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Firefighters prepare for bigger fires

Firefighters in St. Petersburg are used to fighting blazes in ramshackle homes, two-story apartments and crowded shopping centers. But their challenges are growing.

Downtown development means learning to fight fires in taller buildings and preparing to evacuate more people from larger areas.

Thousands of sports fans are expected to crowd the Florida Suncoast Dome, and office workers will fill huge new buildings such as the 26-story, 385-foot-tall Barnett Tower.

"Any high-rise situation is heavily manpower-intensive," said St. Petersburg Fire Prevention Chief Fred Hawkins. "What we try to do is fight the fire on paper before the fire happens. We've learned to work smarter."

Last week, firefighters toured the Florida Suncoast Dome to find fire pumps, exits and sprinklers. They will draw up contingency plans.

"The stadium is the biggest thing to hit St. Petersburg, and we want everyone to be aware," Hawkins said. "When the Barnett opens, we'd like to take everyone through that, too."

Fighting fires in tall buildings can be tricky. Aerial ladders and elevated platforms for rescue go up only eight to 10 stories. So firefighters work from inside the buildings. Usually, that means going inside the building from below or above the fire and trying to keep it from spreading.

Modern fire prevention techniques and devices also help firefighters. In 96 percent of the cases, sprinkler systems, such as those in the stadium and those being installed in the Barnett building, either put out fires or keep them in check until firefighters arrive.

Both structures have elaborate fire prevention systems.

Barnett Tower features pressurized stairwells that keep the smoke out during evacuations, an extra fire pump, smoke detectors, strobe lights to warn deaf people, an automatic audio warning system for blind people, an emergency generator and a computerized fire command room, said Dave Crockett, who is coordinating the building's construction.

The dome has many of the same fire safety features, stadium officials said.

Hawkins said firefighters will bring in help from departments in surrounding areas if fires are bad.

"The dome and the Barnett Tower are no different from any of the rest of them," he said. "It's just another building."