SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX) — It looks like a movie, but it’s real. Dubai’s luxury-address hotel transformed into a towering inferno.
With Bay Area skylines creeping ever-upwards, you can’t help but wonder if could it happen here.
“No, I don’t think there’s any more concern,” said San Francisco assistant fire chief Bob Postel. He’s in charge of high-rise fire safety for San Francisco.
“The more modern the building is, the more robust the fire safety systems are,” he said. “These buildings are built to protect themselves,” he said.
Fires burning above seven floors cannot be reached with a ladder. That’s why skyscrapers like the iconic Transamerica Pyramid have put in place their own internal firefighting technology.
It’s called the “life safety system.” Every high rise has to have one, along with a team of trained professionals.
The Pyramid building’s chief engineer Doug Peterson took us to where it all starts, the control room.
“The life safety system goes through what is called a matrix. It will tell us exactly the location on the floor that it’s on, what type of device that tripped,” he said.
A general alarm goes off, then the building itself initiates action.
“The building will compartmentalize itself, meaning that fire doors will enact, they will close, fire dampers will close, air systems will shut off not to provide air to the fire,” said Peterson.
Each floor is designed to contain flames for two hours.
“I really don’t care if the desks or the carpeting burns. I just don’t want the fire to hit what is called the core of the building,” he said.
The building can contain the fire, but you still need firefighters to put it out, and lots of them.
“It’s a huge logistical challenge,” said Chief Postel. He estimates it takes at least 150 personnel and 7 battalion chiefs.
The biggest challenge he says is getting water up high enough.
“A rough rule of thumb — two minutes per floor — for us to get water flowing. So if you have a fire on the 15th floor you can assume that it’s going to take thirty minutes to get up there,” he said.
Luckily that’s an unlikely scenario. Aside from fire safety systems, high rises in the U.S. also have strict building codes, unlike the tower in Dubai. That skyscraper’s walls were made of highly flammable material. Even in that worst-case scenario, only 16 people suffered injuries, and all were minor.
The high rise was smart enough to save itself.