High-Rise Firefighting - Part 2

High-rise fires have proven to be very deadly. Fires that caused large losses of life include:

  • March 26, 1911 - Triangle Shirtwaist Co. fire in New York City (146 dead).
  • June 5, 1946 - Hotel LaSalle fire in Chicago (61 dead).
  • Dec. 7, 1946 - Winecoff Hotel fire in Atlanta (119 dead).
  • Dec. 25, 1971 - Tae Yon Kak Hotel fire in Seoul, Korea (163 dead).
  • Feb. 1, 1974 - Joelma Building (Crefisul Bank Building) in Sao Paulo, Brazil (179 dead).
  • June 21, 1980 - MGM Hotel fire in Las Vegas, NV, 85 dead.
  • Dec. 31, 1986 - Dupont Plaza Hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico (96 dead).

In addition to civilian deaths, many firefighters have lost their lives while fighting high-rise fires. Recent incidents include:

  • Feb. 23, 1991 - One Meridian Plaza office building fire in Philadel-phia (three firefighters killed).
  • Feb. 5, 1992 - Indianapolis Athletic Club fire in Indianapolis (two firefighters killed).
  • Aug. 14, 1993 - Geneva Tower apartment house fire in San Francisco (one firefighter killed).
  • April 12, 1994 - Regis Towers apartment building fire in Memphis, TN (two firefighters killed).

High-rise buildings have become targets for terrorist activities as seen at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, where a truck bomb destroyed the high-rise building and inflicted 168 deaths and hundreds of injuries.

Photo by Joe Hoffman
Philadelphia firefighters respond to a reported fire in a high-rise housing project in the early-morning hours. Fire was visible on the top floor, with people exiting the building. Four engines, two ladder trucks, two battalion chiefs and Rescue 1 responded.

At the World Trade Center in New York City on Feb. 26, 1993, a car bomb killed six and injured over 1,000 people. The resulting smoke migration into the high-rise towers and the loss of electricity created a mammoth evacuation problem. Elevator extrications and emergency medical services were required throughout the building.

Defining A High-Rise Building

The definition of a high-rise building is one that is over 75 feet tall and constructed for human habitation; where there is a dependency on the building systems; in which part of the building is beyond the reach of the fire department's longest ladder; and that would have an unreasonable evacuation time.

High-rises have changed from heavy concrete buildings to lightweight core-constructed structures. The high-rises built in the first half of the 20th century contained large masses of masonry material. The second half of the century represented a drastic change. The building industry changed to lighter-weight core-constructed buildings. The steel supports are often protected by encapsulation in fire-rated drywall or sprayed-on cementatious mixtures.

Core Construction

The core area is the location through which the utilities, shaftways and elevators reach upward through the building. The core may be located in the center, front, rear or side of the building. A core-constructed building built today can weigh less than 10 pounds per square foot. Compare that to the Empire State Building in New York City, which was completed in 1931 and weighs over 24 pounds per square foot.

This reduction in weight is due to the changes in the material used in the building's construction. For example, metal studding and drywall have replaced plaster and concrete materials in many applications. Exterior walls in the past were constructed of marble and granite; today, they are often comprised of glass and other lightweight materials.

High-Rise Considerations

A high-rise fire is one of the most difficult types of assignments that confront a firefighter. So many problems are occurring simultaneously that it presents a tremendous challenge to even the most experienced fire officer. The basis for success will depend upon a number of factors, including organization, pre-planning, and applying experience and training to solve the many problems that undoubtedly will occur.

The utilization of an incident management system and a well-conceived high-rise operational procedure set the foundation for a successful operation. The main components of command, operations and logistics, are always important, but success will also depend heavily upon functions specifically associated with high-rise fires. These include lobby control, stairwell support, elevator control, base and remote cascade systems. (A high-rise command structure is fully discussed in the August 1995 Fire Studies column.)

An expanded management system will be required on a working high-rise fire. Strong emphasis is placed on the operations officer who will be directing suppression activities in the vicinity of the fire floor and the overall support of the logistics officer to ensure that ample equipment is moved from the outside base area to the staging area.

The staging area should be a minimum of two floors below the fire floor. The object of staging is to have manpower and equipment available for immediate deployment. Should there be a reversal of smoke contaminating the floors below the fire floor, then staging may need to be placed a distance lower than two floors to keep beneath these smoke conditions.

Operational Procedure

The high-rise operational procedure (OP) should spell out initial assignments. As important a priority as it is to set up a functional working management system, it is of greater importance to ensure that a sufficient number of firefighters are sent to the fire area. Nothing solves problems like an aggressive attack on the fire.

The first unit to arrive at the fire area must:

  • Do a quick size-up and decide on the best way to attack the fire.
  • Determine the need for specific operations.
  • Estimate the number of personnel that will be needed.
  • Decide on the correct stairway from which to attack the fire.
  • Give a comprehensive report and request additional units if needed.
  • Initiate an attack on the fire.

An initial status report to the incident commander (IC) will permit the IC to prioritize the situation and direct units to solve the problems.

The solution to many problems is often an adequate number of resources. The high-rise fire will demand a great number of personnel. If the on-duty strength is minimal, there will be a need to request mutual aid and probably the recall of off-duty personnel in career departments.

Working high-rise fires may show few signs from the exterior. In fact, smoke showing on the exterior may be like looking at the tip of an iceberg. The real problems may not be visible and can be much greater than could be estimated from outside the building.

Upon entering the building, all available means must be used to gather information. The initial-arriving units must make a determination of the location and scope of the fire. Information can be gleaned from fire indicator panels in the lobby showing detection equipment that has been activated verbally from those in the lobby and on the upper floors.

Knowledge Of The Building And Its Systems

The best way to protect life and control or extinguish high-rise fires is through the installation and maintenance of an automatic sprinkler system. Many high-rise buildings, though, are not protected by sprinkler systems. Attacking and controlling fires in such a building demands that firefighters have knowledge of the structure and the built-in protective systems. Thorough inspections and familiarization tours can accomplish this. These visits allow firefighters to identify problem areas and to interact with the building engineer and security personnel in non-emergency situations. This interaction builds trust that carries over to emergency incidents.

No one knows more about a building than the building engineer. This makes locating him or her an initial concern. There should be an understanding that the engineer will await the arrival of the fire department in the lobby area or other pre-assigned location. The first-arriving fire officer can glean the needed information from the engineer and then proceed to the fire location.

There is a tendency on the part of the first-arriving officer to ask the engineer to "show me" the fire location. The engineer will only be too happy to accommodate. This, however, causes a problem - when the chief officer arrives, no one is available to answer his or her questions and accomplish tasks that the chief deems necessary.

High-Rise Stairways

There are two basic types of stairs in high-rise buildings. They are referred to as "return-type" and "scissor-type." In return-type stairs, entry to and exit from the stairshaft is made from relatively the same location on each floor level. Scissor-type stairs consist of two sets of stairs in a common stairshaft. In this type of stairs, the access point for each set of stairs in the shaft is usually at opposite locations on adjacent floors. Some sets of scissor stairs alternate floors with each set of stairs in the stairshaft (one set may serve odd-numbered floors only, the other set serves even-numbered floors).

Though there may be many sets of stairways in high-rise buildings, they are not designed for total building evacuation. Firefighters should have a working knowledge of the different types of stairways in high-rises:

  • The fire tower (sometimes called the Philadelphia Tower) is a stairway that has access to outside air. An open-air balcony protected by self-closing fire doors separates the stairs from the hallways on each floor. Any smoke entering this hallway is ventilated to the exterior, preventing smoke from entering the stairs.
  • There are stairshafts that contain a vestibule between the hallway and the stairs that will exhaust any smoke that enters into a vent shaft preventing the contamination of the stairs.
  • The enclosed stairway.
  • There may be unprotected open stairs between floors in older buildings. A common example is a large open stairway connecting a lobby area with a mezzanine floor.
  • Access stairs that connect floors of individual business concerns. These private stairs permit an employee access to multiple floors without entering public stairs or elevators. This allows a degree of safety and convenience.
  • Some stairshafts may be pressurized. This pressurization in stairshafts prevents smoke migration into the stairways and is excellent for firefighting. In buildings that contain multiple stairshafts, all stairshafts may not be pressurized.

Stairway Pressurization

Stairwell pressurization can be accomplished through various methods. The basic premise is to introduce outside air through fans to create pressure within the stairway. This pressure will prevent the smoke on a fire floor from entering the stairway. The outside air can be introduced either at the top, bottom, or at various levels throughout the stairshaft.

The system can function in a variety of ways. One method has an exhaust fan that allows for constant air changes, removing any smoke that may enter the stairs. This occurs at a rate to maintain pressurization. Other systems work similar to a relief valve on a pumper. When the pressurization reaches a certain level, some air is exhausted to maintain the correct amount of pressure in the stairshaft.

Too much pressurization in a stairway would make it difficult to open doors. Likewise, if too many doors are propped open to fight the fire or evacuate floors, the stairwell pressurization can be negated.

There has been success in setting up positive-pressure fans at the base of enclosed stairways to pressurize them.

Use Of Elevators

The only practical method of movement in a high-rise building is by using elevators. During a fire in a high-rise building, this can be dangerous. Many fire departments forbid the use of elevators until units have reached the fire floor and can ensure their safe use. Some fire departments in their standard operating procedures (SOPs) or standard operating guidelines (SOGs) dictate when an elevator may be used.

A common rule is that the elevator should not be used by firefighters if the fire is located on the first seven floors. This rule recognizes the danger involved in the use of elevators and that firefighters can safely arrive at a fire location in a reasonable amount of time by climbing stairs. If a fire is located above the seventh floor, the use of the elevators is at the discretion of the incident commander.

If the decision is made to utilize an elevator, the elevator should have fireman's service and the firefighters must be familiar with its emergency operation. This will enable the firefighters to have control over the elevator car. A factor to consider is whether the elevator services the fire floor. If it does not service the fire floor, it would be much safer to use.

In taller buildings there are often split banks of elevators using different shafts. A typical example would be a 30-story building with three banks of elevators. The lower bank would service the first 10 floors, the mid-bank would service floors 11 to 20 and the upper bank would service floors 21 to 30. A fire on the 23rd floor could be reached by using the mid-bank to the 20th floor and walking up from that point. This would save a tremendous amount of time while providing a safety factor for the firefighters.

Elevator Safety

Safety when using elevators under emergency conditions requires members to have their self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) turned on and their masks ready. Firefighters should not pack everyone onto the elevator. There should be sufficient room for firefighters to operate should trouble develop with the elevator car. Ensure that hand tools are carried by firefighters should a problem arise. (In one fire the elevator broke down at the fire floor. The door would not open and the firefighters had no room in the elevator to use their hand tools. Another company had to extricate them. Fortunately, the fire was located a distance from the elevator.)

When ascending in an elevator, it should be stopped at random floors to check that the controls are operating properly. If erratic operation occurs, then the elevator should be abandoned and the stairs used. Realize that in extremely high buildings on windy days the elevator may be programmed with a safety feature of built-in intermittent stops to realign the elevator car due to building sway.

Firefighters should exit the elevator at least two floors below the fire floor and then climb the stairs to the fire floor. Portable radio transmissions can affect electronic controls on some elevators causing them to shut down and requiring maintenance personnel.

If any doubt about the safe use of the elevator exists, climb the stairs until the elevator's safe use can be ascertained.

Freight Elevator Usage

Some fire departments forbid the use of freight elevators. There have been a number of incidents in which firefighters were confronted with heavy fire conditions upon exiting the elevator due to maintenance personnel storing trash for removal near the freight elevator doors.

Many departments, however, rely on the freight elevators. They are larger and able to carry more firefighters and equipment than passenger elevators. Many freight elevator cars have no ceilings, permitting firefighters to observe whether there are smoke conditions above in the elevator shaft as the elevator ascends.

James P. Smith, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a deputy chief of the Philadelphia Fire Department and an adjunct instructor at the National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg, MD.