Millions at Stake in Fight over Fire Safety Requirements for High Rise Buildings

For the last several months, a fight with multi-million dollar implications has quietly been waged over fire safety requirements in San Jose’s tallest buildings.

The clash—featuring a tangled array of alliances between elected officials, developers, lobbyists, a monopolistic breathing device manufacturer, a union spurned and an ambivalent fire department—will come to a head Thursday afternoon, when the Public Safety, Finance & Strategic Support Committee meets to discuss the city’s tri-annual review of its fire and building codes.

In October 2010, former San Jose Fire Chief Willie McDonald signed off on a little-noticed change to the city code regarding fire safety equipment installed in high-rise buildings. McDonald’s memo to Mayor Chuck Reed and the City Council recommended adoption of the 2010 state building standards and amending Chapter 17.12 of the San Jose Municipal Code. It seems not everyone at City Hall and the fire department realized that one amendment would allow high-rise developers to install reinforced elevators in the event firefighters are needed, as an alternative to installing a Firefighter Breathing Air Replenishment System (FBARS).

A FABRS allows firefighters to refill tanks of oxygen in stairwell stations rather than descend back to the ground for supplies, or using a reinforced elevator to send up supplies and even personnel.

The change meant little to most observers, but developers, always watchful of the bottom line, saw the amendment as a way to remove hundreds of thousands of dollars—if not millions—in installation and maintenance expenses for a FABRS. Meanwhile, San Carlos-based Rescue Air, Inc.—the sole manufacturer of the FBARS, which can reportedly run between $350,000 to more than $1 million—was essentially pushed out of the 10th largest market in the country, at a time when the Great Recession was coming to an end and city officials were encouraging developers to build higher and faster in San Jose.

In May of this year, Councilman Sam Liccardo and the mayor pushed to have the FABRS requirement scrapped from city code altogether, sending Rescue Air’s lobbyist team—Forest Consulting LLC, which consists of Rich de la Rosa and Sean Kali Rai—on an information tour through City Hall.

Interesting to note, McDonald’s 2010 memo to allow reinforced elevators as an alternative to FBARS came after city staff met with architects, developers and contractors in series of meetings in August and September of that year. McDonald—who could not be reached for comment—wrote that a report on those meetings and recommended changes would go before the Public Safety committee Oct. 21, 2010. But in a separate memo sent to that committee, signed by McDonald and Planning Director Joe Horwedel, no mention was made of dropping FBARS requirements or reinforced elevators. In fact, McDonald did not give an oral report to the Public Safety committee on amendments to the city’s building code.

It wasn’t until just a few months ago that San Jose’s fire union, Local 230, became aware of the change to the city’s code, according to union President Robert Sapien, who in August urged the Public Safety committee to reconsider the amendment.

“The memo I submitted was based on learning that we’re creating an equivalent from the FBARS system to the elevator system, and in my professional opinion they are not equivalent,” Sapien told San Jose Inside. “My view is they’re very different things, and one does not equal out the other. We don’t trust elevators. We don’t use them. Our system is from stairwells.”

Councilmember Pete Constant echoed those safety concerns while also expressing doubts about the city’s level of transparency in making the change.

“The elevator and air system serve different functions and are not interchangeable,” Constant said. “It’s unfortunate that there was not a full discussion of the potential public safety impacts before making a decision of this magnitude. The staff memo presented to the Public Safety committee was unclear that the system requirement was being changed.”

Councilmember Ash Kalra, who like Constant was approached by Rescue Air’s lobbyist team, which has been paid tens of thousands of dollars to talk to city officials about keeping the air systems as part of city fire and building code, said another look at the city’s high-rise requirements is warranted.

“We should’ve had a full discussion on this, including the technology,” Kalra said. “Instead it was packaged a certain way, and it just doesn’t smell right. At the end of the day, it’s about having the best fire safety infrastructure for our firefighters and our residents.”

Horwedel, the city’s planning director, said the public safety committee does not have a voice in building code changes, but reports have been taken to the committee in the past as a courtesy. The city has the option of implementing a stricter building code than the state—which only requires reinforced elevators—but Horwedel says he and city staff are comfortable with dropping the air rescue system requirement.

“That would be my recommendation to the council,” he said. “(The FBARS requirement) was put in years ago, before we were really doing high rises. A number of jurisdictions have looked and have not implemented it.”

Just this week, San Francisco dropped its air system requirement for high rise buildings.

San Jose adopted the required installation of FBARS in all high-rise buildings back in 2006, at the suggestion of then-Councilmember Cindy Chavez, who, now working as a county supervisor, did not return a request for comment.

“When it was approved, it was billed as a non-proprietary system,” Horwedel said.

In fact, Rescue Air has sole control of the market for its breathing systems, selling them directly or licensing our their technology. “It’s not treated as an open source item like a fire stair or exit door,” Horwedel said.

In offering the reinforced elevator alternative three years ago, “[w]e got rid of the monopoly, or at least gave developers another option to meet the fire code,” Horwedel added.

There are currently three high-rise projects underway in San Jose—Samsung’s massive new business park and two residential high-rises downtown. “We would love to have 10 or 15 in the next five years, but it’s really a function on where the economy is two or three years from now,” Horwedel said, noting that City Hall and The 88 high-rise condos downtown both have FBARS installed.

Councilman Liccardo, who represents downtown, defended the city’s efforts to streamline high-rise building requirements in a safe manner. “If we’re truly interested in safety, we’d do far better to listen to the fire marshal than to a company trying to peddle its product and their lobbyists,” he said. “I’ll leave it to the pundits to speculate about the motives of those politicians who would choose the latter.”

Businessmen and city officials aren’t the only ones taking an aggressive approach to the issue. Last week, Roland De Wolk, a former producer for KTVU who was fired in the aftermath of the TV station’s erroneous report on pilot names in the Asiana airplane crash, sidestepped security protocol at City Hall by sneaking on to the council elevator to gain access to the 18th floor, which houses offices for councilmembers and the mayor.

It’s unclear if De Wolk was working as an independent reporter or a private business, but his goal was to interview Liccardo after a closed session council meeting. Sources at City Hall and on the periphery have described the scene in two ways: Liccardo ducked the interview; or De Wolk tried to ambush the councilmember. More certain, Rescue Air’s lobbyist team did help arrange interviews for De Wolk, who did not respond to an email requesting comment.

The group that seems most averse to conflict regarding this issue is the fire department. “Not taking away from any side, labor or management, we’re open to both (reinforced elevators and FBARS),” department spokesman Cleo Doss told San Jose Inside.

In a bit of irony, Doss said that the department does not currently train firefighters how to respond to high-rise fires using reinforced elevators or an air-rescue system.

Josh Koehn is a former managing editor for San Jose Inside and Metro Silicon Valley.


  1. This puff piece is brought to you by Rescue Air, Inc., number one profiter of government regulations.  To be clear:  Firefighters, who do not support new development in San Jose, are pretty much shooting themselves in the foot.  Why?  Who the heck do you think pays for their pension and benefit plans?  Tax payers in San Jose!!  So being against new development like high-rises that bring in new residents that increase the overall tax revenue the City collects that pays for firefighters pensions and benefits is just stupid.  STUPID!  Union leaders are f-ing firefighters over if they think preventing new development is a good for them in the long run.  Not having more residents in San Jose will lead to deficits and more cuts to benefits firefighters want.  The No. 1 way to increase benefits is to support new development because it increases the economic vitality of the City so it can pay those pensions and benefits.

    • The firefighters aren’t against development, they’re voicing their preference for refilling oxygen in stairwells over reinforced elevators.  The former is more expensive, and employs lobbyists and little competition… Please follow along.

      • They’re voicing their opinion on a regulation that brings tons of profits to a single company (who is not even in San Jose) without recognizing the implications it will have on future development of high-rises in San Jose – and the impact it could have on their benefits.

        • @Thereliableinformer:  Nope, I’m taking firefighters and police officers back on this matter because they’re getting f-ed over by their union leaders.  Darn right,  our men need more benefits, pensions and an increase salary.  The problem:  How do we pay for it?  I believe the only way for San Jose to fix the current financial mess we’re all in is to grow.  The City needs more high-rises, more tax paying residents so it can hire more people and pay for those pensions that support those workers.  Supporting measures that hurt growth, like an expensive payout to Rescue Air, will have a real impact on SJ’s revenue and thus limiting the amount of money it can pay workers.  The policy decision you’re advocating will actually hurt firefighters, police officers and other government workers.  So be smart about it, dude.

        • Its NOT an Opinion , No air = Death .

          No Firefighter takes the Elevator , things happen ,mechanics can fail. You have an awful strong opinion. so again I ask , have you ever climbed 30 floors with full gear and equipment.(add 150 lbs.)
            I come from a long line of firefighters and not one would agree that FABRS is not necessary . Are we talking about Firefighter safety or are we talking about pensions, because as far as i am concerned those are two very different topics . You are still under the “Misguided Belief” that pensions are weighing this city down, and it has already been proven that The Mayor is a Liar. Airport debt and RDA debt dwarf the pension debt by @ least 3X . by the way pensions dont mean nothing if you are not around to collect it .

        • If firefighters in San Francisco, who also said they don’t need to pay extra to Rescue Air, Inc., then I’m sure our firefighters who are much better can do their job just fine without pandering to a single company NOT in San Jose!

        • I don’t think any San Jose Firefighter has climbed 30 stories in full turnouts, I don’t think there are any 30 story high rises in San Jose.  A dedicated elevator with it’s own power source and fire wall protected and only for use in a fire would better serve to get air bottles to the right location than an air system that requires special equipment and training.  You could get 60 bottles to one floor in a matter of minutes, how long would it take to fill 60 bottles?  I also have heard that there is a possibility of air bottles rupturing if not filled properly.  Better to do that on the ground than in a stairway.  High rise firefighting has also changed, elevators are used when safe, and a special one that would be dedicated just for emergency fire use sounds like a better and safer plan than FABRS.

        • If it comes down to a choice , the choice is FABRS .hands down a no brainer . Have you ever had to climb a high rise in full turn outs carrying needed equipment ? Its an Ass kicker . the ability to refill your air bottle every other floor is Huge . elevators mean nothing , dont use them and dont trust them ( In an Emergency). If you cant get air , you are dead and an elevaor cant change that

        • This opinion assumes Rescue Air, Inc. provides the only safe option for all our firefighters – not all firefighters think FABRS is a necessity.  Sure, it might make you, disgustedinsj, feel more comfortable with all that heavy equipment, but other things will make you safer.  It will also limit growth that will hinder the future expansion of benefits and pensions to firefighters in the future.  Do firefighters want to support development policies that increase their pensions and benefits or not?  I believe we can create adequate policy to both insure firefighters are safe and lead to strong growth WITHOUT paying Rescue Air loads of money.  Let’s put that money into making firefighters safe in other ways that also creates growth and boosts pensions for everyone.  Having 10 to 15 new high-rises will def solve SJ’s financial problems so it can begin to pay current employees more – and hire.

        • Also, I never said San Jose’s problem is pension debt.  I want to increase pensions and benefits to all government workers!!  We need to pay people more, period. How can we do this so everyone gets more?  I’m proposing San Jose grows itself out of our current financial mess.  It doesn’t matter what type of debt we have: pension, airport, redevelopment, the problem is we have too much debt.  Let’s fix this mess by building more buildings, attracting more tax paying citizens and tax paying businesses.  In 2010, San Pedro Square Market didn’t even exist.  All those locally owned businesses never were there to pay more taxes.  Now we have 10-15 more shops paying taxes.  Residents buying more crap, paying more sales taxes.  Development projects like San Pedro Square Market increase revenues and help our City afford the type of services we all favor.  Stop being a douche about giving Rescue Air, Inc. a government handout and start supporting San Jose as a whole. Because at the end of the day, we’re all in this together.

        • First of all I have climbed more than 30 floors . BUT not here in San Jose. Its amazing to me what people think they know when they themselves have not attempted the task. You could be the fittest person on the planet and guess what , you will need air sooner or later. climbing those stairs with at least 100 extra lbs. (turnouts and equipment)is no small feat . firefighters climb at a rate of 1 floor every 5 minutes( doing it quicker only tires you out and rehab takes longer)  San Jose uses 45 minute bottles with 1/3 being reserved for egress . obviously the harder you work the faster the air is depleted . just climbing is a major task . firefighters dont take elevators in emergencys for the simple reason that if it mechanical, it can fail .

  2. I must have missed something in the article…could you please point out where it says firefighters don’t support new development in San Jose? I’ve read it three times now, and all I’m getting is that their is an issue with fire safety in the new high rises that nobody can seem to agree on.

      • Nope, I’m a Clinton democrat living at Plant 51 in downtown San Jose.  I vote.  And I believe the best way to increase benefits to city workers, including pensions, is to promote policies that encourage growth.  Large benefit programs, pensions, etc., require more revenue. 

        You can’t take care of workers without having the money to care for them – it’s simple, really.  So let’s increase revenue, not through higher taxes, but from building and growing our city so we can pay our workers more. Thus, I do not support measures that limit growth because it also hurts our workers.

        • Government exists to serve the people- not the other way around. At least that used to be the quaint notion. It was the basis of the founding of this country if I’m not mistaken. 
          We should not allow our choices regarding the direction we wish our city to take to be dictated by a need to raise revenue for our government.

          There’s a nice piece of open land on Almaden Expwy. at Cherry that has always afforded passersby an uninterrupted vista toward Mt. Hamilton. But in the name of satisfying the City’s insatiable thirst for sales tax revenue that view will soon be blocked by a brand new BassPro megastore and mall. Oh boy! More retail!! Just how much of San Jose’s natural beauty and character and how much quality of life are we willing to sacrifice in the futile effort to service our government?
          I’d say enough’s enough. Isn’t “sustainability” a mantra of the Left? Well maybe we need to think about how we can create a sustainable government that serves the city’s needs just the way it is.

  3. This will be a true test of the value that the City places on the lives of their Public Safety Personnel. As another poster said, without breathing air, firefighters are dead and so are the people that they are trying to save. Elevators are not able to replace the need to breathe while fighting fire. All hi-rise firefighting tactics emphasize NOT using elevators when there is active fire, as elevators do fail and stairwells are the only safe way to access a high rise fire because they are constructed specifically to protect those entering and exiting a building in an emergency. Please don’t gamble with our lives.

    • Lee the city has spoken…..Public Safety Personnel is a “cancer that rides the gravy train”….the city will side with their builder buddies.

    • You need to understand the systems being referenced.  The breathing air system has filling stations on every other floor.  The bottles must be removed from the Firefighters to be filled and it is time consuming and poses some safety issues.  The elevator system being discussed is like a stairwell with an elevator that has an independent power system and are for emergency use only.  It is much safer than the breathing air system which is cumbersome and a dedicated elevator can move not only air bottles but other equipment and personnel safely.  It is also more cost effective to build for the builders, a win win situation.  Also, not all high rise firefighting tactics emphasize not using elevators, they can used when secured and safe. That is why you see Fire Fighter switches in modern elevators.

      • “Perspective” – with all due respect, you did not get it quite right. There are two ways to fill a firefighter’s air bottle using the air rescue system. You identified one of them which requires that the bottle be removed from the firefighter’s back. The second and I believe very key method, allows rapid yet safe filling of the bottle while it remains on the firefighter’s back. This allows fire personnel to remain in or return to service much quicker. The “firefighter elevator” is typically a regular passenger or freight elevator which can be operated in a “firefighter mode”, using a special key. This gives the firefighters the ability to control where the elevator goes or does not go. Still very much less than ideal in an emergency situation, since mechanical failure and lack of breathing air remain huge obstacles to a safe and successful operation. Firefighters do not use elevators when there is known active fire in a building. With very rare exceptions, stairwells are used exclusively until the Incident Commander determines that the imminent threat has passed. An elevator shaft exposed to active fire and smoke conditions, is little more than a chimney and the last place that you want to be in a fire. Carrying spare air bottles “aloft” during a highrise incident is difficult, cumbersome and inefficient. Storing sufficient numbers of air bottles on-site requires a whole other infrastructure and support system that has inherent problems of its own.

        • Lee, The system being discussed does not fill bottles while the FF’s are wearing them.  The chance of rupture of the bottle is too great and safeguards are taken when refilling air bottles.  This system in concept sounds like it could work, however because it is a one source vendor it has become cost prohibitive.  The Firefighter elevator that is proposed as an alternate is unlike any elevator currently in a high rise.  It would be a solely dedicated elevator for emergency use only in a fire proof enclosure.  San Francisco has high rises much taller than in San Jose and they see the dedicated FF elevator as better system.

  4. Guess SF “doesn’t value” their public safety personnel then? How about NYC, Chicago, or LA?

    On a related note, say SJ’s “FBARS” requirement remains in force and as a result developers decide to abandon their projects and move on, would we as tax payers then be entitled to “TBARS” (Taxpayer Bank Account Replenishment System)?

    • I think people need to take put aside politics and economics and just concentrate on the issue at hand.

      I have to laugh when I think that one of the arguments for the new city hall was that every office would be wired for broadband.  Of course that was before everyone started using wifi and smartphones. Ideas don’t always stand the test of time.

  5. This weekend I will be doing a demonstration that all interested members of the public can actively participate so as to be better informed on the eissue of “reinforced elevators vs RescueAir.”

    In this simulation each civilian evaluator will be given a standard sized SCBA (tank, regulator and mask) filled with breathable air and as many additional full replacement tanks as they can carry.

    (1) Evaluators will stage in the lobby of the high rise near the elevators with their SCBA’s and replacement tanks

    (2) when the elevator door opens evaluators will don their masks and enter the elevator car with as many other evaluators and replacement tanks as the car’s size will allows.

    (4) The Evaluator closest to the control should push the button to take the car to the highest floor in the building.

    (5) During the trip up, Evaluators should breath and converse normally to consume air from their SCBA until it is exhausted. Once the first tank is exhausted evaluators should swap out fro a fresh tank. 

    (6) once the elevator car reaches the top floor the evaluators and any remaining spare tanks should exit. (They can use the “stop” feature in the car to keep it at the top floor for the return trip to the ground) Evaluators should “Walk” the top floor again breathing and conversing normally swapping tanks as they become exhausted with fresh bags.

    One word of advice would be for evaluators to make sure they have enough air in reserve to make it back to the elevator and ultimately to the ground floor.

    (7) Once the walking tour is completed evaluators should return to the car for the trip back to the ground.

    (8) during the trip down the elevator will be randomly/remotely stopped for an indefinite period of time. Evaluators should continue to breath and converse normally and swap exhausted tanks for fresh ones until ALL AIR IN ALL TANKS is exhausted.

    Then the clock starts as all evaluators are asked to remove their SCBA MASK and hold their breath for as long as they can. After the last evaluator gives in and gasps for air the elevator can return to the ground floor and evaluators can discuss their experience.

    Part 2 of the evaluation

    (1) evaluators are issued ONE SCBA w/mask, tank regulator.

    (2) evaluators don their SCBA and proceed to the high rise stair well then begin the climb to the top floor. Breathing and conversing as their “cardio” allows.

    (3) when the tank starts running out they simply and quickly “recharge” the tank with fresh air from the stairway refilling station before continuing to the top floor.

    (4) at the top floor they again take the walking tour and recharge at one of the many refill stations located there. They can stay on the top floor as long as they want touring -recharging- touring – recharging up to 1 hour if they so desire.

    (5) after 1 hour evaluators will return to the ground floor via the stairwell and continue to recharge their air tanks as necessary along the way until the reach the ground floor.

    Evaluators will then discuss the merits of fast elevator trips up and down while burdened with nothing more than a finite amount of breathable air contained in a finite number of spare air tanks (as opposed to a finite number of spare air tanks PLUS any additional medical/fire fighting gear as may be required during an actual emergency…)


    the ability of being able to breath an infinite quantity of air (thanks to the recharge stations)  while having the ability to lug vital equipment to the scene of an emergency even though the trip might be physically exhausting.

    It seems that some people here are saying that they want firefighters to do all of the things that we expect firefighters to do and do them quickly (the elevator if it is working will get FF’s there faster than climbing stairs there is no doubt) BUT to save building owners and construction companies a few dollars FF’s have to do their jobs with a limited amount of air??? 

    If Pete Constant can figure out the answer to this problem is that AIR is better than ELEVATOR then what is wrong with the rest of you?

    • You really don’t get it, do you?

      It doesn’t matter if you prefer AIR or ELEVATOR if a “Joe Schmoe Dev’t Co.” decides they had enough of the code red tape and don’t build any additional highrises in the first place.

      Why don’t you people put some research into wildfire prevention and early warning systems, since these pop-up like a clockwork every goddamn summer, as opposed to trying to figure out some hypothetical outcome of a highrise fire with 0.01% chance of ever happening?

      Former third world countries are building quarter-mile high buildings at a mind numbing pace and we allow this buddy contractor-buddy inspector charade to go on forever just so they could make a few bucks on our expense?! And please inspect those multi-million sprinkler systems while you’re at it.

  6. The FBARS system sounds like a standpipe for air.  To me the big difference between a water standpipe and an air standpipe is that people don’t consume the water in a standpipe.  I don’t know about you, but I’d rather breathe air that is put in a tank away from a fire scene.  A lot of things can go wrong with old pipes, or damage from a fire or other source.  Also, if you were a terrorist, why wouldn’t you want to compromise a FBARS system too.

    The issue is getting breathable air up to where firefighters will be using it.  I’m not sure how much time and manpower is really saved by filling air tanks on site in a high rise versus transporting full tanks up.  It’s a concept that sounds good on paper, but just creates another set of failure scenarios that have to be worked around the good old fashioned way:  Carrying full air tanks up.

  7. Rather than air recharging stations would it be possible to have designated locations where replacement charged breathing air tanks are stored? Or is switching tanks under extreme conditions not feasible?
    Just asking.

  8. What I don’t understand is that then the Fire Chief made the recommendation to accept the state codes he probably didn’t do that in a vacuum. The Fire Marshal and his staff review the code and make a recommendation on to accept or not. SJ has some codes that are stricter than the state. The Fire Marshal didn’t recommend this be stricter. So, firefighters did review this prior to it going to the chief. They didn’t seem to see a problem with it. Isn’t there a Captain who was responsible for this?

    • What most people dont understand is The Elevators and Breathing systems are 2 entirely different animals , Neither one can replace the other as they perform different functions. Another thing most dont understand or havent been told is , any building over 120ft. must have NOT 1 but 2 reinforced elevators . This is nothing more than an attempt by Mayor Reeds Developer buddies , to try and shave monies off of construction costs . Again placing money over safety. breathing systems are a necessity . No air =Death

  9. @DISGUSTEDINSJ, please explain how would you deal with the fact that there is no established NFPA Standard for the FBARS to date?

    “NFPA standards 1404 (2006), 1500 (2007), 1852 (2008), 1981 (2007), 1989 (2008) and 1901 (2009) all
    apply to various components of FBARS, but none deal directly with the system in its entirety.”

    Secondly, most hospitals contain the following within their fire emergency procedure:

    “When instructed by charge nurse, shut off zone oxygen valve in hallway in fire area.  If there are patients/residents on oxygen, take portable oxygen carts from storeroom for use.”

    Are we missing something?!?

  10. VanillaF8ce

    what is a life worth ?? Is shaving monies off of construction costs more important than Firefighter safety ? most firefighters will always error on the side of safety. developers will always try to save as much as possible on construction costs, regardless of safety

    Airtanks are filled in safety containment Containers . Not for nothing but Nurses work in a semi controlled environment( by that I mean that they know their surroundings. Hospital,Doctors office, etc.) Firefighters rarely go to work in the same environment , so its not really a fair comparison .

  11. Dude, seriously? No one is shaving off anything, let alone not caring about our emergency personnel. My point was and remains that any and all additional code hurdles and bureaucratic BS needs to be pushed aside when it comes to expanding new construction development in downtown. That is the lifeline we ALL should be concerned about as it’ll directly (and positively) impact our property tax revenue base, influx of new residents and improve the quality of life in general for the years to come.

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