High-Rise Firefighting - "Plan B"

High-rise fires have plagued this nation's firefighters for nearly a century. Previously, high-rise fires most often occurred in large metropolitan areas, which usually had large firefighting forces. Most high-rise fires were relatively easily contained by these departments, after much blood, sweat and tears were expended. In the past 10 to 15 years, though, a number of developments have occurred which have resulted in increasing high-rise challenges for all firefighters.

Photo by John Norman
A lightweight monitor supplied by a 2 1/2-inch or three-inch hose can be secured in a doorway by using a steel-handled tool to span the door.

High-rise fires wreak hundreds of millions of dollars worth of damage each year, kill firefighters and injure hundreds more, and now they are coming to a building near you! Are you prepared?

Among the factors that have evolved in the high-rise fire equation are two major factors:

  1. Changes in the design and construction of the high-rise.
  2. Changes in the location of the high-rise.

In the rush to maximize efficiency and minimize the cost of high-rise buildings, proven fire safety features have been shoved aside. In the past, compartmentalization was accomplished by brick or cement-block partitions; those have been replaced by gypsum board, which fails much earlier under severe conditions. Worse yet is the elimination of compartments entirely in office buildings, where the "open floor" concept is the norm. In addition, a growing over-reliance on electrical and mechanical devices has seen things like pressure-reducing valves and on/off sprinkler systems supplant zoned standpipe systems and multiple water storage tanks, thus limiting the amount of water that may be available for firefighting. And to make matters worse, high-rises are now springing up in areas that do not have large firefighting forces.

Just like fires in other structures, most high-rise fires do not make front-page headlines or the six o'clock news, even locally, never mind nationally. Most high-rise fires are handled by the first-alarm companies, with perhaps some additional units to help overcome logistical problems, like moving spare air bottles and other equipment closer to the fire location. Yet in the past few years, a number of high-rise fires have occurred which have severely taxed the resources of some of the nation's largest fire departments. If departments like New York, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia have problems with these fires, what chance does a smaller department have?

Basic high-rise firefighting tactics differ only slightly from non-high-rise fires: get a hoseline between the fire and anyone endangered by the fire, search for and rescue any trapped occupants, ventilate and, finally, extinguish. Of course, being out of the reach of ladders complicates how these tasks are accomplished, limiting everything to what can be done from within the building. The interior attack then is an absolute necessity.

Photo by John Norman
Firefighters can use a powder-actuated fastening system to shoot studs into a concrete floor to anchor a monitor.

The cornerstone of the fire attack, as well as the rescue effort, is the 2 1/2-inch handline equipped with a solid-tip nozzle, preferably 1 1/4-inch diameter. This is required by the design of the vast majority standpipe systems that are encountered. All standpipe systems installed under National Fire Protection Associa-tion (NFPA) Standard 14 prior to 1993 were designed to operate at very low pressures, as little as 50 psi on the upper floors. Most firefighters have never used anything but 1 1/2-inch or 1 3/4-inch hose and a fog nozzle for fire attack, and consequently, falsely believe they can successfully use this line for their "standpipe pack." It doesn't work!

In residential high-rises, hotels, apartments, college dormitories, etc., the smaller lines theoretically can be brought up to the required 175-200 psi at the standpipe outlet needed to supply three or four lengths of 13/4-inch line and fog nozzle flowing 180 gpm - 180 gpm puts out nearly all low-rise residential fires, why not high-rise?

Aside from the lack of built-in pressure from building pumps or tanks, there is the problem of pressure-control devices or pressure-reducing valves (PRVs) which also restrict the amount of pressure that even fire department pumpers can supply. Either your department uses the hose and nozzle that the standpipe was designed for or else you are destined to fight a losing battle. Oh, you might get away with it on the middle floors which are above the PRVs and low enough so that not all of the pump discharge pressure is lost due to elevation but if you try it often enough, you will surely lose. Using 2 1/2-inch hose and a solid-tip nozzle allows a large-volume (300-plus gpm) attack to be conducted at standpipe outlet pressures as low as 70 psi through 150 feet of attack hose.

But what about those fires that won't go out even when you hit it with 300 gpm? There are two scenarios in which this has occurred repeatedly - fires in large open high-rise office spaces and wind-driven fires in high-rise residences.

The first scenario occurs in the large open-floor office, where the volume of fire can easily outstrip even the 1 1/4-inch solid tip. The answer to a large-volume fire is no different on the 31st floor than it is on the first floor: large-volume hose streams! The problem with the 31st-floor fire is that we don't have 31-story tower ladders. (Yes, there are a few 22-story platforms but they are not the answer to the problem because buildings can always go higher. What do you do for a 60-story building?)

Photo by John Norman
This portable monitor is delivering over 700 gpm from a standpipe system using two 2 1/2-inch lines.

The solution that has been tried in the past is the lightweight master-stream device. Many of these devices are light enough to be one-man-portable, even when it is necessary to carry it up 30 flights because the elevators are out. One of the problems with these devices is their tendency to kick back when the stream angle is lowered to only 15 or 20 degrees, which is necessary to provide reach and penetration when the ceiling height is only eight or nine feet. What is needed is a secure means of anchoring the device against the nozzle reaction.

Aside from having six very large enginemen throw themselves on the hoselines, there are a couple of possible choices. The first method uses two steel-handled halligan hooks (which the ladder companies bring with them anyway, although they won't be used for pulling ceilings until the fire is knocked down) to span a door opening. This allows one of these devices to be employed from a door of the fire stair or the door to the office area and quickly begin application of upward of 500 gpm. (Note! Several departments, including Boise, ID, have experimented with supplying these monitor devices using 1 3/4-inch hose. Two lines of 1 3/4-inch hose fitted with 1 1/2-inch to 2 1/2-inch increasers at the nozzle might allow a flow of up to 350-400 gpm, depending upon pumper discharge pressure, pressure-reducer valve settings, and length of hose stretched. While this is a dramatic improvement over a 150-200-gpm 1 3/4-inch handline, it is a long way from what is available from using 2 1/2-inch hose.)

Recently, tests were conducted on the upper floors of a high-rise building under construction on the west side of Manhattan. Units of the FDNY's 9th Battalion, coordinated by Captain Gerry Tracy of Ladder Company 35, conducted tests of various portable monitors, supplied by a pumper in the street more than 20 floors below. The tests were aimed at demonstrating the feasibility of supplying such devices from a single standpipe riser and to verify the flows and pressures available using a variety of hose lays.

All of the tests began with three lengths of hose stretched from the standpipe outlet on the floor below the nozzle, following standard department policy. It was very evident that while a single 2 1/2-inch line supplying a portable monitor delivers greater volume and reach than a 2 1/2-inch handline or a master stream supplied by two 1 3/4-inch lines could, these devices are best supplied by two 2 1/2-inch or larger lines. That means the second line will likely have to be stretched from the outlet two floors below the fire; in this test that meant four lengths of hose. The advantage of using 2 1/2-inch hose is quite clear; however little more it weighs, it permits flows of up to 750 gpm to be delivered off a single standpipe riser over 20 floors above grade without using any specialized high-pressure pumpers, and utilizing hose and equipment available on the first-alarm units.

Also offered was a chance to test another method of anchoring the portable monitors. The devices were set up on the edge of a large open dock that had no door frames to span with the halligan hooks. Instead, members of Rescue Company 1 fastened two powder-driven studs into the concrete deck and secured each monitor between them using the device's chain, utility rope or tubular nylon webbing. This was successful even in this fresh concrete, thus offering another option for mounting a large-volume attack above the reach of outside streams.

Photo by John Norman
The Navy fog applicator is demonstrated for use at a wind-driven fire. The dense fog is readily carried by the wind throughout a fire area.

The second scenario in which an interior handline attack has had extreme difficulty in the past has been on residential fires that have been wind-driven, where the door to the fire apartment has been left open.

In 1997, the apartment of jazz legend Lionel Hampton was ignited by a halogen lamp that contacted combustible materials. As the occupants of the apartment fled, the code-required door (fire-proof, self-closing) to the apartment was left open. When the window in the fire room failed, the wind pushed flame through the apartment and past the open door, more than 50 feet down the public hallway where it vented up the interior staircases. Numerous attempts were made by many engine companies to advance multiple 21/2-inch handlines to the seat of the fire.

As has happened over and over again at this type of incident, the wind created virtual blowtorches of flame that filled the public hallways with fire. Hose streams operated against these walls of flame cannot extinguish them, since it's like trying to extinguish a gas fire - the flame is only the gases being given off by the burning Class A material back in the apartment. The only way for water to have an effect is by landing on and cooling the burning Class A material, thus stopping it from giving off more flammable gases. The alternative is to wait until the fire burns up all the fuel and the flames die down.

When the wind is driving fire back at advancing companies on lower floors, we can readily shift the direction of the attack so that the wind is at our backs, advancing lines over ladders, fire escapes or from a tower ladder; but again when the fire is on floor 28, we need that mythical 30-story tower ladder that doesn't exist. In this case though, there may be another option. Rescue 1 is now carrying a modified Navy fog applicator designed to permit the quick application of an outside stream at virtually any height where the wind-driven "blowtorch" has prevented hoselines from reaching the seat of the fire via the public hall.

The applicator has been cut to 8 1/2 feet in length, letting it fit in nearly any passenger elevator yet span the average floor-to-floor distance of residential high-rises. It has been fitted with a 1 1/2-inch female swivel that lets it be put in operation from any of the department's nozzles, which are all fitted with an 1 1/2-inch hose thread on the shutoff. At nine pounds, the applicator is light enough to be easily transported by stair if the elevator fails. Since the impinging jets of the fog head produce equal reactions to each other, there's no nozzle reaction to contend with.

To use the device, it's brought to the floor and area directly beneath the windows of the fire apartment that the wind is blowing into and connected to the nozzle in place of the tip. The window on the floor below is then opened or removed as necessary. When the device is ready to go, any units that are operating on the fire floor must be withdrawn to the safety of the stair or inside an apartment, and then, when it is confirmed that all members are in safe areas, the applicator is passed out the window of the floor below, the bent end is placed over the sill of the fire apartment window and the controlling nozzle is opened to begin water application. The impinging jets produce a very dense, yet fine mist that is readily carried through the fire apartment and out into the public hall by the same wind that was pushing the flames there in the first place.

The nozzle originally flowed about 95 gpm at 100 psi when obtained from the Navy but by enlarging the orifices of several of the impinging jets the one carried by Rescue 1 now flows about 175 gpm. The mist produced by the nozzle is converted to steam in the oven-like confines of a fireproof high-rise apartment, and this steam and the cooling water mist blanket everything in its path. Rooms to the sides of the path from window to the apartment doorway to the stairway may not be fully extinguished in this manner, since the water is not being applied directly to the surface of the bunting materials, but it should knock down all the fire in the path the wind is following. After a few minutes of this application, the controlling nozzle can be shut off and handlines advanced to complete extinguishment; if conditions are still too severe, the applicator can be repositioned to other windows on the floor below and the application repeated.

Like the portable monitor, the applicator pipe is not often required. Nothing will ever replace a good, determined engine company that is there to "get dirty." Both of these devices should be looked on as "Plan B," for times when the headlong attack has been tried and failed, and where no other alternatives exist. There are still other methods available, such as placing distributors through holes cut in floors or operating a ladder pipe from a portable ladder, but these are much slower operations that, in some cases, require special equipment. They might be needed as "Plan C," though. If you have a high-rise, or if there is one in your future, you had better prepare now for when things go wrong.

John Norman, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a captain with the FDNY, assigned to Rescue Company 1 in Manhattan. He is also an instructor at the Nassau County, NY, Fire Service Academy and lectures nationally on fire and rescue topics. Norman is the author of Fire Officer's Handbook of Tactics, which may be ordered by calling 800-752-9768.