What to Do When Your ‘Fireproof’ Building Catches Fire


Photo of 924 West End Avenue by Jake Sigal.

By Joy Bergmann

A building once advertised as “fireproof” was engulfed in flames earlier this month, and now fire officials want residents to know what to do if the same thing happens to them.

The dramatic blaze at The Cleburne, 924 West End Avenue (105th Street) on October 4th  was caused by an “accidental/electrical” problem, according to a fire department spokesman who could not specify further. Three firefighters sustained injuries, but building residents were not injured, according to FDNY.

“The fire department was incredible,” says Henry Rinehart, owner of Henry’s restaurant located on the ground floor of the building’s Broadway side. “They did an extraordinary job containing the damage,” to an upper, northwest section of the 13-story structure.

Former Elle magazine editor in chief, Robbie Myers, and her children were among those having to vacate a unit neighboring the one where the fire apparently began. Myers told the New York Times, “It was a traumatic experience.”


Photo by Joy Bergmann.

Avoiding such terror was a selling point back in 1913. As Brick Underground pointed out in a 2016 piece lauding The Cleburne’s architectural panache, advertisements touted its “absolutely fireproof” apartments.

Many WSR readers live in similar classic pre-war buildings, built as fireproof structures with plentiful cement and brick. Clearly, fires can occur in these spaces, but the appropriate action by residents isn’t always to immediately evacuate the premises, according to the FDNY.

It’s worth taking a moment to review the advice from FDNY Smart’s web site, reprinted below.

Know Your Building

The type of building you live in affects how you and your loved ones should plan for, and escape, a fire. Knowing if you live in a fireproof or non-fireproof building can ultimately save a life. Check with the New York City Department of Buildings (DOB) if you are unsure if your building is fireproof or non-fireproof. Remember, if you are in imminent danger from a fire or a fire is burning inside your apartment, get out immediately and call 911. Always listen to instructions from the Fire Department during emergencies.

Fireproof Buildings

If you live in a fireproof building, it is usually safer to stay inside your apartment rather than entering dangerous, smoke-filled hallways. Generally, fires in fireproof buildings will be contained to the portion of the building where the fire started. Additionally, if the fire is below your apartment, you could risk being caught in rising heat and smoke in stairwells. If you and your loved ones are not in imminent danger from a fire or a fire isn’t burning inside your apartment, do the following:

Non-Fireproof Buildings

If you live in a non-fireproof structure and there is a fire in your building it is usually safer to leave immediately. Generally, fires in non-fireproof structures are not easily contained to one portion of the building and can spread quickly.

NEWS | 7 comments | permalink
    1. Nick10025 says:

      I would lean towards call 911 and follow instructions. Aside from that, know your building had pre-plan methods of evacuation. Just because the building has the construction classification doesn’t mean all construction is code compliant. The majority of the buildings in the city have pre-existing, non-compliant, conditions that impact life safety.

    2. Mark Moore says:

      Fireproof doesn’t mean there can’t be a fire, just that it’s supposed to be contained for a certain amount of time.

    3. ConchShell says:

      fireproof?

      ain’t no such thing.

      quick reminder, save for the multi 10’s of thousands of gallons of Jet Fuel, the WORLD TRADE CENTER was fireproof too.

      save yourself.

      • Nick10025 says:

        Fireproof is a construction classification under 1938 code…

        Class 1-Fireproof Structures;
        Class 2-Fire-protected Structures;
        Class 3-Non-fireproofed Structures;
        Class 4-Wood Frame Structures;
        Class 5-Metal Structures;
        Class 6-Heavy Timber Structures

    4. This over 100 year old building may be fireproof or fire resistant, but the contents of the apartment are not. If an appliance like a halogen lamp or toaster oven caused the fire, any nearby flammable objects could have been ignited. At night without active smoke detectors this may go undetected for a while.

      Renovations in apartments are not always to code and may have been done by tenants or unqualified contractors. Many superintendents use thinner non fire rated sheet rock because it is easier to carry up a stair. Unless severely damaged, HPD inspectors rarely challenge building materials installed. Building department inspectors are more thorough.

      Grandfathering of certain items in buildings should no longer be allowed. An old tenement with wooden beams on the UWS may have 75 year old wiring which could be shorted out by a minor overflow of a toilet or overheated by an electric heater. Fuses should be replaced by circuit breakers and ungrounded circuits with grounded ones.

      It is not mandatory in our building code to upgrade outdated services. A landlord will replace a shower head to save water, but adding a safe grounded circuit for an air conditioner becomes a court issue. Unless a building permit or violation is issued, an inspection will not occur to remedy a situation.

    5. Bob Lamm says:

      In case this is helpful to anyone… I’m pretty sure my building is fireproof. I decided to use the instructions above to check. Didn’t work. I went to the Department of Buildings website linked above. Got to the page for my building. Didn’t see anything there about whether the building is or isn’t fireproof. Called 311, got transferred to the Fire Department’s Communications Office. They said I have to call the Department of Buildings to get the answer.

      • Nick10025 says:

        Bob- On the DOB Property Profile click on “View Certificates of Occupancy”. Select one of likely several and confirm it matches the building description (height, use, etc.). Construction Classification is listed after the floor use and loading information. From there you would need to reference the building code for what that translates to. An easy way to check you Apartment itself is the label on the door/frame leading to the corridor.