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Savannah Fire details emergency plan for River Street, says buildings are high-risk for quicker fire spread

Published: Dec. 23, 2021 at 4:23 PM EST
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SAVANNAH, Ga. (WTOC) - We hear a lot about historic preservation in Savannah, and the city has gone to great lengths to protect our rich history. But with thousands of people flocking downtown around the holidays, and lights and decorations up everywhere, WTOC Investigates wanted to learn more about the city’s emergency fire plans for the area around historic River Street.

The holidays present an extra challenge for Savannah Fire, but fire officials say they the department prides itself on being ready for any scenario.

Early last year, a massive fire erupted at the Eastern Wharf hotel development at the edge of River Street. Crews made use of all their resources, including a Fireboat, while putting-out the blaze. Officials say they’d follow a similar blueprint to protect Savannah’s oldest assets.

Savannah Assistant Fire Chief William Handy says, historic River Street presents one of the greatest challenges.

“Those buildings are old, they’re tight, and there’s some challenges getting to the River Street area,” Handy said.

That’s why they’ve set up emergency zones, and crafted a detailed, all-hands-on-deck response plan for that area. Still, Handy said congestion and old architecture along River Street are hurdles for firefighters.

“The buildings are interconnected. They’re old. There’s basements. There’s tunnels under River Street. There’s a lot of obstacles you don’t usually find in a ranch-style home,” he said.

Many of the historic, old buildings on River Street are connected, and feature “balloon frame construction.” What that means is, the walls you’re looking at were built without fire-stops inside of them. That makes it easy for a fire to spread, not only from floor-to-floor, but also from building to building.

And that’s not their only challenge. Deputy Fire Marshall Cheryl Mason’s focus is keeping fires from starting in the first place.

“Some of the buildings, especially downtown because they’re historic, have exiting issues,” Mason said.

Mason’s team goes door-to-door on River Street this time of year, making sure capacity limits are followed and checking for fire hazards.

“We don’t allow them to run extension cords through the doors or the windows, so we’ve had some issues with that and gotten those corrected. We also don’t allow them to wrap those around the sprinkler pipes,” she added.

Three Christmases ago, a fire at a Savannah staple, the Olde Pink House, put the restaurant out for months. That fire was sparked by a live Christmas tree.

Mason says fire codes have become much stricter in recent years, especially after the tragic 2003 Rhode Island Station Night Club Fire. That fire killed 100 people, as hundreds desperately rushed toward inadequate exits.

“That’s exactly what we’re trying to prevent here,” Mason said.

Beyond prevention, Savannah Fire’s greatest firefighting tool on River Street may be in the water. Marine 1, Savannah’s fireboat, is docked just east of the Georgia Queen. Handy says it can pull thousands of gallons of water out of the river at a moment’s notice.

It’s delivered at critical times, too.

“It served as a huge help at the Eastern Wharf, because we were limited in hydrants,” Handy said. “That boat has resource to supply 8-thousand gallons per minute.”

Handy said people should feel totally safe in Savannah this holiday season. He said traffic may be their biggest issue in putting-out fires. So, he says if you are driving and you hear a fire truck coming, pull-over and let them pass.

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