Safety And Command For High-Rise Fires

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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.

A systems unit monitors and maintains built-in fire control, life safety, environment control, communications and elevator systems. This unit will interact with the utility companies for shutting off internal systems or attempting to bring them back on line.

All of these components report to the logistics chief when that position is staffed. That is except for staging, which reports to operations. If the position is not staffed, it may be left for the IC to handle so it is most important to get adequate resources on scene quickly so that these positions can be delegated away from the IC.

Many departments assign safety to a single person. Obviously, this position will certainly require to be at least a group with many companies involved. National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Standard 1500 requires that a rapid intervention team (RIT) be deployed. It also dictates that the IC identify the level of risk to firefighters and deploy the appropriate level of RIT for their protection. The rapid intervention teams should be assigned to operations, which is located in the staging area two floors below the fire.

I believe that the position of safety needs to be expanded and that members or companies are assigned to each stairwell at the staging level and that an adequate number of personnel are on hand to assume RIT group command if necessary; also, that an adequate number of trained personnel are available to support RIT operations if necessary. Too often, when gurus are writing SOPs/SOGs for rapid intervention teams, they will attempt to cheat and rely on units already committed to firefighting to provide RIT protection; this is cheating to the side of failure. Have enough personnel on hand!

Staging is located two floors below the level of the fire floor. Be prepared to relocate if reverse stack effect becomes a factor. Staging must control stairwell access and prevent self deployment by arriving companies. Staging must also stockpile such items as self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) cylinders, medical supplies, smoke ejectors/fans, forcible entry tools and levels of personnel to ensure relief for crews operating on the scene. A medical treatment area should be maintained at this location with qualified personnel.

I know there are many of you shaking your heads. You're thinking I don't have enough personnel to fight the fire and this guy wants me to staff these positions too. Let me give you a too-familiar scenario: A fire occurs at a high-rise building in any city U.S.A. The fire is located on the 12th floor of a 26-story Type I-constructed apartment building. There are standpipes on every floor. Approximately 600 people live in the building. The time is late afternoon. The first-alarm assignment consists of three engines with three personnel, one truck company with four personnel, two EMS units with two personnel each and a chief with no aide.

The first engine arrives approximately 12 minutes before the chief. The captain assumes command and assigns the crew to the next engine. The crews take the elevators because they always come to this building for "food-on-the-stove" or EMS calls. This time, however, they get caught. The elevator opens up to thick smoke down to the floor. They hook up to the standpipe on the fire floor because the heat is building. They attempt to call the chief, but can't get through. The truck company comes up also with minimum tools.

The chief still has no report. How many people are in deep trouble? Will the units put the fire out or will the glass windows implode, sending a 35-mph wind into the fire area? Did you have enough people on the scene to mount an effective and safe attack or rescue attempt from the beginning?

If you think the above scenario is impossible, read some very current after-action reports from different areas of the country. You'll find that what seemed like a needed task became a death trap for some and the burn ward for others.

Send the minimum crews up to reconnoiter the fire. Call for resources as soon as possible. Perform size-up adequately, giving the whole picture to the responding chief or chiefs. If you need to intervene for obvious rescues, then go up in teams of multiple companies. Follow your SOPs/SOGs. If they are inadequate, then sit down and change them. Realize your limitations - if you don't have enough people to do the job, WAIT until you do.

A responding IC can do nothing if the first-arriving units commit to a losing proposition except for pulling them out or trying to support them until someone gets hurt or killed. There is few bailout points 100 feet in the air. Stay safe.

Being Safety Conscious About Breathing Apparatus

Every member of the fire service who enters an IDLH (immediate danger to life and health) atmosphere wears self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA). These members belong to hazardous materials teams, EMS crews or fire suppression forces. We all have been trained to don the apparatus, fill the tank, inspect the harness and use the device. For exam purposes we can spout off weight and operational figures, yet I don't believe we have trained completely or know enough about the unit to enter the IDLH atmosphere safely.

I believe that everyone who enters an IDLH atmosphere should first know how long their SCBA will last under conditions of duress and heavy physical exertion. This can be accomplished at the station. Facepieces should be blocked and the wearers should perform activities much as they would under combat conditions such as search, running lines, wearing Level A suits or performing rapid intervention team (RIT) operations. These activities should be timed to the point that each wearer runs out of air, including the time when the low-air alarm is going off. If available, companies should use large areas such as warehouses to practice these evolutions so that members who may be involved in large-area searches during RIT operations can appreciate the time that this can take.

After determining the available air for each person, move on to the next phase. Block off the facepiece again. Change SCBA cylinders on a mannikin first, then try it with other firefighters. Also practice applying facepieces to a mannikin. All of these evolutions may need to be accomplished while performing RIT operations involving a confirmed downed firefighter. It should go without saying that all wearers of SCBA should know the emergency procedures for their units and any other models/makes that mutual aid units may be wearing.

You may be scoffing at how basic this appears, but when was the last time you heard any comments regarding the basic use of SCBA and the amount of times firefighters get into trouble running low on air or running out of air completely? I feel the correct analogy for all of our activities need to be compared to those involving self-contained underwater breathing apparatus (scuba). When divers head underwater, they check their regulators and air flow. They also check the time when they went on air and they also maintain total accountability for their remaining air. I ask the question, what's the difference between a diver heading underwater and a firefighter entering an IDLH atmosphere? If a diver has a problem in 40 feet of water, would that not equate to being 40 feet inside a structure filled with fire and toxic smoke down to the floor?

This is a simple exercise, but one I believe should be applied immediately. We are having too many near misses on the scene and are still killing too many firefighters. Remember, it's so simple.

Michael L. Smith

Michael L. Smith, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a 29-year veteran of the District of Columbia Fire Department, currently deputy chief/suppression and shift division commander, commanding all fire, EMS, hazmat, special operations and special events activities in the District on shift. He is a 30-plus-year fire service veteran and is a graduate of the Executive Fire Officers Program at the National Fire Academy. Smith is a Certified Municipal Manger (CMM) from George Washington University; has degrees in fire science, construction management and labor law; and he holds a journeyman's card with United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners.