San Jose Again Mulls Scrapping Highrise Fire Safety Code 

When San Jose first considered dropping a 2005 code requiring highrises to include air refilling stations for firefighters, Robert Sapien made a compelling case to retain it.

“Breathing air and water are the two critical resources that firefighters need for the sustained operations in structure fire environments,” the then-president of San Jose Fire Fighters’ Local 230 wrote in an Aug. 8, 2013, letter to the City Council.

Pumps and fire engines supply the water, Sapien explained, while firefighter air replenishment systems—known as FARS—provide oxygen that crews would otherwise have to hoist up manually in heavy metal oxygen bottles.

“The air bottle burden is exhausting for crew who have yet to engage the fire, [pose] a higher risk of injury and must be continually supported during operations,” he said. “FARS is an effective tool for firefighters and is a long-term solution for a real problem in combating fires in highrise buildings.”

A few months later, with the council poised to vote on a proposal by Mayor Chuck Reed to allow freight elevators in lieu of FARS, Sapien followed up to address what he called “a more fundamental concern.”

“New requirements for life-saving building components such as sprinkler systems, standpipes, etc., are most often not required to be retrofitted into existing buildings,” he wrote in a Nov. 4, 2013, correspondence. “This makes progress slow but steady. Interruptions and/or reversal of progress is very problematic for firefighters.”

The union’s campaign coincided with an information tour by San Carlos-based FARS manufacturer RescueAir Systems, whose lobbyists were countering objections raised by developers and city officials about cost and the company’s single-source contract.

Despite Sapien’s impassioned plea to put safety first, the council dropped the FARS code before reinstating it in 2015. Yet developers and their allies at City Hall managed to keep the debate alive through back-channel lobbying, making some local officials intent on re-litigating the issue during the city’s triennial review of building standards.

In fall of 2019, Mayor Sam Liccardo, citing the cost burden on downtown developers, directed staff to study the feasibility of nixing the FARS mandate.

The resulting report signed by now-SJFD Chief Sapien comes up for review at a Feb. 18 public safety subcommittee meeting. Only this time, as department head, Sapien has taken a decidedly neutral stance, deeming elevators an “effective”—though not functionally equivalent—alternative to FARS.

Some of the arguments Sapien made all those years ago are now being revived by his successors in union leadership—and through an attendant advocacy group called the Firefighter Air Coalition. “The basic question is, ‘why?’” Local 230 VP Chris Murphy wonders aloud in a phone call. “Why remove something that the folks in power back then all agreed was a good thing and would improve safety? Why rip that out now?”

Bottle Service

On Feb. 26, 1993, New York City firefighter Mike Dugan rushed to the scene of the World Trade Center on reports of an explosion. Eighteen minutes past noon, a truck bomb blast from the subterranean parking garage cratered seven floors and turned the skyscraper into a 110-story smokestack. Six people died from the explosion, but hundreds of others—including firefighters—suffered injuries from smoke inhalation.

“It was a cold day,” Dugan says in a phone call earlier this week. “Feb. 26 was a Friday, about 37 degrees outside. Inside the building was like 72 degrees, I remember, and the smoke just traveled so fast that it reached the top floor in five minutes.”

The retiree recalls survivors scrambling out of the tower covered in black soot, shrouded by smoke. Dugan and his crew lugged metal air canisters up dozens of stories. “I went up 50 flights,” he recounts. “And, very honestly, you couldn’t carry bottles much farther. You’re wearing an air pack, but by the time you get up there, it’s empty, you’re spent.”

Lungs damaged from years of battling highrise fires, including the 1993 bombing, degenerated over time into reactive airway disorder after inhaling toxic dust while responding to the 9/11 attack less than a decade later.

Had FARS been around sooner in his career, Dugan says he has no doubt his breathing would be less labored—and that the lives of firefighters and civilians would be saved. When San Jose’s Local 230 began advocating for the Capital of Silicon Valley to preserve a FARS code facing its third threat of revocation, the union recruited Dugan to the cause.

“I know that to put out any fire, we need water and air,” he says. “A hundred years ago, we used ‘bucket brigades’ until we figured out how to bring water up through a standpipe. To this day, in buildings without FARS, we have ‘bottle brigades,’ where we manually carry air bottles up flight after flight. That’s archaic.”

Throughout history, Dugan says, developers have opposed fire prevention measures, including the standpipe and water sprinklers. FARS faced similar blowback when the technology emerged as a commercial product in the 1990s.

But FARS codes gained traction from lessons learned from high-profile skyscraper blazes in which, to quote Dugan, “everything that could go wrong did go wrong.”

In 1988, firefighters responding to the First Interstate Bank Building fire in Los Angeles had to lug 600 oxygen tanks up the stairs by hand after the elevator died, exposing them to smoke inhalation that could have been avoided if they could tap into air-refill stations on each floor. A few years later, three firefighters died from inhaling smoke after running out of air in Philadelphia’s 38-story One Meridian Plaza blaze.

Pipe Dream

To Anthony Turiello, a union plumber-pipefitter who helped build highrises in San Jose, San Francisco and the Peninsula through the ‘80s and ‘90s, the storied conflagrations in Philly and L.A. sparked an epiphany.

“I knew people in the fire service and heard that one of the biggest issues faced in those incidents involved air delivery,” he says. “So, I was like, ‘Why don’t they just pipe up air? Why don’t they just route air the way they route up water?’”

The Bay Area tradesman founded RescueAir Systems in 1993 to develop a pneumatic counterpart to the water standpipe. Within a decade, FARS became his full-time pursuit.

San Francisco became an early adopter of FARS, requiring the air pipes in all new highrises in 2003. San Jose followed suit in 2005 under a labor-aligned council helmed by Mayor Ron Gonzalez and Vice Mayor Cindy Chavez. Major cities throughout the U.S. went on to adopt similar codes, resulting in hundreds of highrises installing the system, including the 18-story San Jose City Hall, Infinity towers in San Francisco and the Department of Justice building in Sacramento.

But Bay Area real estate interests kept controversy alive. Their core objection involved the cost borne by builders—which in San Jose, according to city planning data, amounts to an average of about $200,000 per project. Other concerns involve the quality of air piped through FARS and the dearth of viable competition to RescueAir Systems.

In 2013, San Francisco narrowed its FARS code amid pressure from the Building Owners and Managers Association, a real estate advocacy group that had been pushing for the option of reinforced fire-safe elevators as an alternative.

When San Jose’s mayor resurrected the issue in 2019, he brought up the same contentions about FARS being “solely provided and patented by a single company” and installation being a prohibitive expense for developers. “With highrise construction already facing significant hurdles,” he wrote in his 2019 memo, “the additional to install a [FARS] system warrants additional investigation, especially as highrise construction improves its overall fire safety ratings.”

When reached for comment this week, the mayor said he’ll reserve judgment on the matter until he learns more from the fire marshal and chief. However, Liccardo added through a spokeswoman, two consecutive fire chiefs have “opined in public hearings a decade ago that these proprietary systems do not have any significant impact on safety, contrary to the claims of the manufacturer.”

“Since that manufacturer was the only company that could manufacture the patent-protected systems, it called into question whether these requirements were a result of a safety need or of effective corporate lobbyists,” the mayor added. “It would be helpful to know if more recent developments—including any improvements in the technology—have changed the views of the safety experts.”

When presented with the mayor’s concerns, Turiello pointed to a letter drafted in 2013 by Ronny Coleman—California’s fire marshal from 1992 to ‘99—to CAL Fire in response to similar contentions about RescueAir’s patents.

In the April 3, 2013, letter, Coleman wrote that while most FARS installations at the time involved RescueAir either directly or through subcontractors, plenty of others claimed patents on various elements of the air-replenishing technology. He named a couple examples: Mechanical Contractors Association of Las Vegas and Eaton Aeroquip.

Meanwhile, Coleman added, a cursory review shows that numerous projects were completed without RescueAir’s involvement, including several towers in Sacramento and Thunder Valley Casino & Resort in the Northern California town of Lincoln.

“RescueAir and patents held by others do not prevent anyone from performing research and development to create alternative means and methods to meet the requirement of FARS codes,” Turiello tells San Jose Inside. “There are multiple companies independent of RescueAir that have engaged in design, engineering or construction of FARS.”

Plano, Texas, fire Chief Sam Greif—who was recently hospitalized for Covid-19, which ravaged his smoke-scarred lungs—says he’s baffled about why FARS remains so polarizing in certain cities and grateful his own jurisdiction wove it into the highrise code in 2018. Objections about money seem trite in light of data on the relatively minimal cost of the system, he says, and contentions about sole-source contracting seem odd given how often such deals arise in government procurement.

“Normally, your fight is to introduce the code,” he says, “but once it’s in, it’s in. The fact that there’s an effort to repeal it is very shocking to me. You don’t put a price on life. That’s the thing. You have to ask yourself, would you want to expose your firefighters to breathe more smoke? To me, it’s a no-brainer.”

BREATH OF FRESH AIR:  Air-replenishment systems work much like the standpipes that firefighters can tap into on each level of a highrise building. (Photo courtesy of Firefighter Air Coalition)

Air and Now

By the latest count, more than 30 buildings in San Jose are already, or in the process of, being equipped with FARS. Over 20 million more square feet of downtown development includes the air-pipe system in their plans.

In a perfect world, Chief Sapien says firefighters would have every resource at their disposal. But the council hasn’t inquired whether he’d prefer to keep the FARS code or not. Rather, in approving Liccardo’s 2019 request for information, it asked whether the chief thought SJFD could respond effectively to fires in highrises with fortified elevators in lieu of air-replenishing standpipes.

To that question, Sapien says, his answer is yes.

“Elevators and air systems provide two difference functions altogether,” he explains. “That’s been my stance from day one. But do we need both?”

That’s what I was assigned to evaluate.”

Some 87 highrises in downtown San Jose lack both FARS and a freight elevator, Sapien says, yet his crews manage to “operate effectively” without them.

“Essentially,” he adds, “a logical conclusion for me is that if we had highrise buildings that also offer elevators, that we could operate effectively there as well.”

Even so, Sapien concedes, “both would be great.”

Jennifer Wadsworth is the news editor for San Jose Inside and Metro Silicon Valley. Email tips to [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at @jennwadsworth.

19 Comments

  1. I had to laugh when I read about Liccardo “. . . citing the cost burden on downtown developers . . .”

    Show me any downtown developer who doesn’t live in a luxurious home in a posh neighborhood. There is no “burden” whatsoever, but rather a slight infringement on their huge profits. What a lame argument.

  2. Difficult to believe but our bought-and-paid-for politicians and the cheap-ass developers don’t value human life enough to do what’s right!

  3. Cost cutting for the sake of Firefighter safety is a terrible idea. I have my political qualm with my Firefighters, BUT I would NEVER allow them to be put in more unsafe situations either.

    This is just a bad idea, and it will not pay for itself in the long run. What happens if a firefighter dies due to lack of O2? Does the CITY pay for the lost earnings? Maybe they should given that reversing this safety is against good safety practice.

    In fact it could be argued that those trying to change this, if it is done, should be prosecuted for involuntary manslaughter if a firefighter does die.

  4. “[It is d]ifficult to believe”…

    Not really, not in San Jose. It’s where high-rises are sought that encroach into the commercial air operational safety envelope, i.e., too tall, knowingly so. Developer campaign contributions are no doubt a concern for politicians along with a drive to build up that exceeds normal bounds, self-control, sensibility. Reduction of water supply and fire retardant materials and construction later wouldn’t surprise many, either.

  5. What a bunch of BS about patents. First off, when firefighters are trapped on the 20th floor of a building during a fire, they’re thinking “I need air or I’m gonna die!” not “I need a competitive marketplace!” Second, patents are driving up cost?  All the way up to $200,000?  In a building that costs hundreds of millions?  Seriously?  And finally, don’t we live in Silicon Valley?  I thought we rewarded innovation here. Plus the fact that it sounds like this air system isn’t single source anyway. Liccardo, you’re working hard to reward the developers who put you in office. What about the rest of us?

  6. I am horrified to think that San Jose would have fewer protections for its firefighters than Plano, Texas! I grew up in Texas BTW. No one will ever call Plano progressive. Keep FARS in the SJ code.

  7. I am reminded that the shipbuilder of RMS Titanic declined to include enough lifeboats to provide safe at sea evacuation for all passengers and crew, a decision that was deemed a-okay by Maritime Law at the time.

    Something about not wanting to obstruct views from promenade decks (or other cheerful deflection from concerns about a pinched return on investment for the shipbuilder).

    705 people were rescued from mostly half-filled lifeboats. “1,503 people did not make it on to a lifeboat and were aboard Titanic when she sank to the bottom of the North Atlantic Ocean.”

    Wikipedia “Lifeboats of the Titanic”: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lifeboats_of_the_Titanic

    Sometimes imagination fails us, but there’s no stretch of imagination required to grasp the many ways the elimination or reduction of safety controls in new high rises will end badly. Let’s hope those who whisper in the Mayor’s ear can redirect his attention toward a more benign shiny object.

  8. Absolutely appalling!!! I’m stunned! “You don’t put a price on life.” Of COURSE you don’t put a price on life!! Anyone who doesn’t support our fire fighters 1000% and their safety should be kicked out of office and never be elected to any office ever again and I don’t care WHO you are!! I’m speechless…..

  9. $200,000 is to much to spend on safety in the richest city, in the richest county, in the richest state, in the richest country in the world? Ok how much do you think the tax payers are going to shell out when
    Jay Nobel Daggett Esquire files suit against the out of office idiot and you the tax payer that allowed a hundred billionaire citizens and firefighters to die of smoke inhalation?
    What the hell, their likely all Democrats anyway.

  10. Liccardo is the worst leader ever. In 2006 when he was babbling as a council
    Candidate, the fire department was understaffed, under funded and talking about quitting. They were not allowed to strike as most DO NOt know. It’s not like a real city, where they don’t fight fires if you don’t take care of them. No Striking. He’s been putting first line responders and citizens in harm’s way long enough. Censure him like they did Gonzo.

  11. “I grew up in Plano, Texas.”

    No doubt you are familiar with companies relocating their headquarters, when not more with them, to Plano, since the 1980s at least.

    It and nearby Frisco are ideal candidates for companies leaving San Jose and other Bay Area and So-Cal cities now, for improved situations. Improved fire safety could be a possible addition now.

  12. Stairs are ableist, and to some extent ageist. They should be eliminated next. Elevators will be made foolproof, expensive high-tech, cloud-based, too.

    Ignore the vendors and their campaign contributions, and friends at gatherings.

  13. Liccardo’s hypocrisy is astounding. In some instances, he supports much more burdensome, less cost-effective recommendations; in others cases he denigrates cheaper, less cost-effective proposals.

    My sense is that Liccardo’s opposition / indifference is motivated to curry favor from wealthy developers should Newsom’s recall effort prevail. Not a lot of options for someone that separately wants to remain feeding at the public trough and facing term limits.

    So far, sticking pins in Feinstein and Lofgren voodoo dolls hasn’t delivered hoped for results. Perhaps Biden will appoint him as ambassador to Never-Never Land.

  14. Shame on this mayor for even considering cutting corners when it comes to firefighter and citizen safety. $200,000 is too much money for a developer to spend on a building that costs 10’s of millions of dollars or more to build? I have a feeling that the developers already build-in a very hefty profit margin into their costs, so 200k is nothing to them.

    Quit playing politics with people’s lives! Taking the position that a developer won’t build in San Jose and will build elsewhere because of a 200k firefighter air breathing system, is 100% horse excrement! If this was true, I’d like to hear a developer who would have the balls to actually say this,
    so that we could then tell them that they don’t deserve to build in San Jose, because our public safety employees and citizens are valued here! Trust me Sam, you need to walk away from this one now!

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