New building, new technology presents challenges for local firefighters

NOW: New building, new technology presents challenges for local firefighters


MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- The Milwaukee Fire Department is already in training for a building that hasn't broken ground yet.

Ascent, an apartment building near downtown Milwaukee expected to break ground in a few months, has a tall timber frame. At 25-stories, it is expected to be the tallest building of it's kind in the world.

The word "timber" might suggest big trees, but UL Manager of Industry Relations Sean DeCrane says tall timber frames are made of smaller pieces of wood. "We're using small dimensional lumber, putting it in layers perpendicular to each other to engineer a larger size wood product."

Since wood burns, you might think that a tall timber frame is susceptible to a fire, but DeCrane says in a fire the frame will stay intact. "That wood chars. It acts as a protective mechanism… think of like an armadillo," he said.

How does UL know a tall timber frame can withstand fire? They built a small version of a building, and lit it up. At a recent conference at Professional Firefighters Local 215, UL showed representatives from area departments the results. The President of Local 215, Michael Bongiorno, was happy to get the opportunity. "Knowing what we are going into is very important, the dangers are changing each and every year," he said.

While firefighters will have to account for tall timber buildings, other new technology can pose a real danger to firefighters, and it could be headed for nearly every office building in SE Wisconsin.

Last year, four firefighters in Arizona were sent to the hospital after an explosion at an energy storage facility. As companies deal with information, they use batteries to backup their computer systems. Should those batteries catch fire, they let out a white, toxic, and explosive smoke. And if a room full of batteries goes up in flames, Milwaukee Fire Department Battalion Chief Errich Roden says firefighters might have to go against their natural instincts to stay safe. "Sometimes it's best just to let it burn and protect the surrounding areas," he said.

The tests from UL engineers will help manufacturers make batteries that are safer.

Adam Barowy, UL research engineer, says widespread use of batteries is new. "We have a very long way to go to understanding battery fire behavior," he said.

But the latest information helps local firefighters develop a game plan, which can save property, and can save lives. "We take our profession seriously, we take our safety seriously," Bongiorno said.

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