Eisenhower Tunnel tour highlights new fire suppression system | SummitDaily.com
Elise Reuter
ereuter@summitdaily.com

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Eisenhower Tunnel tour highlights new fire suppression system

More than 110 civic and business leaders filed through the spacious halls above the Eisenhower/Johnson Memorial Tunnel, admiring the years of work that have kept the world's highest elevation vehicular tunnel operating smoothly. Thursday's tour was part of an effort by the Denver Metro Chamber Leadership Foundation to highlight infrastructure challenges in the mountains.

"We're looking at how Colorado has taken a collaborative approach at solving some of those issues," said Danielle Mellema, a marketing and communications specialist with the foundation. "I think it's a great place to look at for our state transportation where talent and innovation come together."

The guided tour through the 1.7-mile tunnel showcased how workers make effective use of the technology, some of which dates to the tunnel's construction in the late 1960s. For example, in the drafty areas above the tunnel, several giant, 600-horsepower fans pull fresh air in, while removing emissions. Despite the fact that the tunnel sees nearly 30,000 vehicles annually, the fans no longer need to run on full power, as today's cars are more efficient.

Another highlight of the tour was the start of a new $20 million fire suppression system, which is set to be completed by the end of the summer.

Every year, the tunnel sees an average of two to three fires, caused primarily by vehicles with overheated engines or breaks. It takes tunnel crews 8-10 minutes to respond to emergencies in the tunnel, with the nearest fire stations more than 15 minutes away.

"It's a huge public safety issue not having that fire protection system," said state Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon, a proponent of the bill that passed two years ago to help fund the construction of the new system. "I know it's an inconvenience now, but with the need for safety and investment in infrastructure, I don't know how you can quantify those things."

The fire suppression system, consisting of steel channels running through the ventilation halls and fiber-optic heat sensors at the top of each tunnel, will sound an alarm if too much heat is detected. A sprinkler system that dispenses mist and foam will contain fires, preventing further damage until emergency crews can respond.

"This will greatly improve safety in the mountain corridor," said Amy Ford, director of communications for the Colorado Department of Transportation. "It's an excellent project and we're very excited about it for a variety of reasons."

She added that the system, which is based on fire suppression systems in tunnels in Europe in Japan, is the first of its kind in the U.S.

However, the need for the technology is not new. In 2000, a motor home caught fire in the tunnel, causing a 2,000-megawatt fire and shutting down both tunnels for the better part of a day. In 2011, a truck caught fire, also creating a traffic nightmare. While the Eisenhower Tunnel may boast that not a single fatality has occurred in the tunnel since its opening in 1979, the new fire system is still crucial in limiting closures, which cut off access between mountain communities and Denver.

"That is how important that tunnel is to Colorado's economy, certainly to Summit County and the ski resorts," Hamner said.

The first phase of the project, consisting of wiring and sensors, is set to be finished by May 3. During the construction period, full-bore closures will take place from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.

Phase two, the installation of sprinklers and water pipes, will require only one-lane closures, as it is a less dangerous process. Weather permitting, the full system should be completed by Dec. 1.