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Old September 9th, 2013, 10:36 PM   #1
In Search of Sanity
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Fire standard for S.F. high-rises ignites debate

John Coté and Neal J. Riley
Updated 11:31 pm, Sunday, September 8, 2013

San Francisco, amid intense lobbying, is poised to drop a requirement that skyscrapers have refill stations so firefighters can recharge their air tanks during a blaze.

For nearly 10 years, the city has required that new high-rises have the air refill systems, a move made after Los Angeles firefighters spent more than two hours lugging 600 air cylinders up 10 flights of stairs in a 1988 high-rise fire, and three Philadelphia firefighters died from smoke inhalation after running out of air in a 1991 blaze in a 38-story building.

But the air tank refilling systems, now in 20 San Francisco buildings, have never been used during a fire here, and some firefighters don't trust them, despite praise from national experts.

Now San Francisco Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White wants to allow high-rise developers the option of installing either the air replenishment system or a reinforced, specialized elevator for firefighters, which could ferry crews, evacuees and equipment, including air tanks . . . .

Developers in San Francisco, who will bear the cost of either approach, have opposed the air system requirement for years, saying it protects a monopoly for the dominant player in the market, Rescue Air Systems of San Carlos.

The Building Owners and Managers Association of San Francisco, an advocacy group for real estate interests, has tried for years to change the air-system requirement . . . .

The cost of the air replenishment system can vary wildly, from an average of $350,000 to more than $1 million.

To create a specialized firefighter elevator, one of the building's elevators is reinforced with fire-resistant material and equipped with a pressurized air shaft to keep out smoke and drains for water.

The 2007 effort to amend the Fire Code was dropped amid opposition from some San Francisco fire officials and the firefighters' union head at the time, John Hanley, who said the elevators were risky and that both systems should be installed . . . .

Hanley says that advances in equipment, such as high-capacity bottles that carry up to a one-hour air supply rather than the previous 30 minutes' worth, now minimize the need for the air system . . . .
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