Safety Standards Questioned After Last Week’s Incident

OCEAN CITY — Last week’s tragic accident involving a local man falling through a sixth-floor hotel window to his death below highlighted the need for a close examination of the resort’s testing and inspection process for the countless similar hotel and condominium windows throughout Ocean City, and it appears there are safeguards in place.

Last Wednesday, a local man fell through a window on the sixth floor of the Fenwick Inn in an incident ruled accidental this week by the Maryland Medical Examiner’s Office.

The window was clearly broken with jagged edges, suggesting it was not opened, nor did the frame give way under the pressure of an adult male.

The accident raised questions about the safety requirements for large panes of glass typically used in similar motel, hotel and condominium rooms throughout the resort and answers learned this week revealed there are specific and stringent minimum standards spelled out in the complex building code adhered to by the town of Ocean City.

According to Ocean City Chief Building Official Kevin Brown, all of the large glass windows used in commercial buildings, such as hotels and motel and even storefronts, are inspected upon installation to ensure they meet the minimum standards for strength and load-bearing spelled out in the International Building Code of 2009, the official code adopted by the town of Ocean City for new construction.

The Fenwick Inn, site of last week’s accident, was built in 1975, and thus fell under the accepted building code established in 1973, although much of the language in that decades-old code related to window glazing and window strength has not changed.

According to Brown, when a building permit is issued for new construction, a review of the types or materials planned for use, complete with the manufacturer’s specifications, is part of the initial review process, followed by an inspection to ensure the appropriate materials were used prior to the issuance of an occupancy permit.

In simpler terms, large-pane windows used in new construction are checked at the time a building permit is issued to make sure they comply with code standards, and they are inspected again after they are installed to ensure they are in compliance.

“When a developer or builder comes in for a building permit, we check to see if all the materials planned for use meet the code and include the manufacturers specifications,” said Brown. “There are very specific load requirements including wind loads, snow loads and general loads and each pane shall bear the manufacturer’s documentation. It has to be identified and approved.”

Brown said a section of the code devoted to glass and glazing includes sections dealing specifically with hazardous locations or those areas of buildings where safety measures are more stringent. The section refers to the overall size of a pane in terms of area and is very specific about the strength of the glazing.

For example, any pane nine square feet or larger, which includes most hotel and motel windows and storefront windows, are held to higher safety standards. There is also a vast section in the code that deals with the height of the bottom of a large pane of glass from the floor or fixed surface. For example, if the base of a windowpane is higher than 18 inches off the floor, a stronger safety glaze is required.

Brown said the tempered glass required by the code for most hotel and motel windows, storefront windows, and sliding glass doors, for example, would typically withstand significant impacts, but would not necessarily prevent a significant breakage.

“The tempered glass is not as tough as your car windshield, for example, but it’s pretty strong,” he said. “It won’t do much for somebody running into it at a pretty good rate of speed.”

Brown said the tempered glass used in most large-pane windows would typically shatter into little pieces much like a car windshield and not break into large shards.

“You’ve seen a car windshield pop, and you’ve probably seen a sliding glass door pop and shatter into a million little pieces. That’s what the tempered glass used for hotel windows and large-pane windows would typically do,” he said.

It appears the window at the Fenwick Inn last week broke into large pieces, which is not to suggest it wasn’t up to code or didn’t meet safety requirements.

Brown said there have been similar incidents in the resort over the years, although they are fairly uncommon. He suggested a common sense approach to room layout and design to minimize the risks.

“All the safety standards in the world can’t prevent glass windows from breaking under some circumstances,” he said. “Unfortunately, these things happen and sometimes they are unavoidable. The best thing to do is minimize the risks. For example, don’t put a bed next to a large window where kids might be jumping on it and fall through. A child jumping up and down on a window bench while looking at his brother and sister playing on the beach below could go through a glass window. The best message is to try and prevent opportunities.”