Author's note: Immediately after 9/11, I created a tactical concept in high-rise firefighting called a Rapid Ascent Team. Initially, it was based on the obvious physical and tactical strain on firefighters having to rapidly ascend to upper floors of tall buildings to effect rescues...
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Is there a limit as to how high firefighters can climb? Realistically, most fire departments in cities with super-tall skyscrapers would be hard pressed to place teams above the 60th floor if they were forced to ascend from grade level (elevators out-of-service) due to the tools and equipment they carry and the weight of the gear they wear, which is not appropriate for hiking straight up 600 feet or more. Even firefighters in excellent physical shape would be stressed to their limits in vertical ascents of this magnitude in acceptable time frames. So, what must be done to lighten their burden? In addition to good conditioning, the gear they wear has to match the task at hand.
Ideally, pre-designated Rapid Ascent Team members would have lightweight turnout gear similar to what many California fire departments don when responding to brushfires. They would wear lightweight footwear (station-type boots), not thick, heavy and cumbersome rubber turnout boots that are not conducive to climbing small mountains. They would use 60-minute air cylinders (30- and 45-minute cylinders are not appropriate for this concept) and bring "irons," spare bottles and other standard small equipment such as lights, radios, spare batteries and small bullhorns. Extra bottles are a must; perhaps firefighters can improvise with the use of woven sleeves that slide over the self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) bottle, which has a pouch on either side that can hold a spare bottle (see photo on facing page). Placing the load on the back and freeing up one's hands is important. They could also consider removing their helmets and clipping them to their coats to release body heat escaping from the head area.
If elevators are active, the team members would take them to two floors below the fire and work their way up from there in a rapid ascent fashion. One team would soon be followed by another. It must be emphasized that before going above the fire, the Rapid Ascent Team members should note the location of the opposite stairwell in relation to the general core layout in case they run out of air and are forced to enter an upper floor in possible smoke conditions.
If an elevator bank passes the fire floor in a blind shaft, with no access hatches or doors penetrating the shaftway, Rapid Ascent Teams or standard search teams may use this resource to gain immediate access to the upper levels of the building (see Graphic 1). They could then quickly perform reconnaissance and begin a descent, putting far less strain on themselves. In doing so, however, great care must be taken, including running a full safety test of a chosen single car in that bank with one fire company/Rapid Ascent Team.
Safety from Exposure Issues
Ensure beforehand that the elevator machinery room has no exposure issues from heat or smoke. This can be done by communicating with lobby control that no alarms are activating on that floor deck and by checking the in-cab feature (if present) of a blinking fire helmet or Maltese cross on the panel, which would indicate trouble in the machinery room. If elevator service has been lost, then hiking stairs — contra-flow to evacuee traffic — must take place (see Graphic 2).
Lighter gear plus a higher degree of physical conditioning equal the greatest chance of the Rapid Ascent Teams' success in carrying out their important objectives on upper levels. The concept proved itself to be valid on a major high-rise fire in 2004 (LaSalle Bank Building Fire), when scores of people were rescued by the Chicago Fire Department's newly formed Rapid Ascent Teams. It was the first time the concept was applied in real fire conditions. The benefits of the idea were now clear — it can work.
Next: Expanding the role of the Rapid Ascent Team.
CURTIS S.D. MASSEY is president of Massey Enterprises Inc., the world's leading disaster-planning firm. Massey Disaster/Pre-Fire Plans protect the vast majority of the tallest and highest-profile buildings in North America. He also teaches an advanced course on High-Rise Fire Department Emergency Operations to major city fire departments throughout the U.S. and Canada. Massey also regularly writes articles regarding "new-age" technology that impacts firefighter safety.