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The Paleofuturist

Futurist fixes for fighting skyscraper fires

About the author

Matt is a writer, retrofuturist and time capsule hunter who lives in Los Angeles. He writes Smithsonian magazine's Paleofuture blog and is a contributing editor at The Futurist magazine.

As the world's cities grew into the skies, futurists, designers and scientists came up with ingenious solutions for fighting fires in the world’s tallest buildings.

“The tallest building in the world is on fire. You are there with 294 other guests. There’s no way down. There’s no way out.” So read the poster for the 1974 disaster movie Towering Inferno, which depicts an epic tale of survival in the badly wired 138 story Glass Tower in San Francisco and the race to put the fire out.

The action plays out amidst obvious tension and dislike between the two main characters –architect Doug Roberts and Fire Chief Michael O'Halloran. In one scene, O'Halloran, played by Steve McQueen, laments: “Now, you know there's no sure way for us to fight a fire in anything over the seventh floor, but you guys just keep building 'em as high as you can.”

In the end, his only option is blow up water tanks on the top of the building; a move that may kill those remaining trapped inside.

Off the silver screen, the choices for fighting fires in skyscrapers are not usually so stark., although they are still limited.  Automatic systems help contain smaller fires, while ground crews and helicopters are deployed to tackle bigger blazes. For example, a recent fire in the 42 story Polat Tower in Istanbul was eventually contained by helicopters and fire fighters working from the ground, as was a blaze in April at the Federation building in Moscow, when hundreds of tons of water had to be dropped to contain a blaze on the 65th floor. In both these cases, thankfully, no one was hurt. But, that is not always the case.

In the US, between 2005-2009 alone, there were an average of 15,700 reported fires in high-rise buildings (not all skyscrapers) each year, leading to an average of 53 deaths and millions of dollars of damage annually. Just last week, a [thankfully] false report of a fire on the 88th floor of a skyscraper on the Ground Zero site, caused flashbacks to the tragedy of 9/11.

As the world's cities have grown into the skies, we’ve had to confront the question of what to do when something goes terribly wrong and we are forced to fight fires in the cities of tomorrow. It has proved a fertile ground for futurists, designers and scientists.

‘Eating smoke’

For example, the cover of the March 1927 issue of Science and Invention magazine included a look at the “aerial fire fighters” of the future. The article, Fighting Flames from the Air by Joseph H Kraus, shows how an invention by Edward P Conlin might one day be used to reach the highest skyscrapers ever built in the event of a fire: “Mr Conlin employs the pressure of the water [in a long hose] to operate or energize two lifting propellers, the purpose of which is to carry the hose to heights unattainable with present apparatus...”

The March 1931 issue of Modern Mechanics was perhaps more realistic – and closer to what we see today. It quotes New York City Fire Chief John Kenlon as saying, “I expect to see the day when fires in lofty skyscraper quarters will be fought with special types of airplanes. They will operate on the system of the helicopter so that they can remain stationary in a desired and advantageous spot. Special chemicals would be used by firemen in their airplanes for putting out the blaze. We have seen the police departments take up aviation. I believe the firefighters will go a long way in that direction.”

Kenlon wrote a book a couple of decades earlier in 1913 called Fires and Fire Fighting which explained even then just how daunting the fires of the future will be when skyscrapers dominate our urban landscape.

But it was perhaps the 2 July 1961 edition of Arthur Radebaugh’s Sunday comic strip Closer Than We Think that took the idea of sky-high firefighters to an optimistic extreme. The comic took the idea of helicopters and doused it with that unique brand of flashy optimism that mid-century American designers did so well. A bright red fire engine in the sky emblazoned with NYFD (New York Fire Department) is seen hovering as it shoots water from its pressure tank. A young girl and her mother look on excitedly from an adjacent building.

The text reads: “Tomorrow’s firefighters, as a leading helicopter technician has predicted, may actually travel in airborne united, powered by “dynaprop” fans. Great advantages will be derived from the ability to hover beside conflagrations, regardless of whether the blaze is high in a skyscraper or simply smouldering in a farmer’s barn. Firefighting direction will improve, rescue work will be far more efficient than with ladders, and radio instructions from aloft will speed the subduing of flames.”

As we now know, most of these ideas have remained firmly on the drawing board. But the fear of skyscraper fires has left its mark in some cities we see today. Take Sydney, in Australia, for example. It passed an act in 1912 to limit new buildings to just 50m (150ft) tall, within reach of the fire fighting technologies of the day. As a result, Sydney became a city that spread outward rather than upward until the mid 1950s.

Other cities, like Los Angeles, have also been shaped by this fear. Its 1974 city fire code explicitly states that every building needed flat roofs to allow for helicopters landing there in case of fire. As a result, all of LA’s towers are rectangular monoliths, leading some to to describe the city as “bland” and as “stuck with high and tights, not liberty spikes”. The city is currently revisiting the code and some indications suggest that there may be a change, allowing more ornate tops to some of its buildings.

If and when they do, let’s hope they take the advice from the final lines of Towering Inferno, when O'Hallorhan is once again with the architect of the building.

“You know we were pretty lucky tonight, body count's less then 200,” he says. “You know, one of these days, you're gonna kill 10,000 in one of these firetraps, and I'm gonna keep eating smoke and carrying out bodies until someone asks us... how to build them.”

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