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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 has “high-rise kits” with nozzles that allow firefighters to attach hoses to the building’s standpipes. But it has only one pumper strong enough to get water to the roof of the city’s three tallest buildings, which includes the not-yet-completed Revel, said Deputy Chief Robert Palamaro, who is in charge of training. That pumper is housed at Station 2, at Indiana and Baltic avenues.

One of the biggest changes that came after Vegas’ MGM blaze was sprinklers. In Vegas, any structure 50 feet or taller — more than two stories shorter than a defined high-rise — must have sprinklers, Szymanski said. All of Atlantic City’s high-rises have working sprinklers, including the under-construction Revel.

“Sprinklers’ effectiveness is about 98 percent,” said Avillo, the provisional chief for North Hudson Regional Fire and Rescue, which covers five Hudson County towns. “There has never been a multiple fatality when sprinklers worked.”

The planes that struck the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, took out the buildings’ sprinkler system, Avillo said.

Atlantic City has held several table-top planning exercises to prepare for a terrorist attack, Brooks said. He did not want to go into detail, citing safety concerns, but said training includes law enforcement, federal agencies, emergency management, emergency medical technicians, hospitals and the Health Department.

But sprinklers also can cause problems, Palamaro said. If left running once the fire is out, the water damage can be more severe than that from the fire.

Atlantic City’s department has plans for every high-rise and tours them once they are ready to open. That is when each fire company learns of anything unique about the building, what kind of mechanical and ventilation systems it has, and anything else that would be important to know during an emergency.

Palamaro said each high-rise has a Knox-Box, a locked box that contains every key for the building, including those that control the elevators.

In most of the newer buildings, such as the casinos, the fire alarm automatically sends the elevators to the ground floor and opens the doors, then disables them, Brooks said. If it is safe for evacuation, firefighters may release some elevators manually.

But usually the service elevators are the only ones operating, and that’s to aid firefighters in getting equipment up to the fire. If they cannot be used, it can mean walking 100 pounds of equipment upstairs.

“If we had to walk 40 floors with all that equipment, we’re talking a significant time frame,” Avillo said. “It could probably be 30 to 40 minutes before we could get water on the fire.”

But the walk might not be that far, NFPA findings show.

“Most high-rise building fires begin on floors no higher than the sixth story,” the report states. For hotels and motels, just 22 percent of all high-rise fires in the years studied began at the seventh floor or higher.

Still, the plan for Atlantic City is to use the service elevators, if operable. Firefighters will stop every few floors to check for people in the hallways and to see if there are any other problems below the fire.

‘Everybody thinks the building is going to collapse’

“Panic is probably the biggest issue,” Avillo said. “Everybody thinks the building is going to collapse. People don’t know what to do when there’s a fire.”

In a 2007 fire at Jeffries Towers in the city’s Northeast Inlet section, some of the residents — mostly elderly or with physical limitations — were left in their rooms. The city Housing Authority gave the department high marks for its response and for keeping residents safe.

Such high-rises have lists of where people with limitations are located, including those in wheelchairs or who are on oxygen, Palamaro said.

“That’s important,” he said. “As you know, oxygen and fire don’t mix.”

Public address systems are crucial in getting information out, fire officials say. Casinos have up-to-date ones that make it easier, Brooks said. That’s especially important if guests are being asked to stay in their rooms while alarms are going off, smoke is developing and panic is setting in.

But this is where Atlantic City and Las Vegas part ways.

“We changed our method to total evacuation after 9/11,” Las Vegas’ Szymanski said. “We figured it’s just better to get people out and away from the building.”

If evacuation is necessary or if those inside insist on leaving, fire experts stress using the stairs. Stairwells also are used to fight the fires at close range, Avillo said. The firefighters will use one stairwell for the attack, the one farthest from the flames for evacuation and often a third for ventilation.

Even firefighters using the elevators never take them higher than two floors below the fire, Avillo said. That’s also where Atlantic City sets up its operations post, under the the battalion chief’s guidance. It is here that decisions are made — and sometimes changed.

“We get status reports every 10 or 15 minutes,” Brooks said. “We’re finding out how the plans are going. Are they working, or do we need to modify?”

Brooks pointed out that the only recent fires at casinos happened when the buildings were under construction and there are lots of flammable materials around. The NFPA report showed that about 4 percent of all high-rise fires occurred during construction or major renovations.

The city’s older high-rises are more of a concern than the casinos — which are basically “their own cities with 24-hour staffing,” Brooks said.

“New Jersey has been a model of fire prevention,” he said. “We have some of the toughest laws in the nation regarding fire-safety laws. We’re fortunate that way.”