Air-refill law will aid firefighters

Will help in high-rise fires

Edythe Jensen
The Arizona Republic
Dec. 25, 2003 12:00 AM

The tallest buildings in Chandler have only five stories, but by February the city likely will have the Valley's first law that requires built-in air-replenishment systems for firefighters in high-rise buildings.

Gilbert and Phoenix are considering similar moves.

The Chandler City Council unanimously approved the change last week; it will affect construction of buildings five stories and taller and faces a final vote in January.

"It seems logical for us, considering Chandler's growth," Fire Marshal John Gardner said. "We'll be built out in five or six years, and once that happens, there's nowhere to go but up."

Gardner said Wells Fargo Bank, which is building a multistory regional center at Queen Creek and Price roads, has agreed to include the breathing systems before the law takes effect.

Existing structures, such as the five-story downtown office complex that houses city offices, won't have to comply.

Without the systems, fighting fires in high-rises requires cumbersome replacement of portable breathing devices, because oxygen runs out after 30 minutes or less. Firefighters must either carry extras or send personnel to run full and empty canisters up and down stairs, Gardner said.

The built-in systems allow firefighters to refill portable devices within the building as they fight a blaze.

"To be able to replenish breathing air in a timely manner could mean the difference between life and death in an emergency," Gardner wrote in a memo to the council.

Although such devices wouldn't have saved firefighters' lives in the 2001 World Trade Center collapse, they could have had the buildings not crumbled, he added.

"It's a good system," Tempe Fire Marshal Marc Scott said.

However, there is no move to require them in that city, and Scott said he knows of no Tempe building that has them.

Phoenix fire officials said they are likely to propose a similar requirement but have made no specific recommendations.

Gilbert is likely to consider a breathing-device law that would apply to one-story "big box" structures as well as multistory buildings, Fire Marshal Ernie Encinas said.

"It's something we've been talking about for quite some time," he said. Because of the additional construction costs, such a law would be discussed with developers before it is brought to the Town Council, Encinas said.

Although the requirement is expected to add about $25,000 to construction costs and incur annual maintenance expenses, the systems could save firefighters' lives and help them fight high-rise blazes more effectively, Gardner said.

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