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Could a 'Grenfell Tower' fire occur here in the U.S?

People here in Pennsylvania and around the world watched in horror last month as a high-rise apartment complex in London became a blazing inferno. All 24 stories of Grenfell Tower became engulfed in flames, resulting in dozens of known fatalities and many others still missing and presumed dead.

Two immediate questions for many people were what caused the fire and whether it could happen here in the United States. Those questions are interconnected because they relate to safety standards.

The fire, which made its way from the fourth floor up the building's exterior in just 15 minutes, was caused by a Hotpoint refrigerator/freezer made by Whirlpool. However, the reason it spread so quickly and so far was because of the combustible materials used when the structure was built.

In the U.S., fire safety experts some years ago recommended a test, NFPA 285, be used to determine the combustibility of materials used in building exteriors. This was done to guard against fires spreading via exterior walls or to interior floors on higher levels. That test has become a requirement.

Fire industry experts in the United Kingdom are aware of the potential dangers inherent in these combustible materials. However, the materials remain in use because they improve a building's appearance and make it more thermally effective.

Prior to the Grenfall Tower fire, some energy conservation advocates had been working to reduce or eliminate the requirement for NFPA 285 here in the states. They've argued for greater use of plastics, which are considered more environmentally friendly than the materials currently used. The advocates were successful in getting some local codes modified to reduce or eliminate this testing.

When a serious structural fire occurs, there are often many entities that bear responsibility, from government agencies to builders to property owners and others. Pennsylvania premises liability attorneys are among those who work to determine who should be held liable for damages, injuries and deaths.

Source: Fortune, "How the London Building Fire Could Happen in America," Aaron Johnson, June 23, 2017

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