By Andy Sheehan

Follow KDKA-TV: Facebook | Twitter

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — When fire broke out at the Midtown Towers last May, the flames spread swiftly from a woman’s apartment and through the building, killing her and forcing the residents to find other places to live.

Fire officials believe she would have survived and the fire contained if the building had a sprinkler system.

“No sprinklers in this building, no,” said Pittsburgh Bureau of Fire Chief Darryl Jones at the scene of the blaze in Downtown Pittsburgh last spring.

At the Allegheny County Fire Academy, a demonstration shows just how effective sprinklers can be, simulating a cigarette fallen into a cushion.

The fire and heat can rise quickly. In less two minutes, the room reaches a temperature of 150-plus degrees. Then, the sprinkler douses the room with a torrent of water.

“Within seconds you can see that the fire is pretty well knocked down into the couch,” said Allegheny County Fire Department Assistant Chief Steve Imbarlina.

Since their inception, sprinkler systems have more than proven their effectiveness in containing and suppressing fires before they present a lethal danger. There are few, if any, records of fatal fires in fully sprinkler-ed buildings.

“Sprinkler systems do save lives,” said Assistant Chief Imbarlina. “That’s the lives of the occupants, but it also helps protect the lives of the first responders, that’s the firefighters and EMTs and police officers who are responding to these calls.”

Under existing state and local fire codes, a new building and buildings undergoing extensive renovation must be equipped with full sprinkler systems. But older buildings are grandfathered, meaning sprinklers are not required in any building constructed before 1990.

But since the fire at Midtown Towers, Mike Embrescia, of BOMA, the Building Owners and Management Association, has been in talks with Chief Jones about requiring all buildings of certain height to be retrofitted with sprinklers.

“Let’s find a way to assist the chief, assist the fire department in their efforts to fully sprinkler all the downtown buildings,” said Embrescia.

It’s a heavy lift and an expensive one, costing a high rise owner several hundreds of thousands of dollars.

To soften the blow, there’s discussion of a minimum building height of 70-feet, an extended deadline of eight or nine years, and perhaps some tax breaks and other assistance.

Still, both sides are committed.

But retrofitting of sprinklers will come too late for dozens of displaced Midtown Tower tenants who have now been forced to move twice to temporary accommodations while the building is renovated.

Also, just three weeks ago, 59-year-old Paul Whyel died in a fire at an apartment house in Port Vue. Once again, the building did not have sprinklers.

Allegheny County Fire Chief Matt Brown: “No sprinklers whatsoever.”

KDKA’s Andy Sheehan: “Had here been one?”

Chief Brown: “Had there been one, I think containment to the room, maybe containment to whatever the start of the fire was. The outcome could have been much, much better.”

More From CBS Pittsburgh

Get The All New CBS Local App
KDKA Weather App
CBS All Access

Watch & Listen LIVE