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CDOT Finishes Installing Fire Suppression System At Eisenhower/Johnson Tunnels

SUMMIT COUNTY, Colo. (CBS4) - CBS4 cameras were allowed to go deep inside the control center at the Eisenhower/Johnson Memorial Tunnels Tuesday afternoon.

Inside the center dozens of cameras capture traffic traveling through the tunnel, it's there workers will soon be alerted to fire from an automated system the Colorado Department of Transportation just finished installing.

Eisenhower-Johnson Memorial Tunnels
Workers monitor traffic at the Eisenhower-Johnson Memorial Tunnels (credit: CBS)

The $25 million project includes thermal detection technology installed in the roof of the tunnel. When heat is detected, sprinklers are activated.

"This will be a huge help in the event of a fire," said Patrick Chavez, CDOT's Operational Manager for the Interstate 70 corridor.

"Fire and smoke are two of our biggest dangers inside the tunnel," Chavez said. "It acts like a chimney, so being able to get the fire out sooner will make the tunnel safer."

Every year CDOT responds to between two and three fires in the tunnel on average. In 2000, an RV caught fire. Quick thinking and response from CDOT crews likely saved lives that day, but CDOT does not want to rely solely on luck and their response.

"A new safety advantage we're going to have through the tunnels so that if there is a fire within the tunnel we have the ability to mitigate that fire and keep it from growing out of control," Chavez said. "When a heat source is present and it reaches a certain temperature, that's what activates the system."

Eisenhower/Johnson Memorial Tunnels
The Eisenhower/Johnson Memorial Tunnels (credit: CBS)

Before the new system was installed it was the job of the single firefighting truck and trained CDOT crew to respond to fires. The nearest backup was 20 minutes away.

"We're going to add to the overall safety of the tunnel," Chavez said.

CDOT says if there was a significant fire in one of the tunnels it could cost up to $2 billion to make the necessary repairs because of the damage from the heat. It would also be a disaster for towns west of the tunnels because the closure would hurt them economically since they rely on a lot of business from people who live on the Front Range.

Matt Kroschel covers news throughout Colorado working from the CBS4 Mountain Newsroom. Send story ideas to and connect with him on Twitter @Matt_Kroschel.

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