Now that we have clearly defined the above three important functions, let’s expand the role of Rapid Ascent Teams. How can we ensure the evacuees can get out of the attack stair? What if the stair doors are mechanically locked or only unlock – or stay unlocked – on certain floor intervals...
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Now, the teams can perform one additional task: as they stop every five floors for a breather and to take a carbon monoxide (CO) reading, they verify that landing’s door is unlocked. If it is not, they use their key to unlock the door and place a blocking device across the keeper, then close the door again to maintain the shaftway’s integrity as much as possible. A solution may be a card key with a strong adhesive easy-peel strip-off backing placed across the keeper, other than using duct tape or rubber straps. These cards can be carried in bulk quantity in a small satchel. They then move on to the next five-floor interval and repeat the process. If a team member carries a marker, the door can even be marked “UNLOCKED” at these levels. This would not be relevant with designated re-entry floors that many buildings have.
What about fire departments that can afford the assignment of only two or three Rapid Ascent Teams during the initial stages of a serious fire? How can they manage the strain of continuously moving up and down the attack stairs throughout the fire, trying to re-direct a fragmented population of evacuees from the fire floor? In the very near future, one answer may be the placement of red flashing lights inside the stairs at each landing level – or at least every five-floor interval – by Rapid Ascent Teams. These small, lightweight devices can also be carried in satchels. Tenants would be educated through the fire prevention bureau and building management team (as they have over time with the flashing alarm strobes on each floor) about what the lights in the stairwell represent. Even without firefighters present, they would realize as they entered (or descended) the attack stair if they are in danger. The lights can be used in conjunction with public address-system announcements that may or may not be heard inside noisy stairwells.
Red and green lights may one day be hard-wired into all new high-rise building stairwells as a code requirement. At the lobby fire command center, switches on a panel could activate these lights to go red or green on any given stair landing. Once a red light switch is activated, all floors above that landing would go into red blinking mode and others below that floor could be activated manually for warm-weather fires. The designated evacuation stairwell lights could also then be put into steady-green illumination mode. The lights would be complemented by signs mounted on stair doors indicating their presence and use; i.e., “Flashing red lights = Do not use stair for evacuation – Steady green lights = Safe to use stair.” Two recently built high-rises in one Canadian city implemented this concept into their construction plans. This may become standard fare in future high-rise construction.
In conclusion, we must collectively approach the recurring issue of losing civilians in the attack stair due to an inability to quickly address this concern in a tactically effective manner early in a fire. We cannot continue to repeat history. This article hopefully will serve as a basis of dialogue to get firefighters throughout the world to come up with ideas that can further enhance the Rapid Ascent Team concept or even replace it with a better initiative.
As a fire service, we can never remain static. We must maintain a progressive-minded approach to the job at hand and be smarter with our resources. Severe budget constraints have resulted in reduced manning and rolling brownouts (or complete shut-downs) of some firehouses. At first glance, the Rapid Ascent Team concept involves the acquisition and application of personnel (and some equipment) to assignments that seem to only further strain existing duty demands that have to be met on all high-rise fires. However, it must be realized that if the stairwells are not addressed early in the incident (i.e., guiding occupants out of the attack stair, monitoring CO levels, ensuring that stair doors are not locked and gathering intelligence on upper-floor conditions for the command post), then the incident commander will be forced to not only play catch-up when things begin to unravel in this part of the fire arena, but the results will impose an even greater demand on personnel and resources attempting to contain a quickly deteriorating situation. This concept will actually reduce the manpower commitment on these fires, as fewer fire crews must be committed to floor levels well removed from the fire. The concept allows the highest chance of success in effectively managing even the most severe fires in high-rise buildings by focusing on the often-overlooked areas where significant loss of life can likely occur.