It would be unthinkable in the modern era to recommend that firefighters use buckets of water delivered by a bucket brigade to extinguish a fire. You would probably be laughed out of the room if you suggested that standpipes shouldn’t be required to move water up into a high-rise building. Imagine the bucket brigade or the hose stretch and the staffing needed to accomplish what a simple standpipe allows us to do with water. Unthinkable right? However when it comes to air we do exactly what we did over a century ago with water. We use the bucket brigade tactic to manually shuttle air cylinders into a building, sometimes one or two at a time, to replenish our air. The logistics needed to accomplish this in a high-rise, large area box building or tunnel can dramatically affect our ability to quickly gain control of an incident. The fire service cannot allow these large modern engineering successes to deny us our two primary basic needs: air and water.
Appendix L of the 2015 ICC International Fire Code supports local departments in requiring firefighter air replenishment systems (FARS) and treating them as equally vital to life safety as standpipes are for water. Let’s face it, firefighters up on the 18th floor with plenty of water and no air to breathe must retreat to an area where they can change out cylinders and then move back up to continue operations. Usually that can only be done late in the incident when staffing allows for the shuttling up of cylinders. When firefighters are required to enter buildings that are larger than the typical residential structure, the logistics of being able to supply air becomes a major hurdle. Having air refill stations inside a large area box store or manufacturing plant, or along the tunnel of a transit system, or up 10 or 70 floors in the sky is no longer fantasy. It’s in the code!
Using Facts when Faced with Opposition
With any new requirements adopted by the Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ) come the doomsday predictions of developers and investors who claim that, “These new requirements will force us out of business,” or the assertion that the systems are so cost prohibitive that the development will move to another city that doesn’t require them. The fire service has heard and continues to hear these arguments even for the older, existing codes. The local AHJ is always in give-and-take mode, maintaining the balance between keeping the public and firefighters safe while considering the arguments that come from both the development community and local politicians.
Proactive dialogue and being armed with facts are the fire officials’ best tools in the efforts to uphold their sworn oath to protect lives and property. So what is the cost of installing a FARS system in a building that is planned for construction in your area? The cost of a system, including design, manufacturing, and installation has historically averaged approximately $245,000. The overall cost is determined by the type of system components required by the AHJ, the size of the building and some variations in labor costs across the country.
Strategy and Cost
Knowing these cost up front can go a long way in the trenches for the fire official who is fending off political inquisitions, proposed trade-offs and threats of moving the development due to an inflated cost estimate provided by a developer, lobbyist or politician. The reported cost of FARS systems has been doubled and even tripled in some areas of the country to play on the emotions of politicians and encourage them to put pressure on fire departments to abandon the requirement.
Partnerships and relationships are the key to getting the equipment required that not only protects your firefighters, but also allows your firefighters to deliver service to the customer. Here are some actual costs for two recent systems. One system is in Texas and the other is in California. Almost every other geographic regionwill fall within these two examples.
Let’s look at two recent projects for a good comparison of the types of buildings, size and FARS cost. Remember, the difference in cost between theses two projects is primarily driven by the local AHJ requirements for system components, union labor rates and the overall higher cost of doing business in California.
FARS Project Profile (Texas):
- Project consists of two 18-story towers
- 1 million total square feet
- Total construction cost = $325 million
- Total FARS cost = $218,000
- FARS cost per square foot: $0.22 or 22 cents
FARS Project Profile (California):
- Project consists of two 8-story towers
- 612,000 square feet
- Total construction cost = $180 million
- Total FARS cost = $485,000 or $242,000 per tower
- FARS cost per square foot: $0.79 or 79 cents
Here is a comparison to other fire and life safety systems:
- Fire Alarm Systems: $4 – $7 per square foot
- Fire Sprinkler: $2 – $7 per square foot
- FARS: 22 cents – 79 cents per square foot
The Cost of Retrofitting an Existing Building
Unlike sprinkler systems, a FARS retrofit can be accomplished for nearly the same price as new construction. Because of the small ½” stainless steel tubing used to distribute the air and fact that the route of distribution is typically within the stairwells, there is usually only a 2-3% increase in cost.
Some Common Myths About FARS Cost:
FARS requires major design changes to building plans.
- Early planning prevents the need for any significant changes. Most projects can be incorporated into existing plans with little or no change.
FARS requires additional space to be added, which adds high cost to developments.
- FARS equipment can be installed in existing mechanical rooms, storage closets, parking decks, and un-rentable dead space.
FARS takes up too much rentable space.
- A system that includes storage capability to refill cylinders without a Mobile Air Unit can be installed in un-rentable dead space, storage closets, in parking decks or in existing mechanical rooms.
FARS design and installation cost are so high they are impractical.
- In the two examples cited above, the cost of the Texas system was 1/16th of 1 percent of the total construction cost; the cost of the California system was just over 1/4 of 1 percent of the total construction cost.
FARS installations cause delays that slow down construction.
- FARS systems are installed and sequenced during the typical mechanical, plumbing and fire protection installation phase. Since the system is primarily based in the stairways, the only other sub-trade with whom coordination is required is the standpipe/sprinkler contractor. This does not result in substantial coordination or delays.
FARS industry experts are always available to help local departments and developers work through design and cost projections to get you the answers you need to inform your decisions.
Departments should reach out to FARS suppliers in advance of a project, and encourage developers to do so as well. These experts can help departments and developers work through design options and cost projections, and provide accurate information on cost, scheduling, location of the system and more.
Your department has the ability now, supported by Appendix L of the 2015 ICC International Fire Code, to make you own determination on what types of buildings should trigger a FARS requirement in order to provide the highest level of protection for your firefighters and the building occupants. Educate yourself and your community leaders with the facts, and develop relationships with the building community and suppliers ahead of time.
David Rhodes is a 32-year fire service veteran currently serving in an urban Fire Department. He is a Chief Elder for the Georgia Smoke Diver Program, a member of the Fire Department Instructors Conference (FDIC) Executive Advisory Board, a Hands-on-Training Coordinator for the FDIC conference, an Editorial Advisor and author for Fire Engineering, Fire Rescue and Fire Apparatus and Equipment Magazine. He is the creator of the Hump Day SOS Blog on Fire Engineering.com. He serves as an Advisory Board Member for Underwriters Laboratories Firefighter Safety Research Institute. He serves as an Incident Commander for the Georgia Emergency Management Agency – All Hazards Incident Management Team and is a Task Force Leader for the Georgia Search and Rescue Team. He is president of Rhodes Consultants, Inc., which provides public safety training, consulting and promotional assessment centers.