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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Fire Safety Tall Order At World’s Towers

Piercing the clouds, they are phallic symbols for some. Bigger than life, they are symbols of Babylon for others. They are as close as human civilization has come to reaching heaven.

But for firefighters around the world, high-rise towers are devoid of any higher — or erotic — meaning.

They are nothing but a pain in the neck.

"Any type of fire situation is a potential disaster. The bigger the building, the more challenges there are," says Mike Strapko, spokesman for the fire department of Toronto — the hometown of the tallest man-made structure in the world, the 553-meter CN Tower.

Fire safety regulations differ worldwide, but in most countries that are home to high rises, safety laws for tall buildings are stricter than for regular-size buildings.

New York, whose towering skyline is a city trademark, has "the harshest fire safety code in the States," says Lieutenant Frank Gerbbon of the New York fire department.

The safety regulations imposed on skyscrapers include demands not asked of regular buildings, such as standpipe water systems, which allow firefighters to draw water independently on any floor, advanced fire-alarm systems and smoke detectors, Gerbbon says.

High rises also must be constructed of fireproof materials, such as concrete and steel, and their elevators must have a feature called "fireman service," which allows firefighters to manipulate the elevators manually, he says.

"There is a multitude of laws and codes that have to be met," Gerbbon says, and if building owners "do not comply with fire safety regulations from the get-go, they don’t get approval for the building."

In Toronto, high-rise owners can be fined up to $25,000 for violating safety regulations, Strapko says.

And in Russia?

When the Ostankino television tower caught fire Sunday, the country’s fire department immediately announced that the tower, which was erected in 1967, has never met fire safety regulations.

According to an Interfax report, in 1980, firefighters informed the Communications Ministry, which was in charge of the 540-meter tower at the time, that the spire failed to meet the safety standards set by the state fire code. The ministry did not bring the tower into compliance.

In 1992, the fire department once again informed the ministry that the tower did not meet regulations and was not prepared to evacuate people in case of fire. The ministry responded that it had no money to comply with the regulations. Ministry officials also said that it was complicated to improve the fire safety of the tower while it was in operation, Interfax reported.

Ostankino management, however, has scraped together annual membership fees of $2,000 to be part of the World Federation of Great Towers, a Sydney-based organization that brings together and promotes interaction between 22 tall towers worldwide.

As recently as May the fire department inspected the Ostankino tower and ordered its management to improve safety. Of the 36 requirements imposed on the tower then, only 16 were met, Interfax reported, citing the fire department.

As a result of these violations over the years, 12 tower officials were "punished," federal fire officials told Interfax. But little was done to improve fire safety in the tower.

Ignoring safety regulations is a common practice in Russia, where businesses often settle disputes with fire inspectors with a well-placed bribe.

But for Ostankino, failure to meet safety standards proved costly. The fire burned for 26 hours, killing three people and causing extensive damage to the tower.

Toronto fire department’s Strapko was appalled. "People shouldn’t turn a blind eye to violation of fire safety regulations because we’re talking life and death here," he said.

"It would be unheard of for us to not comply with fire department requirements," said Jaqueline Van Rygn of Rotterdam’s Euromast tower, which serves only as a tourist attraction. "Of course, our tower is not very tall, only 185 meters, but we have up to 2,000 tourists on some days."

In Berlin, Deutsche Telekom Immobilien, which maintains the city’s 368-meter television tower, had to renovate the structure completely after East Germany and West Germany united.

The renovation was carried out partially because the tower did not meet fire safety standards, which were higher in West Germany than in its eastern counterpart, said a Deutsche Telekom official.

Fireproof cables run through the TV tower in Berlin and the tower itself is divided into 45-square-meter compartments. Should a fire occur, it would not spread outside the compartment, said the official, who asked not to be identified.

Lydia Ruth of New York’s Empire State Building, whose basement caught fire after a short circuit in 1995, said that the 443-meter skyscraper "is in full compliance with all fire safety regulations, codes and requirements," which Gerbbon confirmed.

In Toronto, the fire department and personnel at the CN Tower stage mock disasters in annual emergency exercises.

Just three days after the fire in Ostankino was put out, television transmission resumed from the tower. Officials have vowed to renovate the tower, but nothing has been said so far about meeting safety regulations this time around.

But officials at the World Federation of Great Towers don’t think using the tower is a safe decision.

In an e-mail interview this week they said, without further explanation, that the tower "should be demolished and rebuilt."