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1-19-2012 Sprinklers For The Eisenhower Tunnel

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The current infrastructure of the United States includes approximately 400-highway tunnels in 35 states and thousands of miles of mass transportation (rail) tunnels. Concerns about fire safety in these tunnels existed long before terrorism exposed their vulnerability, though. 

These underground fires, occurring in road or railway tunnels, as well as accidents and other issues create extraordinary challenges for firefighters and emergency personnel. One of the most challenging scenarios for a firefighter is battling a blaze deep in the constricted bowels of an underground tunnel, where a fire can heat the tunnel to as much as 1500 degrees Fahrenheit.

Consider the catastrophic consequences of tunnel fires, not only resulting in loss of life and severe property damage, but also in a profound lack of confidence from the public regarding the use of such systems. In an effort to be proactive and safe, the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) desires to install a twenty million dollar sprinkler system in the four-lane, 1.6 mile long Eisenhower-Johnson Memorial Tunnel on Interstate 70. This would undoubtedly make the tunnel safer. The CDOT has asked for Department of Homeland Security (DHS) funding to install a suppression system designed to control heat in the event of a fire, making it easier for fire fighters to enter the tunnel.

Fire safety in rail and road tunnels is challenging because of the specific features of the tunnel environment. A key factor to be aware of is that sprinkler systems are designed to confine a fire to its area of origin. According to a report by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), automatic sprinkler systems reduce the risk of home fire deaths and can significantly decrease fire-related property damage. Experts say that sprinklers will most likely extinguish the fire at its incipient stage before it has a chance to grow. The flow of water from fire sprinklers is also intended to drop the core temperature of a fire area. Once the temperature has dropped below what is known as the threshold temperature, fire crews can enter the area and completely extinguish it.

It is very important for one to remember that fire safety in tunnels is a challenging endeavor, mainly due to the specific features of the tunnel environment. A fire in a tunnel can spread from its original source to secondary vehicles very easily, so tunnel fires must be extinguished as quickly as they begin in order to stop it from reaching a critical heat-release rate. This can be achieved by “applying the wet stuff to the red stuff.”

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