Lightning, fires and apartments: Who’s counting the strikes and calling the shots?
According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), an estimated 95,000 apartment structure fires occurred in the U.S. in 2016. How many of these fires were sparked by lightning is unclear, but a quick Google search of the words “lightning, fires and apartments” reveals news accounts of dozens of lightning-sparked property losses throughout the country–and that’s just this summer. With thunderstorm season ramping up in July, the number of lightning-sparked apartment fires is likely to increase—if not double by the end of September.
Finding accurate statistical information for any property loss due to lightning is already challenging, as available data is comprised of estimates derived from the U.S. Fire Administration’s (USFA’s) National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS) and an annual survey of U.S. fire departments. According to NFPA, NFIRS is a voluntary system, with an estimated two-thirds of U.S. fire departments participating. And of those who are participating, not all provide data every year. FEMA data cites that fires reported to federal or state fire departments or industrial fire brigades are also omitted in the NFIRS estimates. Furthermore, since lightning fire classification charts published by NFPA have cited exclusions of fires at “apartments or other multi-family housing,” data about lightning-sparked fires at U.S. apartment complexes has been virtually non-existent. (Disclaimer/Challenge: This author was unable to obtain these statistics, but urges readers to cite or share pertinent data.)
Determining who the gatekeepers are and locating the accurate data is only part of the puzzle. When it comes to lightning and apartment buildings, it’s also unclear as to who is calling the shots and making the final decisions regarding risk assessment, tolerable risk and whether lightning protection should be employed as mitigation. According to Virginia construction sources contacted for this blog, “developers and home builders typically play leading roles in the design and construction of residential buildings and apartment complexes with building codes and standards (voluntary or otherwise), serving as key drivers in the construction decision-making process.” Sources added that “many structural systems and requirements for various building amenities are identified and finalized during schematic design and design development.”
When it comes to lightning protection specification, engineers, architects, safety professionals and building owners, typically rely on the NFPA Risk Assessment methodology (found in NFPA 780 Standard for the Installation of Lightning Protection Systems) to determine the risk of damage due to lightning. The NFPA risk index compares the expected direct strikes to the structure with the occupancy and contents to evaluate whether lightning protection should be specified or considered optional. When evaluating the lightning risk, the methodology takes into account these factors:
- Type of construction
- Structure occupancy
- Structure contents
- Lightning stroke consequences
Although Risk Assessment methodology provides a formula for gauging potential for the lightning hazard, a practical guideline for building risk assessment is to weigh consideration of the probability of a lightning event and the consequences of such an event at a given location. Oftentimes, the presence of a single risk factor is more than enough to render a structure vulnerable and in need of protection. Since a lightning strike can introduce a chain reaction of destruction, structures that house large numbers of people—like nursing homes, hospitals, schools and apartment complexes, should certainly be considered as prime candidates for lightning protection.
When calling the shots for building lightning safe, it certainly makes sense for planners to heed the advice of NFPA emergency service experts and include community officials, first responders and the local fire marshal in the risk assessment process. Per NFPA recommendations, “including your response community as part of the risk assessment is beneficial, as local experts have tactical knowledge, in revealing vulnerabilities because they have that mindset.”
In closing, I’d like to make a final pitch to our fire safety professionals to include lightning in their NFIRS and NFPA reports wherever relevant, so that communities and decision-makers can have an accurate strike count. When fire professionals and first responders “umpire” lightning safety, it helps prevent under-reporting about a potentially-devastating weather hazard and increases awareness about a preventable risk.
The Lightning Protection Institute (LPI) provides education materials and resources for building planners and community officials to consider when weighing the lightning risk. Visit the LPI website and LPI’s Build and Protect A&E portal for free information.
Further safety information about the hazard fire poses to apartment and condominiums, along with life-saving steps residents can take in the event of a fire, are available at these FEMA and NFPA web links.