- Associated Press - Sunday, October 11, 2015

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) - Iowa City’s upward growth is changing the landscape of firefighting in the city.

A number of large projects are scheduled to begin construction in the next year or two, and will join existing 14-story buildings like [email protected], which went up in 2014, and the Plaza Towers, which opened in 2005.

“The complexion of our city is changing,” Iowa City Fire Department Deputy Chief Roger Jensen told the Iowa City Press-Citizen (https://icp-c.com/1Mh4Li7 ). “You know, it’s a positive thing, we certainly support the growth, but it does present a challenge for us.”

The growth Jensen mentioned includes projects like the 15-story Chauncey Tower, which will go up at the corner of East College and South Gilbert streets. There’s also RISE at Riverfront Crossings, a pair of towers including a 15-story residential building and 14-story hotel that are set to be constructed at the intersection of Court and Linn streets, as well as University of Iowa projects like the new Hancher building, residence halls and University of Iowa Children’s Hospital, which, while not as tall as the high rises, still present complex challenges for firefighters.

When alarms go off in buildings of that size, the fire department takes them seriously.



Jensen said the department responds to calls at high rise buildings by sending four engines, a ladder company and a battalion chief - in other words, everyone on duty at the time - and then calling for backup.

“We have the best chance of being successful by having enough resources right away,” he said.

And that’s the response for all buildings that fall under the ICFD’s special risk category, Jensen said. Special risk is the highest of a four-tier system that the fire department uses to determine its response to incidents. The other categories are low, moderate and high risk.

Iowa City Fire Chief John Grier said the new projects slated for construction will differ only in that there will be more high rises to respond to. He said his department has inspected and handled calls for tall buildings, including Plaza Towers and many University of Iowa dorms, for years. In fact, UI has a contract with the ICFD to handle fire protection, which amounted to approximately $1.75 million in fiscal year 2014.

“That’s nothing new for us to consider,” Grier said. “We’ve dealt with similar-sized buildings in the past.”

If a fire occurs on the upper floors of one of Iowa City’s high rises, it’s not enough to set up a ladder and climb up.

“Generally speaking, high rise buildings are going to exceed the capacity of ladder trucks,” Jensen said. In fact, the department’s tallest ladders, which reach 100 feet, wouldn’t come close to reaching the top stories of [email protected] or Plaza Towers, both of which stand at 150 feet.

Fire department officials say that’s nothing to worry about. In some ways, taller buildings may be more fire resistant, according to firefighters and architects, because building codes mandate a number of extra safety features for taller structures.

“All of the taller buildings, such as Plaza Towers and [email protected], that are right downtown here are all concrete structures,” rather than wood, said Kevin Monson, the principal at Neumann Monson Architects, which designed both buildings.

Any building over six or seven stories high must include features like sprinkler systems and alarms that alert the fire department dispatch center right away, standpipes that run through the buildings that firefighters can hook hoses up to, automatic barriers that compartmentalize the building when a fire is detected, pressurized staircases that keep smoke out and command rooms that give fire crews access to building systems.

Those systems can help keep fires contained and under control until firefighters get there, which can be especially important when fire crews have to haul heavy equipment up multiple flights of stairs before they can even deal with the fire.

Monson agreed that new buildings being constructed in Iowa City are safer than older structures for a variety of reasons.

“Better materials, number one,” Monson said. “Certainly everything now has an automated sprinkler system on all these modern buildings, which is very important to quench a fire before it gets out of control.”

Marc Moen, the developer of Plaza Towers, [email protected] and the Chauncey, said he has been impressed with the fire department’s response every time an alarm goes off at one of his buildings, even if nothing turns out to be wrong.

“They’re there with their sirens and trucks when I get there,” Moen said. “It’s phenomenal.”

Still, firefighter John Crane said Iowa City needs to keep in mind the need for additional staffing as the city grows.

“I just want to make sure the city services, and specifically the public safety services, grow along with the city,” said Crane, who is a spokesperson for the Iowa City Association of Professional Firefighters local 610 chapter.

Crane cited a National Fire Protection Association recommendation that suggests having four on-duty firefighters per engine responding to calls. Iowa City often has three people per truck, Crane said, and sometimes four.

“It’s not really a safety concern right now. It’s more something (to think about) down the road as these buildings go up,” Crane said, adding that he prefers to have as many people on scene as possible when he’s called to a fire because it’s safer for everyone and dramatically reduces the time it takes to contain the blaze.

“Given our staffing now, we’re able to address the incidents that we have,” Grier said.

The Iowa City Fire Department is also operating without the benefit of a permanent training facility, after vacating their old building at 1001 S. Clinton St. last December to make way for a new Riverfront Crossings Park. Coralville has offered the use of its training facility in the interim, but Grier and Jensen said it is difficult to use Coralville’s building since it is further away and they would run the risk of not being able to respond quickly enough if a fire occurred.

“That’s a bit of a problem for us right now,” Jensen said.

Even though the department often conducts classes in the fire station basement, trains on buildings set for demolition, and uses downtown parking garages to simulate rappelling from high rise structures, it would still be nice to have a permanent facility of its own, he said. Since the department typically conducts training with on-duty crews, the extra travel time means paying overtime for firefighters to be on call.

“This just can’t go on without making some progress on a training center. It’s very important,” Jensen said.

Iowa City has set aside $700,000 in 2016 to construct a storage facility for the police and fire departments on the city’s public works property near the Terry Trueblood Recreation Area. Grier said he hopes some training features can be incorporated into that structure.

Mayor Matt Hayek affirmed that the new storage structure would likely have some training elements. He said he thought Iowa City’s arrangement to use Coralville’s facility has worked out well in the meantime.

“I think it’s more of an inconvenience and a slight cost factor, but so is building a brand new facility,” Hayek said of the arrangement, noting that “it’s not ideal, but it hasn’t been a problem either.”

Crane and other firefighters said they haven’t seen any decline in ability due to the lack of a training facility, but they want to keep honing their skills.

“A dedicated training facility is something we had,” Crane said. “We don’t want to take a step back.”

Later this month, Jensen said, the department will begin re-evaluating its Community Risk Standard of Cover document, which it does every few years as the city changes. That allows firefighters to determine how best to allocate resources based on which areas present the most risk, or biggest challenge - something that the new high rises will undoubtedly factor into. After that, Jensen said the ICFD will write a new Community Driven Strategic Plan to determine “what the fire department should look to accomplish to best satisfy the needs of our community.”

Hayek praised Iowa City’s fire department as exceptional, noting that the city has the only full-time, paid professional fire department in Johnson County.

“The bottom line is we would never compromise the safety of our community, and I don’t think we have in any respect,” he said.

___

Information from: Iowa City Press-Citizen, https://www.press-citizen.com/

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