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...


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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.

5_98_highrise1.jpg
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 In the past, compartmentalization was accomplished by brick or cement-block partitions; those have been replaced by gypsum board, which fails much earlier under severe conditions.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.

5_98_highrise2.jpg
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?

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