Anatomy of a Major High-Rise Exercise

It began more than a year earlier - initial discussions, concepts, exchanges of ideas and an open forum with key members of the Los Angeles Fire Department, including Deputy Chief Mario Rueda (Chief of Emergency Services), Battalion Chief John Miller and Captain Bob Holloway, about executing a substantial high-rise training exercise to challenge the department as never before.

For a department that trains constantly, the exercise had to be new and unique. After months of telephone calls and e-mails, it was decided that the scenario would involve flying a small plane into the tallest building on the West Coast - the 73-story U.S. Bank Tower in Los Angeles. The aircraft would strike an upper floor, taking out the fire sprinklers, igniting a rapidly spreading, fuel-fed fire with multiple victims trapped. Just as we finalized our plan, ironically, a New York Yankees pitcher and his flight instructor accidentally flew a light plane into an Upper East Side apartment tower in Manhattan. The impact resulted in several apartments igniting on two floors, with fire scorching a significant portion of the north side of the building's facade. The highly challenging fire and search-and-rescue effort clearly underscored the fact that these-type incidents can and will happen, even outside the realm of terrorism. A similar event occurred in Tampa, FL, four months after 9/11, when a teenage pilot committed suicide by flying a single-engine Cessna into the 28th floor of the 42-story Bank of America Plaza Building.

Those involved in planning the exercise then needed to pick a date and confirm the availability of the drill building. Fire officials and I met with the property owner, Maguire Partners, and explained to its senior representative, Travis Addison, that we required at least a very large vacant tenant space, but ideally an entire vacant floor. Finding that much vacant space in an almost totally occupied Class A office building is not easy, but we were told that a full-floor tenant was vacating the 32nd floor and that if we could execute the drill prior to the reconstruction of the space, we could use that floor for the drill.

We quickly chose a date about 60 days out. The LAFD committed the equivalent of a three-alarm assignment to four drills spread over an entire weekend, two per day. The only change to the scenario was to have a news helicopter strike the building, probably a more likely event in Los Angeles, where choppers swarm the skies.

Miller, chair of the department's High-Rise Committee with years of high-rise experience, spent countless hours refining and planning the exercise, covering all possible logistical matters in moving so much manpower and equipment around the city, back-filling vacant firehouses, determining the companies to participate, the incident commander (IC) for each drill and the terrific idea of having all fire crews go through a series of "stations" just prior to the drill inside and outside the building. Each station would be manned by someone whose expertise lent itself well to that area of concern - the fire department standpipe connection station outside the main entrance to the building, the lobby command station, the fire control room station, the fire pump room station, the fire floor station, elevators station and the pre-planning station (manned by me).

After rotating all personnel through the nuances of public address (PA) system use, the alarm panel, fire pump operations, standpipe pressures and the layout of the fire floor, stairwell and core configuration, and the building's pre-plan, the troops were rounded up outside the building for a briefing by Miller and Rueda. Personnel were told what was expected of them, cautioned not to damage the building, and encouraged to seize this rare opportunity to execute a drill of this magnitude and learn from it while reinforcing existing refined skills and procedures. They were told everything they needed to know except one thing - they had no real idea as to what the drill would consist of, other than it would involve a fire and search-and-rescue operation in order to enhance the reality aspect of the exercise.

Next, the companies were sent to a staging area several blocks away and told to await dispatch. The dispatcher then sent a full first-alarm assignment to a "reported fire on the 32nd floor of the U.S. Bank Tower," sending three task forces (each consisting of a truck company, two engines, two rescue ambulances and a battalion command team) to the scene. As the first-due engine pulled up behind the tower, Miller approached the officer in the cab and advised him that a news helicopter had crashed into the building with numerous victims trapped and injured, along with a fuel-fed fire. Then he stood back and said nothing more.

The officer advised dispatch and all responding units of the new information, then entered the building with his crew, minus the pump operator, who connected to the building's standpipe system. They quickly checked the alarm panel, verifying the floor of alarm while listening to the security and engineering team describe what had happened. They passed on additional information to dispatch, ensured that all elevators serving the fire floor had been recalled and cleared of occupants, and headed upstairs. Other units were just arriving on scene, along with Battalion 1, who set-up his command post on the front (1/A) side of the building in the street while calling for two more alarms. After exiting the elevator and going up to the fire floor, the engine company began stretching an attack line while reporting to the IC which stairwell was the "attack stair."

The IC quickly advised the lobby base units to notify all evacuating occupants (mock evacuees, as the building was mostly vacant) to come down the opposite stairwell via the building's PA system. Just as the first-due engine made the fire floor, huffing and puffing from climbing stairs, flaking out hose, masking up and propping open the door for line advancement, a monitoring chief advised the officer that the standpipe had just burst. At this point, the entire drill could easily have unraveled, as the crew was thrown a major curveball at the worst possible time. Not the LAFD, though. The officer, Captain Jamie Moore, had assigned one of his men to take his place during the drill to gain company command experience. The veteran officer pulled the man aside and said, "OK, now stop everything, take a deep breath and don't do anything...OK, now report back to base that the standpipe has burst in Stairwell 1 and we are now moving down and over to Stairwell 2 and that Stairwell 2 is now the attack stair." Instead of possibly getting flustered and losing his composure, the junior man did exactly what the captain advised him to do, calmly and confidently.

The crew then quickly dropped down a floor and redeployed the attack line out of Stair 2 up and onto the fire floor. Maneuvering the two-inch hose out onto the floor, the firefighters were told the fire was on the opposite side of the floor, near the perimeter directly across from the stair they had initially attempted to exit. As they advanced the line through the middle of the core, between elevator banks and around the corner toward the fire area, they ran out of hose. The chief then told them that they did not have enough hose to reach the fire area. Again, without skipping a beat, Moore pulled the acting officer back into a sitting position against the core wall and, speaking through his mask, said, "OK, stop, take a deep breath and compose yourself...OK, now take another deep breath, let it out. Now advise command that we need one more length of hose up here in order to get water on the seat of the fire, but we are able to hold our position and protect the core for the time being." Within one minute, the next engine was there, adding the fourth section onto the attack line and off they went to put water on the seat of the fire. The initial search crews for the fire floor and floor above were rapid and efficient, covering a lot of area in a very short time.

Meanwhile, the helicopter that is dispatched as part of all working high-rise assignments in the city arrived on scene, dropping off an engine company on the roof to begin descending the stairs, carrying out the assignment of searching for victims and clearing the attack stair of all evacuees, directing them over to the evacuation stair out of harm's way. Battalion 2 Chief Chris Logan was masterful in managing all his companies and their reports, along with dealing with dispatch and building personnel simultaneously until additional chiefs arrived to assist with command. With all units on scene and operating in quick fashion, the fire was declared under control with the fire floor cleared of all victims and searches completed on all affected floors within 45 minutes - an impressive feat, given the magnitude of the drill and the curveballs the first-due crew experienced.

The rest of the weekend went the same way, as all four drills were executed to near perfection, with detailed critiques after each one out in the street by Rueda, Miller and Chief Tim Kerbrat - what went wrong, what went right, what could they do better the next time or on a real fire. That is the LAFD's method of operating - study, refine and master all aspects of the job, and train, train and train. (How many of you recall the incredible stop the department made on the 62-story First Interstate Bank Fire in 1988, the worst high-rise fire in modern history at that time? That's where 4½ floors were gutted by a fire that should have consumed the entire building above the 12th floor.)

It is noteworthy to mention the high level of competence and knowledge of building systems held by the building's staff who assisted with each drill. Their participation and guidance proved invaluable in the success and fluidity of each drill. The security and engineering crews all did their respective jobs with clarity, skill and pride. Not every high-rise will have this kind of quality and qualified personnel to help you on a major fire, so the good teams are a resource that can never be overlooked or discounted.

This high-rise training evolution involved 350 firefighters, 84 pieces of fire apparatus and two helicopters participating in four training exercises. Prior to the drills, for the second time in four years, the LAFD put on extensive all-day classroom training sessions for all current and soon-to-be command officers in dealing with all the recent changes to high-rise standard operating procedures (SOPs), review of strategy and tactics, fire protection systems and features that involve new technology in high-rises that will impact safety and survival.

Throughout the training, I was impressed by the professionalism and strong commitment by all attendees to refine and sharpen their skills in an area so easily overlooked due to the lack of frequency of fires in these buildings. This is crucial, since by 2010, two-thirds of the LAFD's 3,700-member force will have 10 years or less on the job, greatly limiting the number of personnel with high-rise firefighting experience.

High-rise fires are rare, yet extremely challenging. Rather than waiting for one to happen in your community and hoping that all goes well, take the lead of the fire departments that make training in these complex buildings a priority. They take the responsibility of having a highly effective response capability to multi-story buildings seriously - as it should be. Study, learn, train, and build your knowledge and confidence levels up to a point where you feel adequately prepared to respond and mitigate a major emergency in these edifices.

With a greater concentration of towers in big cities and skyscrapers climbing ever higher, crammed with more and more people, and fire departments being lucky just to maintain existing staffing levels and response times, preparation has never been more important. Meeting tomorrow's challenges with today's preparation will pay huge dividends on the "big one."

CURTIS S.D. MASSEY, a former fire officer, 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 around the world. Massey also regularly writes articles regarding "new-age" technology that impacts firefighter safety.