Firefighter Air System installed at APS building

Refilling stations will keep their oxygen flowing

Judi Villa
The Arizona Republic
Apr. 28, 2004 12:00 AM

Battling blazes in high-rises will be safer in the future as buildings begin to install systems that allow firefighters to refill their air tanks in the stairwells.

Allowing rescue workers to do their work more efficiently will also keep people in those buildings safer.

The state's first Firefighter Air System has been installed in the Arizona Public Service Co. building in downtown Phoenix and, effective this month, Phoenix is requiring every new building that stands higher than 75 feet to have air refilling stations.

"This system gives life to the firefighters above ground without them having to carry every breath of air with them up to the highest floors of a building," Assistant Phoenix Fire Chief Bob Khan said.

The new system could revolutionize firefighting much like having water hookups inside buildings has done. Normally, firefighters haul heavy air bottles up the stairs during a mission.

By the time firefighters get to the floor that is burning, they've pretty much used up all the air in their tanks, said Capt. Steve Gruenewald. Being able to refill the tanks would give them longevity while battling a blaze.

"We can't live and survive in smoke any better than anybody else does," Gruenewald said. "If we run out of air then we're in the same position as everybody else in that building, and we can't help."

With the new system, firefighters can hook their tanks into an air station and refill them in about 45 seconds. APS spent about $60,000 to install 20 refilling stations on even-numbered floors in two stairwells.

APS decided to install the system after one of the company board members talked to leaders of the Phoenix Fire Department about it.

APS wanted to be the first in the Valley, said Patrick Gilmore, the company's senior facilities real estate manager.

The company leases its building at the Arizona Center, but Gilmore said APS occupies virtually the entire building and wanted to keep its employees safe.

"It's our people," Gilmore said. "We've always been a good corporate citizen. My father was a firefighter, so I was an easy mark (when the project was suggested)."

Khan said two other Phoenix high-rises have agreed to install the filling stations. The city has 185 buildings that are six floors or higher.

High-rise fires are particularly difficult to fight because it is hard to even get to them. Phoenix firefighters respond to about a half-dozen high-rise fires each year.

"You become basically a human pack mule to get that equipment upstairs, and at the same time you're involved in a firefight," Khan said.

Air tanks are rated for 30 minutes but with stress and exertion, a firefighter will likely only get about 10 minutes of work out of each bottle.

Phoenix began looking into the system about 18 months ago, and Khan said officials eventually would like to see it in big-box construction, as well.

In big-box buildings, such as sprawling grocery and retail stores, the system could be horizontal instead of vertical, as it is in the APS building.

Three years ago, Phoenix Firefighter Bret Tarver died after he got disoriented and ran out of air while fighting a supermarket blaze.

"A system like that could have saved his life," Khan said.

"If there's a firefighter struggling to get out of a stairwell and he's without air, it could save his life."

Reporter Emily Bittner contributed to this article.