Austin Fire Department discusses residential high-rise fire protocols

After 58 people died in a high-rise fire in London, people everywhere had to consider whether that could happen closer to home.

The Austin Fire Department provided FOX 7 with information about their procedures during a high-rise fire and what challenges they could potentially face.
On average, it takes firefighters about one minute to climb each floor with their gear.

The tallest truck ladder in Austin reaches about 70 feet.

So anyone who lives above the eighth floor will have to wait several minutes for help to arrive.

That's why firefighters said it's so important to have an escape plan.

With Austin’s building boom over the last decade, it was important for the fire department to be one step ahead of construction. “We knew that the high rises were coming. We have a whole separate chapter of policies with respect to how to fight fires in high rises,” said Austin Fire Department Division Chief Palmer Buck. 

Austin firefighters have trained extensively on protocols for fighting high-rise fires. Fortunately, the majority of tall residential buildings in the city are newly constructed and, therefore, have to meet current fire codes.

“These high rises have modern state-of-the-art fire suppression systems that activate and are able to stop these fires for the most part,” Buck said.

However, if the building was built before sprinkler systems were required, fire experts said a fire can spread very quickly.

“We have 12 high rises that are residential high rises that still are unsprinklered or only partially sprinklered and those certainly are high on our list of what we call target hazards. We understand that if we have a fire there it can spread much more quickly and we don't have the fire protection systems that we find in the modern buildings,” said Buck. 

Even if the building is up to current code, sprinkler systems sometimes fail.

“if you get a lot of wind and you get a fire and you have any breakdown in any of the systems, the sprinkler systems are mechanical they don't always work, they have a pretty good record of working, but they don't always work,” said Austin Fire Association President Bob Nicks. 

Of course, the more firefighters that respond, the better.

“When we get a call to a high rise, we send more trucks thnt we send to regular fires to add that staffing there,” Buck said. 

That's why AFD's 140 staff vacancies are a concern.

“We have the same number of firefighters, I think we might have, depending which stations you include, either the same, a little less or a little more, again depending what stations you include in that study, as we did in the late 70s,” said Nicks.

On the other hand, Austin’s fire codes require residential high rises to have pressurized stair wells, which allow firefighters more time to get into place.

“I think the citizens of Austin can be very comfortable with the training of the fire department and the staffing that we have to respond to emergencies,” Buck said. 

AFD suggests those who live in a high rise get familiar with their building, especially where the nearest two exits are located.

Also, it's important not to ignore a fire alarm in a residential building. Firefighters said, when it comes to escaping flames, every second counts.