It Is About Time

As emergency responders first on the scene to all types of emergencies, it is of utmost importance that we recognize that the National Institute of Standard and Technology's World Trade Center recommendations have direct relevance to all of us.

In high-rise buildings, full building evacuation takes a long time, and so does getting the firefighters and equipment to the staging floor. In other grade level structures, we normally have more time to assemble an adequate level of equipment and personnel to be able to mitigate the hazard, than we have in a high-rise. We also have a better real time damage assessment in those occupancies than in a high-rise.

When responding to a high-rise, the exact extent of damage is not fully known, until the time that we actually ascend to the floor of origin. In an attempt to save lives, in a high-rise, we feel obligated to start our ascension with very limited knowledge about the extent of damage or the structural integrity of the building. And as history has proven, we might not even have enough time for an "ALL CLEAR" call.

As a rule, in the fire service "we risk a lot to save a lot, and risk a little to save a little". But, in a high-rise emergency, even though the occupants might have all been evacuated, we still perform the interior firefighting operations, simply because the possibility of structural burnout and collapse is very real, and such failure could pose a hazard to several city blocks in the collapse zone. Let's face it, in a high-rise building, we don't have much of an option but to go interior; and we can't immediately take the defensive strategy of hazard containment by staying out and staging at the parameters.

Our ladder trucks can reach only to certain heights, and our fire engines can pump water to only a limited number of floors. Reality of it is that in a high-rise building, not only the building occupant, but also our own firefighters rely solely on the appropriate performance of the building's built-in passive and active fire protection systems. Let's face it, as firefighters we are at the mercy of the architects and engineers designing these high-rise buildings. Bottom line is we are simply relying on the strength of the building codes under which these structures were constructed.

The criteria for the design professionals designing these buildings though are not necessarily identical to the fire service's needs and perspectives. To them "cost" plays a major role in their designs and the level of built-in fire protection they provide in the high-rise buildings.

Besides the building officials and the fire marshals participating in the development of the construction codes, building owners, manufacturers, engineers, architects, etc, also play a major role in the development of the building codes. And their influence is quite heavy, and their interests at times oppose the fire service's interests. Our plight to have the adequate time to have a fighting chance in these high-rise buildings translates to increased construction cost to the developers and the building owners.

The cost associated with implementing the NIST's WTC recommendations into the building codes has put the interests of the owners and their design professionals, in opposition to ours. They believe that the cost impact of implementing those recommendations into the building codes is too prohibitive. They say that based on the historical fire safety records of the high-rise buildings, and also the fact that the majority of our fire losses and firefighter fatalities occurred in the other types of occupancies and structures than the high-rises; then there is not enough justification to implement the NIST's WTC recommendations.

To justify their position, they claim that the high-rise buildings could not be designed to take the impact of an airplane, as it was the case in the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. And their general stance is that to make any changes in the building codes, scientific data must be presented and "probabilistic analysis" must be performed, proving the need for implementation of the NIST's WTC recommendations.

The opposition's views are indeed different from our perspective. Even though there is some merit to their logic, their statistics are based solely on the fire statistics. Yet, they fail to acknowledge that fire is not the only hazard that fire service responds to in a high-rise building. Fact is acts of terrorism are not limited to a plane flying into a building. And in reality, whether it is a bio-chemical release or a suicide explosion by a terrorist, full building evacuation is inevitable and the building occupants themselves would disregard any "shelter in place" orders anymore. In such instances, our response would still be delayed by the counter-flow problems.