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Most alarms didn’t sound during a recent high-rise fire — and it’s done on purpose

DENVER -- As a deadly fire burned in a high-rise Denver apartment building last weekend, alarms were mostly silent.

The Denver Fire Department intentionally only sounded the alarms on specific floors. It's a tactic it uses in every high-rise in the city.

The fire happened just before 10 p.m. Saturday on the ninth floor of the Hirschfield Towers in the 300 block of West Ellsworth Avenue. A woman died in the fire.

"By the time I got out of bed and looked out the window, I seen all the fire trucks," Torsan Mitchell said.

Mitchell waited for her fire alarm to sound, but it never did.

"I did not hear anything," Mitchell said.

Rene McClure said the same thing.

"I didn't hear no alarm," McClure said. "We didn't hear no alarm or nothing."

Mitchell wanted to know why they didn't hear about the fire until after the fire department arrived.

"And that's a great question," Denver Fire Lt. Derrick Johnson said. "We need to get to the fire floor, and generally, we're making that attack with the stairs."

Johnson said that requires the stairwells to be empty. A full evacuation would prevent that from happening.

"Stairwells are not generally sized for everyone to evacuate at once. They can fall, they can slip. And in some cases, we've seen people getting stampeded down these stairways," Johnson said.

Standard procedures call for firefighters to evacuate certain floors first: The floor with the fire and the floors above and below it.

In this case, the fire was quickly contained and alarms never sounded on other floors.

"We want to know where people are moving to so that we can ensure they're protected," Johnson said. "That means a fire could be happening two floors away and you would never know it.

This applies to any building taller than 75 feet in Denver.

While it involves a lot of trust, Johnson said it's best to stay put.

"We want people to stay where they're at if the alarm is not sounding on their floor," Johnson said.

Denver Fire is still investigating the cause of the fire. It's unclear what killed the woman.

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