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High-rise fires rare but AFD ready for the worst

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The London high-rise fire hit close to home for downtown Austin residents, but Austin firefighter say they have plans in place in case it happens locally.

As downtown residents went to sleep and woke up Wednesday, they saw video of flames engulfing a high-rise residential building in London, England.

“It’s a little horrifying when you think of living in a building like this one,” high-rise resident Andrea Longworth said.

Austin Fire says fires in high rise buildings are a concern, but the city hasn’t had one yet and they are rare.

“It’s one of those very high risk, low frequency events but we have to train for it and prepare for it like it’s going to happen in the next ten minutes,” AFD Captain Mark Bridges said.

Bridges covers the downtown fire station off 5th and Trinity. He says if a fire does break out in a downtown high-rise they send more resources than they would for a normal fire. Then everyone has pre-designated responsibilities.

He says they send firefighters up and take control of the lobby and fire room to use the building’s own resources.

“It’s just a group of people going into the building and using the building systems to try and get rid of smoke and rescue people,” Bridges said.

Bridges said fire ladders and hoses can reach a maximum of around 15 stories up. If a fire is higher, they can only fight the flames internally with firefighters walking up to the fire.

Bridges said he watched the London fire closely to see what he can learn.

“The way our high rises are constructed are not really conducive to that type of rapid fire spread,” he said.

Bridges said Austin’s buildings do not have a particular insulation that has caused a rapid spread of fires around the world in the past.

He also said all of Austin’s buildings have “fire-stops.” That means each floor has a concrete layer intended to stop the spread of fire from floor to floor. He also says fire code requires sprinkler systems. While around seven buildings don’t have sprinklers currently, he says they’re working on changing the code to make them get systems in the next ten years.

Traffic downtown can also cause problems for first responders.

“It can be very problematic especially when you have SXSW or other major events,” Bridges said.

Bridges said sometimes it can take 45 minutes to get from one side of downtown to another. He says multiple stations responding helps in those situations. The city is also looking to create a system where they can give fire engines all green lights from the station to the fire in emergencies. The city says they did not get a federal grant for that project and are still waiting for funding.

Longworth said she didn’t have a plan in case there was a fire, but now she’ll be working on one.

“I think it’s just a wakeup call to make sure you do know the emergency procedures and I need to know how to get out if need be and I guess just thankful we have good first responders and hope they would be there in case of an emergency,” Longworth said.

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