Sprinkler system made all the difference in Madison fire

Park fire caused by sky lantern released during candlelight event

A major fire at the Tommy Thompson Commerce Center was avoided Wednesday because of sprinklers, according to the Madison Fire Department.

“Typically a fire doubles in size about every 30 seconds if not more,” said Bill Sullivan, a fire protection engineer with the Madison Fire Department.

The department is encouraging other buildings to start installing the system because it can put out fires before crews even arrive.

In May 2014, a fire ignited in downtown Madison at the GEF-1 building; without a sprinkler system, the flames grew, resulting in millions of dollars of damage and chaos for workers like Sebastian Greenholtz.

“It really screwed up everything that we did,” Greenholtz said.

While the building was being repaired, the Madison Fire Marshal urged the Department of Administration to put in sprinklers. However, at an estimated $600,000 they declined.

“I’m sure it would be a lot of money and a lot of effort to try to retrofit a sprinkler system, but it is worrying because it doesn’t seem like much has been done to rectify the situation,” Greenholtz said.

The Madison Fire Department said no matter what the cost of a sprinkler is, it’s a small price to pay compared to a burning building.

“It’s much safer for not only the building occupants to get out of the building, as well as, it is for us firefighters to get in and safely operate without exposing ourselves to the heat and smoke of the fire,” Sullivan said.

Sprinklers are put in during construction of newer buildings like the Thompson Commerce Center, but that isn’t the case for older structures.

“The building codes evolve over time. As they come into play, newer buildings are built with different features, safety features than may have been required in the past,” Sullivan said.

The Madison Municipal Building is under renovation and set to get a sprinkler system. Greenholtz wishes he could say the same for his building.

“If there is nothing electronic to extinguish the fire then it could just very easily happen again,” Greenhotlz said.

There are about 30 high-rises in Madison without a system. Fire department officials said they are working with the owners of those buildings to have all of them outfitted within 10 years.

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