda Ryker
Jun 19, 2012 | 2183 views | 0 0 comments | 10 10 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Bartow County Fire Marshal Bryan Cox points to a firewall in the attic area of a Stonehaven Circle apartment that caught fire Sunday afternoon. The one-hour rated partition prevented the blaze from spreading to a neighboring unit.
AMANDA RYKER/The Daily Tribune News
Bartow County Fire Marshal Bryan Cox points to a firewall in the attic area of a Stonehaven Circle apartment that caught fire Sunday afternoon. The one-hour rated partition prevented the blaze from spreading to a neighboring unit. AMANDA RYKER/The Daily Tribune News
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Two families were displaced following Sunday’s blaze, with the American Red Cross offering assistance to both. The cause of the fire remains under investigation.
AMANDA RYKER/The Daily Tribune News
Two families were displaced following Sunday’s blaze, with the American Red Cross offering assistance to both. The cause of the fire remains under investigation. AMANDA RYKER/The Daily Tribune News
slideshow
Two families have been displaced and received assistance from the American Red Cross after a fire suddenly tore through the attic of one unit at the Cartersville Stonehaven Circle apartment complex they called home. The blaze broke out Sunday afternoon, but the family told Bartow County Fire Marshal Bryan Cox they had smelled smoke an hour prior to signs of flames.

"[The building is] up to code, but that's why it's so important to know what to do," Cox said, noting that the adult male was able to get his two family members out of the home before returning up the stairwell to open the door and let the cat escape as well. "When he got on the stairs with his family, the ceiling was starting to give way. They smelled smoke an hour before, but they thought it was someone barbecuing outside."

Firefighters arrived on the scene approximately three minutes after the call was dispatched through 911. Upon arrival, they witnessed heavy smoke and flames coming from the attic. The two lower units were unoccupied and residents were not home in the second unit at the time of the fire. One upper level unit was lost, but the other was spared -- though significant damage was sustained due to smoke and water.

The cause of the fire is unknown and under investigation at this time.

Preventative measures were in place during the construction phase of the apartments should a fire occur. Along with a heavy door, a firewall consisting of two pieces of five-eighths of an inch sealed drywall created a barrier between the two units, preventing the fire from spreading.

"It's a one-hour rated firewall. It's double five-eighths, one on each side," Cox said. "That held 2,000 degree temperature and kept it from advancing [toward the other unit]. That's how important that is. If we hadn't had that, or it hadn't been properly constructed, it would have been the same thing [on the other side]. There would have been nothing we could have done to have stopped this."

Looking at the firewall, though, a violation post-construction is visible. Wires for cable and WiFi were installed. While it is not against the code to run lines through a firewall, one preventative measure is missing as the cables are not sealed in a protective sleeve with fire caulking.

Other pieces of construction material scattered around the unit cannot say the same, as many pieces did not survive the flames.

"There are two things that contributed to this fire: it's in an enclosed area, and No. 2, we had all this meltdown," Cox said, pointing to the siding and building material. "All this stuff is secondary. This is what vinyl siding will do. It's a plastic, it's gonna melt. The main thing is, there's provisions in the code that will help."

Looking down the small slope to the nearest neighbors, pieces of vinyl are melted and peeling away from the building. Flames, Cox said, rise. Should the lower building have been ablaze, the fire would have traveled up the hill, igniting the neighboring building. In this case, the structure on higher ground was the victim and the closest building was spared.

"[The remaining one] tells the tale. It's what, 40 feet away?" Cox said, observing the distance. "Let's reverse this role. If that building had been our fire building we probably would have lost both of them. The reason being, it's up and out. That's how much radiant heat that was getting from that [fire] being above to the [downward slope], which is not a natural heat flow."

On the flip-side, though, the building did not have a sprinkler system.

"If we were to have a sprinkler system in the attic, it would have been minimal," Cox said. "That's where you can truly see the pros and cons of sprinkled versus non-sprinkled."

The American Red Cross responded to the area Sunday to assist the families in need -- one of which lost everything and had no insurance.

"The owner of the building will get the building replaced," Cox said. "Renter's insurance is cheap. I know times are hard, but if you're depending on somebody else's action or inaction then you've got issues. ... If you're renting a single or multi-family dwelling, that owner's homeowner's insurance won't necessarily cover your items. Unless you have a policy for one particular item, you may lose everything. That's why renter's insurance is so important."

On a larger scale, the Georgia Highlands College student life center that is nearly complete has several provisions in place for life-and property-saving measures should a fire break out. In the building, a special type of door is installed that acts as a roll-up barrier. Those barriers are designed to close when the alarm sounds, sealing off parts of the building.

"It's called compartmentation," Cox said. "What that does is give them a safer way to get out. If you've got to lose a building you want to lose part of it, not all."

Cartersville Fire Department Fire Marshal Mark Hathaway said that all buildings with more than 5,000 square feet must have a sprinkler system in place per a city ordinance that includes requirements beyond the state's minimum standards. Apartments, though, are not required by the city to have a sprinkler system unless they are four stories or greater.

Also, Hathaway said apartment complex owners are not required to provide fire extinguishers in individual units, but common areas such as a laundry room or lounge must have extinguishers available. The same rule applies to hotels.

The new GHC building has three-hour ratings on the firewalls, a sprinkler system, fire caulking around the HVAC system in the ceiling of the gymnasium and two hour fire-rated doors that are held open via a magnetic system, which forces the doors closed when the alarm is tripped.

Although the family who was home during the fire smelled smoke prior to the Sunday apartment fire, Cox encourages Bartow residents to seek the source of the flame, or call for help.

"If they think something is wrong, go ahead and call," Cox said. "They just thought it was somebody barbecuing and with Father's Day, everything was in line with that. If you don't know, walk outside, determine the source of the smell and if you can't determine it, call us. We're trying to save a life and prevent any great loss of property."

Friends have established a Facebook page for funds to be provided to the affected families and for future families who share a loss of property through fire. To learn more or offer assistance, visit https://www.facebook.com/VictimsOfFireReliefFund.