To survive a high-rise fire, should residents stay or go?


High-rise view of 8th Avenue in Midtown Manhattan, where many residents don't know what to do in case of a fire in their building. Photo: Stassy Olmos

In Midtown Manhattan, many residents in high-rises don’t know what to do in case of a fire. Photo: Stassy Olmos.

In September, a 51-year-old Broadway actress died from burn injuries after a fire broke out in her apartment on the 33 floor of Manhattan Plaza, a Midtown high-rise on West 43 Street. In 2014, a 27-year-old man who lived on the 38 floor of a nearby high-rise, The Strand, was found dead in the stairwell after trying to flee a fire in the building.

There have been nearly 30,000 structural fires in Manhattan in the past five years, according to the New York Fire Department, and 2,000 of those were classified as serious. According to a 2014 article in The New York Times, 18 of the 67 fire deaths in 2013 occurred in high-rises, which, along with the recent fatalities, raises a specific question: In the case of a high-rise fire, should residents stay or go?

The FDNY said that the man found in the stairwell should have stayed. Instead of trying to flee a fire, residents should put a wet towel at the bottom of their door and wait on the balcony or by an open window for the fire department.

Douglas Leland, the president of the Manhattan Plaza Tenants Association, says that his building held a fire safety meeting after the tragedy at The Strand, where the FDNY told residents not to leave their apartments unless the fire was in their apartment or the apartment directly below. Leland says he was, “shocked how many people still left their apartments during the fire.”

A report by the National Fire Protection Association, “High-Rise Building Fires,” found that the presence of fire resistant construction and wet-pipe sprinklers is actually greater in high-rise buildings. But in fires, people have an innate sense of “fight or flight” and automatically want to run.

Luis Lars, the head doorman at Tower 53, a Midtown high-rise on West 53 Street, says his 40-floor residential building is well prepared if a fire were to occur. There are assigned duties for every staff member to perform, and his job is to pick up the phone in the red “Fire Warden Box,” which directly connects him to the fire department located two blocks away.

“If the fire is on the 20th floor, I notify those resident first, what to do—either stay or go because this is a fire safe building,” Lars says, “Then I contact the floor above and below, then floors in order from there.”

A few blocks away at The Residences at Worldwide Plaza on West 50 Street, Xavier Jainez works as the concierge. He says tenants receive a manual with fire safety protocols upon moving in. He points to the warden box directly behind him and says the system will send out emails to residents about whether to stay in their apartments or exit via the staircase.

But across the street, it’s a different story. The doorman at the Avalon says when the fire alarms go off, the fire department is notified, and that’s all he knows. A spokesperson for the property management company says the fire safety instructions are attached to each resident’s lease.

However, not everyone reads them.

Juan Concepcion lives on the 9 floor of a high-rise building on West 50 Street with his wife and three young children. If he heard a fire alarm going off in his building, he says, “I… run to the closest stairs.” Two years ago, when he moved in, the complex gave him a fire safety paper to read and keep, but when it came to reading it, he says, “I started, but not interested.”

Dolores Cruz lives around the corner on West 51 Street in a 38-story high-rise and says the fire safety paper her building gave her is under a magnet on her fridge. She’s been living on the third floor of Hudsonview Terrace for 40 years. In case of a fire in the building she says, “Feel the door, and if it’s hot, stay in your apartment.”

When asked who’s responsible for informing tenants of fire safety protocols, Capt. Brendan Deehan with the NYFD says it’s a “good question.” He says that the fire association used to put fire safety commercials on television, but now, from time to time, they go to residential buildings and schools, and teach people what to do. He says it’s really up to property management companies to inform their tenants. “I don’t see how the fire department could be responsible for teaching every single citizen,” Deehan says.