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Most building codes recognize a high-rise building as a structure over 75 feet in height. The codes, however, do not address square footage. I have seen high-rise buildings 80 feet by 80 feet and 35 stories tall. These actually are small high-rises. Larger high-rises can be 300 feet by 300 feet and 60 to 100 stories tall. These structures never permit the term "routine fires." These buildings require a minimum of 50 personnel to control a small fire (one or two rooms) to many hundreds if you start losing floors.
Approximately 90% to 95% of all structure fires in this country are handled by a first-alarm assignment, usually involving three engines and two truck companies with a chief officer in command. The amount of water used is approximately that carried within the tank of the first-due engine, about 500 gallons. For this reason, many departments are absolutely understaffed and the apparatus are undermanned, in my opinion.
A three-person truck company is not able to perform the tasks required, so the apparatus becomes a high-priced personnel carrier delivering three people. Fires in high-rise buildings glaringly underscore this deficit and people are killed - civilians or firefighters or both. This occurs because we try to combat these fires in the same manner as a room-and-contents in a one- to three-story structure. These beasts require a more complex command structure.
One of the main factors that influences our ability to combat high-rise incidents is the delay in adequate size-up. Too often, nothing is showing from the exterior or the building is so big it is difficult to estimate the total area of involvement. The initial company upon arrival can obtain this reconnaissance by concentrating on that mission.
Time factors play an important role in control operations at high-rise fires. At any fire, time is needed to transform orders into actions. Because all of the operations at a high-rise fire are occurring far above the ground, this time line increases. An incident commander must anticipate what may occur and begin to request resources immediately. The incident commander cannot take a wait-and-see approach to requesting assistance.
The fire has been confirmed and help has been called. More key positions need to be staffed before the fire can be fought safer and more effective. These are base, lobby control, staging, systems control, operations and stairwell support.
Many municipalities use the term "staging" as the location where resources report to the scene. This term is used differently at high-rise incidents. The term "base" describes the primary point outside of the building where resources report, apparatus are parked and initial deployment orders are received. The base manager also delivers supplies to lobby/ stairs for the use of stairwell support personnel.
Lobby control is responsible for the control of fire department personnel and civilians entering or leaving the building. The manager ensures that all companies are checked in and directed to the assigned stairwell. The companies are also directed to take extra equipment as needed. Lobby control is also responsible for pressurizing stairwells and assigning elevators when needed.
Stairwell support is implemented when equipment cannot be moved to staging by elevator or an additional water supply is required. The Philadelphia Fire Department implemented this concept at the Meridian Plaza Fire in 1993. Five alarms were required to haul a five-inch line up 30 floors in an effort to create a secondary water supply. The assignment is now referred to as a "shoe run" because it is easier to move equipment or hose while wearing shoes rather than boots.
A communications unit ensures that an effective communications system is maintained between the incident commander (IC) and all incident personnel. This system may include portable radios, spare batteries, cellular telephones or the building's systems if still intact.