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Rising Skyline Presents New Challenges to Firefighters

Rising Skyline Presents New Challenges to Firefighters

Press of Atlantic City

July 25, 2011

ATLANTIC CITY — Next year, the city’s skyline will grow taller with the completion of Revel’s 710-foot casino — 200 feet higher than Harrah’s, which is now the city’s tallest building. Only the 781-foot Goldman Sachs Building in Jersey City will be taller in the state.

The towering plans raise the question: Can the city’s fire department handle a blaze on the highest floors of a structure that size?

Fire Chief Dennis Brooks said Atlantic City is prepared for high-rise fires with state-of-the-art suppression systems, training for both firefighters and civilian workers, and lots of planning. That includes fire personnel and casino representatives meeting monthly, and specific plans for each of the city’s approximately 160 high-rises, which are defined by the National Fire Protection Association as any building 75 feet or taller.

All the planning means “you’re not going into something cold,” Brooks said. “You can never completely simulate the actual thing, but you can get close.”

In Atlantic City, there have been no major fires at any of the city’s open casinos since gaming came to the resort in 1978. But the city’s preparation is similar to that of another major casino town, Las Vegas — where fire codes saw drastic changes after the 1980 MGM Grand fire killed 85 people.

The first call to a high-rise fire in Atlantic City brings five engines, two ladders and two chiefs. Las Vegas also sends two rescue crews, said Tim Szymanski, spokesman for Las Vegas Fire and Rescue, where about 150 men are on duty during any shift covering 131 square miles.

Atlantic City — about 17½ square miles — has about 42 firefighters per shift, but that number sometimes falls to 39. With a high-rise fire, 30 firefighters are on scene after the first call.

“That’s going to deplete most of the manpower that’s on duty,” Brooks said.

Off-duty personnel are called in for backup — bringing in about 25 more firefighters — as well as mutual aid from neighboring municipalities, if needed.

“We sometimes call them 100-man fires,” said Anthony Avillo, a fire-prevention expert whose book “Fireground Strategies” sits in Brooks’ office. “Basically, we’re just throwing people at the fire. Unfortunately, with the way departments are cutting staffing, we rely more and more on mutual aid.”

During a high-rise fire, a deputy chief would set up an operations command center on the first floor and coordinate the scene from there. A battalion chief will take position about two floors below the fire, where a rehab center is set up for firefighters to recoup.

High-rises cannot be reached by a ladder truck, which in Atlantic City is 100 feet. But these fires are not fought from the outside, they are fought from the inside with heavy manpower and special equipment.

The NFPA’s most recent report shows less than 3 percent of all fires from 2003 to 2006 were in high-rises. That’s an average of 13,400 fires in each of those years, resulting in 62 civilian deaths.

“Statistically, they have a lower rate of deaths and damages,” said John Hall, a doctor of operations research who authored the report. “It seems to be because they’re much more likely to have sprinkler systems, smoke alarms and fire-resistant construction.”

In Las Vegas — which U.S. Census Bureau numbers show has about 14 times the population of Atlantic City — building plans must be approved by the Fire Department, Szymanski said. That includes plans for the Stratosphere, a casino hotel with the nation’s tallest observation tower, at 1,149 feet. Four fire command centers and special water towers at the top of the Stratosphere’s pod are just some of the precautions that went into the plan.

Atlantic City firefighters say they are always looking for ways to make things safer.

City Battalion Chief Joe Rush recently wrote a report suggesting cities with smaller departments, such as Atlantic City, require high-rises to have Firefighter Breathing Air Replenishment Systems. Like standpipes, which provide a water source within a building, these allow firefighters to refill their air supply. The department currently relies on an air unit that can be dispatched to bigger fires.

In his study, Rush cites research by University of Waterloo, Ontario, that found half of the firefighters’ low-air alarms activated within 11 to 12 minutes of fighting a high-rise fire. Some were activated in as little as eight minutes. It is especially difficult to breathe if firefighters have to use the stairs.

“If you can imagine, limited manpower and tons of equipment — hose bags, equipment bags, firefighters in their full turnout gear, plus airpacks and forcible entry tools — hauling all this stuff up the stairwell,” said Margate Fire Chief Anthony Tabasso. “And this is still doing reconnaissance, still trying to find out what’s going on.”

That is part of the manpower requirements.

“It is estimated that for every four firefighters battling a high-rise fire, four firefighters are needed every seven floors to support the operation,” Rush writes. “Experts estimate that as many as half of the personnel operating at high-rise fires are used to fill and transport air cylinders to the staging area.”

An article based on Rush’s research will be published in Fire Engineering magazine, although the date has not been set.

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