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?”
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.
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.”
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.”