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Downtown high-rises pose challenges for firefighters

Posted May 30, 2008

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— As Raleigh's skyline goes up, so do the challenges for firefighters facing a high-rise emergency.

The Raleigh Fire Department plans to adopt new operating procedures in July for handling fires in high-rises and has stepped up training operations for such emergencies. For example, firefighters plan to take over some vacant dormitories on the North Carolina State University campus this summer for extra practice.

"You play like you practice. High-rises are dangerous – they're dangerous to firefighters if an event occurs – so the way to prepare for that is practice, practice, practice," Fire Chief John McGrath said.

Four downtown high-rise developments are scheduled to be completed this fall – the new convention center, the adjacent Marriott hotel, the RBC Plaza office and condominium tower and the Hue condominium building – and more than 1,000 people could soon be living in the condominiums or staying in the hotel.

"There was always high-rises in the city of Raleigh, but not to the degree that there is today," McGrath said.

Incidents in high-rises are rare in Raleigh, but as more people live and work in downtown towers, the chances for a fire call go up, he said.

"With the new residential properties, we're going to see more incidents because things happen when people are asleep, when they're eating (or) at night," he said. "We need to be prepared for it."

Responding to emergencies in high-rises is very different than house or apartment fires, McGrath said. That necessitated drawing up the new operating procedures for such calls, including how to move equipment up and down several flights of stairs or prepare for evacuations.

"You're in a confined space, and you just can't walk out a door to escape danger. There are other considerations that have to be taken into play," he said.

The extra training paid off recently when a rescue operation had to be made on the 12th floor of a downtown high-rise, he said, declining to provide details.

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