March 25th is the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. As we look back over a century of phenomenal improvements in fire and life protection, we know that this fire ushered in a new era in workplace safety and workers rights. Up until this time, the focus of the insurance and building industries was on protecting property. The Asch Building was designed to withstand a fire and it did. However, the workers and contents were consumed. There were no codes, as we know them today that dealt with life safety.
New York City Fire Chief Edward Croker, an early fire prevention advocate, had stated on various occasions before the fire, that the fire department could not effectively fight a fire above the 7th floor. Ladder 20, the tallest in New York City, could only reach the 6th floor. The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire was on the 8th, 9th, and 10th floors.
The most important code changes that came out of this fire were the requirements for fire drills, limiting smoking in the workplace, and the posting of exit signs. There was no fire alarm system then and very few telephones to call in a fire. Locked doors were a major issue along with very narrow stairs.
After this fire, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) as well as local authorities and state legislatures, especially New York, and eventually the Federal government changed the emphasis from simply preserving cities from fire to trying to safeguard lives.
An excellent synopsis of state and local reforms that grew in response to this tragedy is from the Cornell University digital library. In the next few years, the new board made changes to the Municipal Building Code, which provided a measure of protection by requiring the existence of safety devices such as fireproof materials and stairwells, fire alarms, extinguishers, and hoses. They also prohibited smoking in factories by 1916.
Includes links to an assortment of newspaper and magazine articles, websites, U.S. Fire Administration resources.
Source: U.S. Fire Administration
See also: 100-Year Anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire (Bill Lucey – The Morning Delivery)