GEORGETOWN, Colo. (CBS4) – It’s one of the biggest concerns in Colorado’s highway system — what if the Eisenhower–Johnson Memorial Tunnels had to be closed and repaired? The state is moving one step closer to making sure that doesn’t happen by installing a new fire suppression system that could also likely save lives.

“It’s going to be the greatest improvement to tunnel since initial construction,” CDOT Project Manager Raelene Shelly said.

For the past 40 years there has been one main source for putting out fires at the tunnel.

“We have 52 employees here at the tunnel that are all trained in basic firefighting skills,” Shelly said.

While that’s worked in the past, the Colorado Department of Transportation has received a total of $25 million from the federal and state governments to make the tunnel safer.

“They currently run hurricane force winds through there if there’s ever a fire, but what we’re looking at getting the funding to install is a sprinkler system,” U.S. Rep. Jared Polis said.

“We have had nine significant fires inside the tunnel and two of them have caused damage,” said. “Our system will actually reduce damage to the tunnels and keep them open for the public.”

There was an RV that caught fire in the tunnel in the year 2000 and a number of other close calls. But now the system design has been picked and a contractor is ready to start next year.

“There’s a linear heat detector on the ceiling of the roadway and it will detect heat which will send a signal to the control room. An operator will decide whether or not there’s a fire,” Shelly said.

Sprinklers will go through ventilation already in place.

“The system is designed to be installed inside the plenum space, which actually sits above the roadway. There will be minimal lane closures,” Shelly said.

The sprinkler water will be warmed throughout the year so it doesn’t freeze.

“We can detect a fire within 50 feet,” Shelly said.

“This investment can save lives and it really will. By having the sprinkler system in place we can really avoid the type of incidents that have happened in Europe and other places that have cost dozens and dozens of lives,” Polis said.

Work begins this fall. CDOT expects to have the project completed by December of 2015.

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