CDOT switches on new Eisenhower Tunnel fire suppression system
Thousands of feet of pipe snake through the ventilation air ducts above the Eisenhower-Johnson Memorial Tunnels. Filled with hot, circulating water, the pipes are just one piece of the tunnels’ new, $25 million fire suppression system.
The Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) celebrated the completion of the project on Friday, unlike any existing fire system in the United States.
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“Today marks the culmination of a lot of hard from people who work very diligently to improve the safety at this facility for the traveling public,” CDOT Region One transportation director Paul Jesaitis said.
The system was officially activated on May 6, following just 16 months of design and construction. The final piece of the installation was testing — specifically an employee holding a torch to heat sensors placed at the top of each tunnel — resulting in a sudden deluge from the overhead sprinklers and a soaked torchbearer.
“It’s a team effort,” CDOT Executive Director Shailen Bhatt said, thanking state and federal partners for their support of the project. “This is not designed to put out fires, but to give our first responders and trained firefighting folks a chance to get in, and time is of the essence. It’s all about safety.”
He added that while there has never been a fatality in the tunnels, there have been a few close calls with fires. In 2000, a motor home caught fire in the tunnel, shutting down both bores for the better part of a day. In 2011, a truck caught fire near the end of the tunnel as well.
“The problem is, if you get a big fire in a tunnel, it’s burning so hot (fire personnel) can’t get in,” said Andy Granger, a superintendent with Barnard Construction Company, one of the project contractors. The goal, he said, is to reduce a fire from 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit to 200 degrees, so it can be safely extinguished. The system isn’t designed to fully extinguish large fires because if a fuel tank ruptured, the water would then spread the fuel all over the road.
Steve Rondinelli, president of BCER Group Engineering, said there were two main challenges to the project: developing a system that would suppress fire, and keeping water from freezing while traveling through nearly two miles of pipe at an elevation of 11,000 feet.
“The key is we recognize a fire quickly and activate the system,” he said. “Water is always circulating through this big loop.”
The water is brought up from an existing tank below the tunnels, and heated to about 110 degrees Fahrenheit in a set of boilers before in begins to travel around the loop in a six-inch insulated pipe. Because the water is constantly moving, kept at a warm temperature, it is less likely to freeze and is immediately available in the event of a fire.
“It takes about an hour and a half from when (the water) leaves the boiler room downstairs to return to the boiler room,” said Jason Miller, a fire protection engineer with Rondinelli Life Safety. “Our design temperature was about -30 degrees so it could get really cold in here.”
Throughout the tunnels’ dark corridors, a total of 18,000 feet of insulated pipe was installed, capable of carrying about 30,000 gallons of water. Once a fire is detected, water is diverted to the closest sprinklers and released into the tunnel below.
“All of this is completely automated,” Miller added.
THE COST OF THE SYSTEM
Work to the fire suppression system began after the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment dedicated $5 million in seed money through the Petroleum Cleanup and Redevelopment Fund. But the $25 million project still needed much more support to operate.
“I think all of us know how important it is to keep this lifeline open and safe,” Colorado Transportation Commission chairwoman Kathy Connell said. “It took a lot of work to patch this thing together.”
$10 million of the project was funded nationally, after it receive a grant through the Federal Highway Administration’s Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) program.
“These grants are used nationwide; they’re very competitive,” said John Cater, Colorado Division Administrator for the Federal Highway Administration. “One in about 30 get approved.”
Colorado District 2 Congressman Jared Polis worked to gain federal support for the project through writing letters, filling out grant application, and even talking to the president.
“When I toured the Eisenhower tunnel in 2012, I learned about the need for a fixed fire suppression system,” he said. “I was excited to go to bat.”
The remaining cost was covered through Colorado Department of Transportation programs, including $9 million from the Responsible Acceleration of Maintenance and Partnerships (RAMP) program, and $1 million from the Funding Advancement for the Surface Transportation and Economic Recovery (FASTER) safety program.
“The Eisenhower Tunnel fire suppression system will improve the safety of travelers,” Polis added. “It will help reduce the closure times in traffic. And most importantly, it will save lives.”
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