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Cost of safety

The Mont Blanc fire has focused attention on the effectiveness of fire fighting techniques in long tunnels. The absence of a service tunnel meant fire fighters could only tackle the blaze, which broke out near the mid point of the 11.6km structure, from each end. With wind blowing through the tunnel from Italy, French fire crews were further hampered by thick smoke pushed towards them.

In the Channel Tunnel fire in 1996, fire teams had many problems but were at least able to use the central service tunnel to bypass smoke and heat in the burning bore to reach the seat of the fire.

It appears that construction of a service tunnel for Mont Blanc may be too expensive for the French and Italians to swallow despite fears of a repeat catastrophe.

If this is the case, the tunnel operator and the French and Italian governments will probably have to consider installing remote controlled fire dousing systems.

Fire consultant Gordon Cooke says a series of sprinklers arranged in regularly spaced rings around the tunnel lining at regular intervals could be a solution. These could deluge the fire and damp down smoke, making it easier for motorists to escape.

The idea is not without its problems. Intense heat from the fire could cause water to turn to steam, restricting visibility and hampering escape. Retrofitting such a system could also be difficult, given the tunnel's length.

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