This is the last installment in a three-part series.
Mike Salamon said earlier this week that he believes the Eisenhower/Johnson Memorial Tunnel is the safest 2 miles of highway in Colorado’s entire road system.
In more than 40 years, 350 million cars, trucks and buses have traveled through the two portals without one fatality. That sterling safety record is due in part to technology, but also to the tunnel’s team of 50 dedicated employees.
However, Salamon, who has worked at the tunnel for 37 years and currently serves as the tunnel maintenance superintendent, said improving fire safety has always been one of his goals.
“Even though we’ve never had a big hazmat (hazardous materials) accident, this tunnel has always needed a fire suppression system,” Salamon said. “The challenge was finding the funding.”
This year a concerted effort was made to acquire the estimated $25 million to perform the first retro-fit tunnel fire suppression system in the nation’s history. Last month the Colorado Transportation Commission approved $10 million in funding for the project. It was the final piece of funding to get the project off the ground.
Earlier this year, the Colorado Department of Transportation received $5 million from the state legislature through a bill carried by Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon, and $10 million from the U.S. Department of Transportation.
“When this whole process started I thought I would be long gone before a fire suppression system ever became a reality,” Salamon said. “It just came together so fast.”
Right now, Salamon said CDOT is done with about 30 percent of the design work and has already solicited for requests for proposals for the installation of the system.
Although CDOT has not yet decided what type of system it plans to recommend — water mist, water deluge or a water/foam mixture — the desire is to have the system in place and operational by fall 2016.
Until then, Salamon said his team of employees are well prepared to respond to highway emergencies, just as it has since day one. On average, tunnel employees respond to 400 motorist assist calls and about three fires every year.
Currently, the tunnel stocks a traditional full-sized pumper truck equipped with a front-mounted 500 gallon per minute water cannon. The truck is so efficient at containing automobile fires, it’s not uncommon to have only one employee respond to a fire call in the tunnel, Salamon said.
In addition to the pumper truck, tunnel employees have access to a tow truck, a “crash” truck and two wreckers, all of which are outfitted with firefighting equipment.
Although many tunnel employees are multi-skilled, the ones who respond to fires are Insipient Fire Brigade-trained, a special type of fire training geared toward fighting automobile fires. And contrary to popular belief, tunnel employees do not attempt to push a flaming automobile out of the tunnel before they fight it.
“It is a different animal because it’s a lot like trying to fight a fire in a big chimney, but we’re not going to try to push it out,” Salamon said. “We fight the fire in the tunnel.”
In addition to the firefighting equipment, there are fire hydrants spread out every 250 feet, which are fed by an 8-inch water line, as well as three emergency tunnels connecting Eisenhower to Johnson.
In the 1980s, a full coach bus caught fire in the middle of the Eisenhower Tunnel. Many of those passengers self-rescued by using the egress tunnels to escape to the Johnson portal, Salamon said.
However, Salamon’s pride and joy — the tunnel’s 40-year-old ventilation system — has and also will continue to play a vital role in fighting automobile fires, with one relatively new and noteworthy improvement.
About six years ago, CDOT commissioned a study of the tunnel that resulted in the fabrication of a new ventilation control panel. The tunnel was split up into zones that correspond with specific in-tunnel cameras, as well as a specific set of ventilation fans.
Should a control room operator notice an automobile on fire in Zone 1, for example, he turns the Zone 1 switch and the new panel tells him exactly which fans to turn on and which to turn off.
At full speed, the fans can create hurricane-force winds to move heat and smoke away from motorists trapped in the tunnel and employees responding to fight the fire.
“There’s a lot of confusion and a lot of adrenaline pumping when we do have a tunnel fire,” Salamon said. “I wanted to make sure our guys would know exactly which fans to bring online. It’s something I’m proud of and I think it’s an important safety feature.”
With all of the firefighting technology already in place and a fire suppression system just a few years away, Thad Noll, assistant Summit County manager, said a debate about amending the tunnel’s hazmat policy already is beginning to surface.
Currently, trucks transporting hazmat materials are diverted away from the tunnels and onto Loveland Pass. Many officials across a variety of sectors, including local government, law enforcement, transportation and the trucking industry, have raised questions about whether or not it would be necessary to divert hazmat trucks to Loveland’s dangerous pass once the fire suppression system is operational, Noll said.
Although Salamon wasn’t aware of any official conversations currently taking place, he said he thinks that debate will begin to surface as the fire suppression system project nears completion.
“It’s going to require a lengthy period of public hearings before CDOT amends its hazmat policy and I’m already running about 400 hazmat trucks through the tunnels each year when the pass is closed,” Salamon said. “The conversation will eventually surface, but that’s not something I’m thinking about right now. My priority is getting this fire suppression system installed and operating.”