A truck company operating at a fire in a high-rise building is one of the many units that will help determine the outcome of the operation. The type of high-rise building in which the fire operations are being conducted is one of our main concerns. Is it a high-rise residential or office building? The truck company has many duties to perform at a fire in either type of building, but they differ. (Note: Whether your fire department has truck companies or not, these “truck” operations must be assigned to units. If no truck company is available, substitute an engine company where “truck” is listed.)
Photo by Harvey Eisner
It can take a long time for the attack team to assemble, for staging to be set up below the fire and for additional equipment such as spare air cylinders to be brought up close to the operations area during a high-rise operation.
The first task that the first-due or first-on-scene truck company must accomplish is locating the fire. This job is difficult at best and depends on what type of building is involved. In most residential high-rises, calls reporting the fire will be received from the fire floor and floors above due to the smoke conditions. In a high-rise office building, the smoke may be reported on several different floors due to the heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system. Smoke can travel through the HVAC system and be reported on many floors.
The presence of access stairs may also lead to reports of smoke on different floors. Access stairs are used if a tenant occupies more than one floor; then they have stairs in place allowing employees to travel between floors without waiting for an elevator. The smoke may be reported on different floors due to these factors and normal smoke movement, so the initial job of the first on-scene truck company is to find the fire floor. This is an extremely difficult task, at best. The truck should be assigned this task because the engine company does not want to commit its personnel and resources until the fire is located.
The second duty is to verify the fire floor. This may seem redundant, but it is important to make sure that the fire is not below the company. This would be more important at an office high-rise building. Once the fire floor is verified, the truck company should communicate with the engine company and notify it of the location of the fire. This will let the engine company begin transporting the firefighters and hose to the proper location.
The third task is to determine the location of the attack and evacuation stairways. The truck company determines the attack stairs because it has located the fire and now has located the stairway that will permit the best attack on the fire. This stairway will become contaminated with heat and smoke when a hoseline is stretched through it, therefore it must be searched for at least five floors for building occupants. The member searching the stairs should be in contact with the truck company officer, who will control the door to the fire floor to protect his position.
At the same time or as soon as possible, the truck company should determine the evacuation stairway. The evacuation stairway is located as far from the fire as possible and will afford the safest movement of building occupants trapped above. These stair designations must be communicated to the incident commander and all firefighters and officers operating at the fire. When firefighters are assigned a position above the fire, the evacuation stairs should be used to reach the floors above. Control of the door to the fire floor and the communication with the unit assigned above are essential.
Photo by Harvey Eisner
Occupied high-rise apartments provide special challenges to firefighters. Wind can often be a problem to advancing fire crews. The fire can blow from the door of the fire apartment and involve the hallway in blowtorch-type conditions.
The fourth task that a truck company must accomplish is the search of the fire floor. The search in a high-rise residential building will be a search of the fire apartment. The fire apartment may contain many rooms, requiring an extensive search. An office-type building may require a large-area search with a search rope and, if possible, a thermal imaging camera.
The search must be done as quickly as possible, but with the safety of the firefighters as the first priority. The search may be directed toward a second means of egress, such as another set of stairs or a fire tower. The search should take into account the location of fire and where the engine company operating a handline will push the products of combustion. Firefighters should not be placed beyond the operating engine company, unless there is a known life hazard, and then communication will be necessary to insure the firefighters’ safety.
The next job is ventilation of the fire area. This may be accomplished through the use of the HVAC system to pressurize the fire area with fresh air. This will require the assistance of building personnel familiar with its systems.
Another way to remove the smoke is through the attack stairway. Opening the door on the fire floor and at roof level may allow the smoke to lift. Any ventilation taking place in a high-rise must be coordinated and controlled. The incident commander should be the person making all decisions about ventilation, and operating personnel should report any adverse effects of the ventilation to the incident commander.
The second-in truck company will be assigned the floor above the fire. This is normally where that company would be expected to report, and its duties are similar to those of the first-in truck company. The firefighters will have to work with the engine company or companies assigned the floor above the initial fire floor. The floor above the fire in any high-rise should be considered the fire area. The initial fire area includes these two floors because of the possibility of fire extension and fire involvement of the floor above.
The initial alarm at any high-rise fire should include at least two truck companies. Any indication of a working fire means that at least one additional truck company should respond. This third-in truck company’s logical assignment is the roof and the top five floors. From this vantage point, the third ladder company can advise the incident commander of the availability of points of ventilation. This may include stairway bulkheads, elevator shafts and any other shafts that terminate at roof level. The ventilation is delayed until the incident commander grants permission to ventilate any of the shafts.
Photo by Keith D. Cullom/IFPA
This fire involved at least five entire floors of a 62-story high-rise office building. Several occupants were located hours later above the fire on secondary searches.
The third-in truck company also should look for the number of stairway bulkheads at roof level. This will help determine whether any stairways that serve the fire floor terminate anywhere but on the roof. The termination point of the staircase is an area requiring a search as quickly as resources are available. The next logical assignment for the third ladder company is the top five floors of the building, searching these floors and all stairways servicing them. They would be considered the job of a search and evacuation team.
Depending on the number of floors between the fire floor and the roof or top five floors, additional truck companies may be required. The floors above the initial fire area will require someone to coordinate the searches on these floors. This again would be a logical assignment for an additional chief officer. If a chief is not available, then an officer must assume the task of the search and evacuation director. This is necessary to avoid duplication of search when manpower is limited.
Ventilation is also a major concern at high-rise fires. High-rises are difficult to vent due to the windows installed in the buildings. Ventilation usually is accomplished via the stairways., so a stairway is used as a smoke-removal tower. This ventilation must be coordinated and controlled by the lobby command post.
If windows must be removed for ventilation purposes, the effects of the wind must be taken into account. The wind at upper levels of these building may be stronger than at street level. Another problem is falling glass. The removal of glass should be done only if the glass can be brought inside and the street below is cleared as a precaution. Any ventilation must be cleared with the forces operating on the fire floor and the floor above. Members operating in a building must be aware of any changes in fire conditions due to ventilation and communicate the changes to the incident commander.
Truck companies should carry their normal complements of tools and include, if possible, a search line and thermal imaging camera. These tools will offer members more safety when operating within high-rise buildings. A carbon monoxide detector is another tool that will help determine conditions, especially if the sprinklers operated.
The truck company must accomplish many duties at fires in high-rise buildings. They must be accomplished without delay. This should be done while always keeping the safety of the operating fire forces as the main concern. These buildings are difficult and dangerous to operate in during a fire, and the firefighters must be equipped and ready to go to work.
Michael M. Dugan, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a 19-year veteran of the FDNY, serving as a captain of Ladder 123 in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights. He is former volunteer firefighter in the Halesite, NY, Fire Department. Dugan has been involved with the fire service for 27 years and is a hands-on-training instructor at Firehouse Expo and Firehouse World. While assigned as a firefighter in Ladder Company 43, Dugan received the James Gordon Bennett medal in 1992 and the Harry M. Archer Medal in 1993, the FDNY’s highest awards for bravery.