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Flat Roofs and Fire Safety: Pelli's Red Fin Rises Amid Helipad Debate

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In a two-part series, Curbed looks at a long-standing, but far-from-universally-embraced Los Angeles building code that requires all buildings 75 feet and taller to have a helicopter landing pad. Part 1 ran yesterday.

The deadly 1988 fire at the AON Building, which didn't have an adequate sprinkler system at the time (sprinklers are now required on all buildings) and which was aided by helicopters (discussed yesterday); Pelli's Red Building; an older shot of Century City's skyline

Nate Wittasek, an engineer who worked on the under-construction Red Building at the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood and Thom Mayne’s planned Emerson College project in Hollywood, isn’t too concerned with the aesthetics of a building. Architects may gripe about the lack of spires and domes, but Wittasek is eying the stairwells, the elevators, and the lobbies.

A fire and life safety engineer at ARUP, a global engineering firm, Wittasek spends his days designing escape routes. He imagines the worst that can happen to a structure—a car bomb explodes outside a hotel or a plane slams into an office tower—and creates systems to get people out of those buildings.

“From an engineering point of view, the helipad isn’t the best use of money,” believes Wittasek, a former firefighter who also serves on the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, a Chicago-based group that studies the planning and design of buildings. “You’re spending all this money and infrastructure on something that is rarely used. What if you put the money towards something that was more beneficial?”

Wittasek is part of a team that created a modern fire safety system for the Red Building, the first major building exempted from Los Angeles County’s helipad requirement, according to Deputy Chief David R. Richardson at the County of Los Angeles Fire Department. “They proposed a [fire safety] system that was better than what was originally supposed to go in,” says Richardson. The building will open next year.

If the commercial building, which is 11 and 14 stories at its highest points, is a design triumph for architect Cesar Pelli and project architect Gruen Associates, the project shows that the disagreement about helipads extends beyond architecture. The debate is also about how to fight fires, and that’s where safety experts continue to disagree.

In Wittasek’s view, the helipad’s benefits are “negligible,” in the history of fire safety. For one thing, a helicopter can only pick up a certain number of people at a time, he says, while smoke and heat may prevent a helicopter from even being able to land.

The Red Building's fire safety system includes pressurized elevators--super elevators that don’t allow smoke to be sucked in--as well as refuge areas, and closed circuit televisions. There's also a helicopter ‘area,” but it’s not on the very top of the building, nor is it capable of holding the full weight of a fire department helicopter.

Curtis Massey, president and CEO of Massey Enterprises Inc, a Virginia-based fire safety and disaster consultant, agrees that pressurized elevators are an emerging trend, but also believes the LAFD is ahead of the curve because of their helipad requirement.

“The helipad is extremely beneficial,” he says. "If you have a terrorist attack or an earthquake or a fire, a helipad can be a big plus.”

Here's Massey's doomsday scenario: Fires are raging out of control at numerous buildings. The LAFD is stretched to capacity. But flying over numerous buildings, the LAFD’s Air Operations can deliver firefighters to secure the upper floors of the building and send information about what's happening above to firefighters on the ground.

If no other major city has this helipad requirement, that’s because most fire departments don’t have the funds to maintain an Air Division. “LA is more progressive because it has an extensive helicopter fleet," he says.

Ultimately every local fire department chooses how it wants to fight fires, says Robert Solomon, division manager for Building and Life Safety at the National Fire Protection Association, a Massachusetts-based independent non-profit group that develops and recommends fire codes that federal, local, and municipal agencies can choose to adopt.

For instance, like the LAFD, the Miami Fire Department maintains an aerial division, while Fire Department of New York doesn't use any helicopters. "The FDNY uses an aggressive interior attack on high rise fires," writes Frank Dwyer, rep for the FDNY in an email, "and utilizes stand pipes to bring water to upper floors."

According to Solomon, about four years ago, a fire chief in South Florida asked the NFPA to consider recommending helipads on new tall buildings in every state. The NFPA studied the proposed building code and discussed it over a period of 14 months.

“In the end, we couldn’t recommend it,” says Solomon. There are too many variables that make helipad requirements unfeasible, he says. Buildings may choose to store antennas, satellite dishes or other equipment on their roofs. Additionally, helicopter use in high-rise fires is risky, he believes, given that the heat and high winds can cause a helicopter to crash, exacerbating an already dangerous situation.

“Is it possible, is it doable, is it feasible?” says Solomon, of high-rise helicopter rescue. “Yes, if you have just the right set of elements, it could work.”

And it's that window which has the LAFD defending the helipad. In a follow-up email to Building and Safety's Bud Ovrom this fall, it was pointed out that based on our interviews, the LAFD is pretty firm on the helipad code. In fact, the department is as strong-willed and strident in their position on the helipad as the critics are who rail against its requirement. Since Ovrom started this discussion, what's his response to our belief that the LAFD won't consider changing the rule?

“I have not been told that the Fire Dept 'will not consider' any changes,” Ovrom wrote back. “We accept that, at the end of the day, the Fire Department is the final say in this matter. I remain hopeful that [LAFD Fire Chief Millage Peaks] will at least be open to a conversation and consideration of this matter.”


SIDEBAR: ALL ABOUT 9/11


Shortly, after 9/11, the Los Angeles helipad requirement was mentioned in a Wall Street Journal story entitled: "Could Helicopters Have Saved People From the Top of the Trade Center?" The piece suggested LA's building code may become more popular after the attacks.

While the South Tower was completely obscured by smoke, making any rescue impossible, some pilots quoted in the story believe that if people in the North Tower had been able reach the roof, (the doors were locked, due to the expensive antenna equipment on the roof) rescue by helicopter would been “difficult but possible.”

A rep for the FDNY is quoted as saying that it's unlikely anyone could have been saved, and that the department did the right thing by directing people down the stairs, ultimately evacuating 25,000 people.

For his part, Robert Solomon, division manager for the NFPA, says from everything he has studied about the 9/11, a helicopter rescue wasn’t feasible. In addition to the heat, smoke, and the antennas, “you have a structure that’s already compromised. The last thing you want to do is put an additional weight on a building. “

Still, 9/11 is an example of the "what if" scenario that dictates why the LAFD wants to keep the code.

Following the attacks, NYC building code now calls for impact-resistant stairwells on high-rises. Additionally, installing pressurized elevators is one fire safety option under the latest building code, according to Ryan Fitzgibbon, NYC Department of Buildings spokeswoman.

You can read the Wall Street Journal story here.