Pre-Planning: The Key to Success

There are a lot of “tools” that firefighters and their commanders bring to a high-rise emergency. You have hose, hand tools, airpacks, turnout gear and the apparatus that gets you there, allows you to move water and reach high places. Yet how often do you consider the importance of a...


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There are a lot of “tools” that firefighters and their commanders bring to a high-rise emergency. You have hose, hand tools, airpacks, turnout gear and the apparatus that gets you there, allows you to move water and reach high places.

Yet how often do you consider the importance of a good, detailed, yet easy-to-use pre-plan when you roll up on a working incident? A plan that can answer any question you might have about a building and its systems – how to get around, how to cut things off, how to interface with the systems – is every bit as valuable as anything you might bring into the building with you. Pre-plans can make or break the entire operation, whether it be in a chemical plant, hospital, shopping mall or high-rise building.

I’ve spoken to fire chiefs who believe in the concept of pre-planning high-rise buildings 1,000%. I’ve spoken to other chiefs who refuse to even acknowledge the presence of pre-plans and swear they would never pick one up and use it, even if the building was lit-off on arrival. The first group (thankfully, the vast majority) are the chiefs you want commanding you on the big one, because you know they have your safety and that of the occupants in the forefront of their thoughts. They are the intelligent, progressive-minded incident commanders. The “aces.” The other group are the ones you can classify under one category with one word as the title – “dangerous.” These are the chiefs who end up getting people killed because they make poor decisions based on poor information.

Let’s take a scenario and let it play out. You be the judge as to whether the concept of pre-planning truly has merit.

At 10 P.M., you are dispatched to a report of a possible fire on the 23rd floor of a nearby office tower in the central business district of your city. You roll up and are confronted by heavy fire blowing out four windows on the front of the building. All units are immediately put into service and a second alarm is transmitted. The chief and two crews cautiously approach the entrance, dodging falling glass, and are met by a security guard who yells over the noise of the alarm horns that there is a serious fire on the 23rd floor, there is no engineer on duty and people are working in the building. In addition, another guard who took the elevator up to check out the alarm hasn’t reported back since he left the lobby.

After the guard is directed to try to silence the lobby horns, call the chief engineer to the scene and fetch the night log (so the chief knows how many people are in the building and where they are working), he sets about addressing his most pressing concerns: How do I utilize the elevators and stairs to get my personnel and equipment up into the building? How am I going to get water on the fire? How do I get smoke out of the building? How do I cut power to the fire floor? Where are some floor plans for the upper floors? How many people are trapped and where’s that missing guard?

The questions are streaming through his mind in rapid fashion as the tension mounts. Just then, the lobby guard walks back up to the chief and hands him his occupant log – and the building’s pre-fire plan, in addition to two extra sets of floor plans for his crews. He also forks over four sets of master keys, all labeled as to what they unlock.

The dispatcher is yacking at the chief over the radio, crews are gathering around him waiting for orders and units are arriving on scene waiting for assignments. Things are happening very fast and the chief suddenly finds himself a little overwhelmed. As he begins coming up with assignments and a game plan, he turns to his aide and says, “Give me the basics on this building ASAP,” and hands him the pre-plan. His aide opens up the plan at the security desk/command post, pulls out a packet of data and drawings in the front pocket, and lays it out in front of him.

After scanning a “cheat sheet” (or Fire Department Summary), the aide quickly relays to his chief the following critical data: “Chief, the building is not sprinklered, but has a 750-gpm fire pump in the basement. Also down there is an emergency generator that can provide backup power to one elevator per bank, emergency lighting, the fire pump and smoke-removal fans. The standpipes have no flow restrictors or PRVs (pressure-reducing valves). The building has smoke-removal capability, but it is manual and will require an engineer to operate the fans. The elevators have fireman’s service recall and override and the keys are here at the desk. The building has scissor stairs and no stair shaft pressurization. It is a steel frame building with truss floor construction, protected with spray-on mineral fiber insulation. The core is concrete. The building has a large floor plate, requiring extra hose for full floor coverage. There is no asbestos or PCBs present.”

Putting the Pre-Plan to Work

The aide then spreads out the riser diagrams – elevator, standpipe, ventilation and stairwell. He quickly relays to the chief that Stairwell 2 goes to the roof, Stair 1 does not; the building has two ventilation zones, with the upper zone feeding everything above floor 15. He states that the high-rise elevator bank serves floors 15 to 30 and has no shaft pressurization. Then he flips to the back of the plan and pulls out the floor plan for 23, just as another firefighter walks up and verifies that the panel shows alarms on 23 and 24.

After quickly scanning the floor plan and matching it with the stair riser drawing, the aide remarks that the 23rd floor has two tenant access stairs, one that penetrates up to the 24th floor and one that goes down to the 22nd floor. The chief quickly yells over to the crews approaching the elevators to play it safe and get off at the 20th floor, since the fire may have started on 22, where the tenant stair originates. Smoke may have drifted up and tripped the first detector on 23. The detector on 22 may be off-line or covered up if renovation is taking place.

Both the attack and search-and-rescue companies have been given floor plans for the fire floor and the floor above, in addition to a set of master keys, the elevator keys and a cue card stating how the elevators operate in Phase 2 (in-car) override. This is a good thing, as this building’s elevators have “door close” buttons (some do and some don’t) and the crews note that they must push the “door close” button first until the doors close all the way, then the floor button to begin their ascent.

The floor plans are stuffed into the officers’ coats to free their hands for carrying gear. The floor plans also show another immediate concern that is reflected on the chief aide’s floor plan – there is a computer room on the fire floor that is protected with a halon and pre-action sprinkler system, in addition to an uninterruptable power supply (UPS) system with an emergency generator backup. The UPS battery room is located adjacent to the computer equipment area. The issue of sulfuric acid and hydrogen gas from the batteries becomes an obvious concern. It is also noted that the entire floor is raised, so all the wires and cables feeding the tenant’s space run under the floor in a void space. The chief is then advised that falling glass and debris prohibited the first-due engine from hooking up to the siamese connection, but fortunately the fire pump is up and running, so water is still being pumped up to the fire floor.

The building’s chief engineer, it turns out, lives just 10 minutes away and arrives on scene in time to operate smoke exhaust fans for the chief and begin pulling smoke out of the building after hoselines have begun attacking the area. The chief has decided to delay turning the fans on initially due to the possibility of pulling fire into the duct work. Finally, the missing security guard is located. He is found six feet from the elevator lobby on the fire floor, unconscious, by search crews.

The fire has now been reported to be spreading out onto the 24th floor from the tenant stair penetrating up from 23. This does not catch anyone unaware, since it was already picked up on the floor plan. Lines are advanced out onto both floors. A call is received from the dispatcher and transmitted to the incident commander that five people are trapped on the 24th floor on the opposite side from where the fire is. They state they are trapped on the south (back) side of the building in a conference room facing 2nd Avenue. All other occupants have since been accounted for.

The chief realizes that time may be running out for the people trapped on the 24th floor as he transmits a third alarm. He radios his search crew assigned to 24 and advises them where the victims are located. Just before they leave the stairwell, they glance down at their floor plan and note that 2nd Avenue and the south side of the building are to their left as they leave the stairs. They toss the diagram onto the stairwell landing and venture out for the assigned rescue in zero visibility. The floor plan saves precious time, since they most likely would have dropped to their knees and performed a standard “right-hand sweep search” which would have added at least 20 additional minutes to their search in working all the way around the large floor plate in dense smoke conditions originating from the wrong side of the floor.

The scissor stairs end up not being a problem since the chief was made aware of them early on, as he has designated Stair 2 as the “attack stair” (the one that discharges closest to the fire) and Stair 1 as the “search-and-rescue stair” (the one that leads to the roof, in the event firefighters searching on upper floors run low or out of air and can’t descend back down past the fire floor, thus offering them a way out to a safe area of refuge).

The second-due chief arrives and heads up to staging on 21 after it is confirmed that 23 is the original fire floor and the second tenant stair is not posing a problem at that point. The trapped civilians are quickly located and led to the smoke-free “rescue stairwell” (Stair 1). They are brought down to the lobby and turned over to EMS for treatment of smoke inhalation. The attack stair (Stair 2) is now completely compromised with smoke, hose snaked everywhere, water spraying from loose connections and firefighters with their tools moving back and forth between staging.

The guard on 23 is located and pulled to Stair 1, then carried down to staging on 21 where CPR is initiated, as he has slipped into full cardiac arrest. Paramedics head upstairs to take over treatment, bringing their gear and gurney up the freight elevator to staging, escorted by an engine company. He is then brought back down to the lobby by the medics and firefighters for transport. One elevator has malfunctioned and is “missing” until it is determined that the one the guard took is still sitting on the fire floor, out of service. The rest are operating without problems, until water seeps into the shaftways from the fire floors an hour into the incident and takes all the high-rise elevators out.

Tension rises briefly when a company searching the 25th floor runs out of air and cannot locate the stairwell. They report they are just above the fire area on the front/ north side of the building. One of the other search companies walking up from staging happens to have a set of floor plans in their hand from the pre-plan package and quickly advise the incident commander that they will effect the rescue.

As the firefighters approach the stairwell door in the search stair (Stair 1), they pause and study the drawing, noting that they will have to work their way around the core to the other side of the floor, then head straight outward from there to end up on the north side of the building. The floor plans have streets wrapping around the floor plate with a directional symbol/compass at the bottom of the drawing providing both pieces of data for every floor – top to bottom. Within five minutes, the crew is located and led off the floor to safety. The good news reaches the incident commander.

Now that the chief has accomplished getting water on the fire, getting smoke out of the building and rescuing all trapped occupants, he can take a slight breather and think about secondary important concerns: Where is all the water going that we’re pouring onto the upper floors and which is now cascading down the elevator and stair shafts? What’s down there in the basement I need to worry about (transformer vaults/switchgear rooms, emergency generators, fire pumps, water treatment chemicals)? Do they have sump pumps? If so, are they rated for fire flow? Are they tied into the generator, so if I do lose primary power, can they continue to remove water so I won’t lose my generator and fire pump?

The chief once again turns to his aide, who accesses the pre-plan’s “Salvage Concerns – Dewatering” section and quickly feeds the chief all the answers to his concerns, literally in seconds, saving him from committing a crew to the basement to perform “recon.”. The chief briefly remarks with a sly grin, “Is there anything that plan doesn’t have in it?”

A report comes across the radio from the forward sector command chief on 21 that the fire is completely knocked down on 23 and 24, there is no fire extension to any other floors, and all floors above the fire have been searched and cleared. The incident commander decides to hold the fire to three alarms, but asks for two extra companies for relief. The engineer has succeeded in removing most of the smoke from the upper floors. It is reported back to the command post that the computer room was not involved in the fire and the halon/pre-action systems have not been activated. The worrisome battery room is also not affected by the fire.

In the lobby, the chief’s aide takes a moment while gearing back a bit to scan the rest of “Salvage Concerns” and notes aloud that there is artwork and a law library on floor 22, directly under the fire floor. The chief sends one of the extra companies arriving on the third alarm to take salvage covers with them and head upstairs to protect the high-value contents of the 22nd-floor tenant. At that time, paramedics wheel the missing security guard past the command post and remark that they have shocked him back to life and have established a steady heart rhythm. It looks like he’s going to make it.

The chief pauses to reflect on current events … no fatalities, only one serious casualty and the rapidly developing fire he was faced with on arrival is now under control. A senior deputy chief arrives and walks up to the command post for a thorough briefing. Upon hearing the positive status report, he decides not to assume command, offers a “Good job” and strolls over to the other side of the lobby to speak with one of the extra-alarm chiefs. The incident commander then steps up to the security counter and looks over the shoulder of his aide and whispers, “This pre-fire plan is a pretty handy thing to have!” “Yeah,” responds his aide, “it can make anybody look smart,” as he winks jokingly to his boss. The fire is wrapped up by the time the sun rises and the media happily report on the success of the fire department’s operation to the morning news viewers, offering many kudos to the response and reaction of their “bravest.”

Now, after reviewing the above scenario, how well do you think the fire would have played out without the building’s pre-fire plan? Would the missing civilians and search crew have been rescued? Would the fire have been brought under control as quickly and effectively? Would property damage, including high-value contents, been as minimized and protected? Possibly, but doubtful. The most important element in the equation of commanding a high-rise emergency is knowledge about the building, plain and simple.

Whether it be a fire, hazmat, gas leak, elevator entrapment, window-washer rescue, natural disaster or terrorist attack involving a truck bomb, aerial attack or biological/chemical warfare, a pre-plan can “make or break” the entire outcome of a working incident in a high-rise building. It can be the incident commander’s best friend. It can prove highly effective in reducing property and potential life loss dramatically.

Without a pre-plan, the chief will be forced to make critical life-and-death decisions based on guesswork and that can prove disastrous in a tall building that can contain the population of some small communities. You’re now dealing with emergencies in the 21st century, in the most dangerous times for the fire service. Every “tool” you have at your disposal must be utilized.

Pre-planning … the key to success.


Curtis S.D. Massey is a former fire officer who owns and operates Massey Enterprises Inc., the world’s leading disaster planning consulting firm. His company specializes in the development of pre-fire plans for large commercial properties, including most of the tallest buildings in North America. The pre-plans are intended for fire department emergency operational use.

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