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.
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.”