High-Rise Rescue

Las Vegas; Nov. 21, 1980; 7:16 A.M.

Fire Control: "Yes, MGM."
Caller: "You want to come in entrance 2, the Flamingo Road casino entrance, we need the fire department."
Fire Control: "What's wrong, ma'am?"
Caller: "We have a fire in the deli."
Fire Control: "You have a fire in the deli?"
Caller: "Yeah."
Fire Control: "Fire Control to Battalion 2, stand by for dispatch."
Battalion 2: "OK. Battalion 2."
Fire Control: "We have a report of fire in a building, in the deli of the MGM, use entrance number 2, that's entrance 2 to the MGM for the deli."
Battalion 2: "Battalion 2. We have an evolution 2 ... Control, give me a second alarm on this fire."
Battalion 2: "Battalion 2. We've got heavy smoke coming out of the front and side entrances."
Battalion 2: "Battalion 2 to Control. This is an evolution 3 (heavy smoke and fire)."

Photo by Martin Nate Rawner/CFPA
Since people began to live and work in tall buildings, the fire service has faced the challenge of how to deal with fire and rescue in these "cities in the sky."

Photo by Steve Cobo
Team members, assisted by a police flight medic, are lowered toward their objective.

The MGM Grand Hotel, 26 stories tall, was occupied by approximately 7,000 people. The fire on the first floor of the hotel spread quickly from the kitchen to the casino and was accompanied by heavy smoke conditions. By the time the fire was brought under control, the death count stood at 84 with hundreds injured. Of those evacuated on that day, 300 people were rescued by helicopters from the roof.

Less than three months later, Las Vegas would face another disaster when an arsonist torched the Hilton Hotel. That fire, which claimed the lives of eight people, was started on the eighth floor and spread quickly to the 29th. Over 4,000 people were evacuated, with 110 being rescued from the rooftop by helicopter.

These fires were a wake-up call to many fire departments in cities with high-rise buildings. Since people began to live and work in tall buildings, the fire service has faced the challenge of how to deal with fire and rescue in these "cities in the sky." Most fires that occur in high-rises mean evacuating in place or moving persons to a more secure area of the building. The Las Vegas disasters, however, highlighted the need for a plan to evacuate persons trapped above a serious fire, especially on the roof.


Over the years, stricter building codes in the United States have spared us the problems that have plagued many other countries. Fire-resistive construction, fire-rated doors, smoke-proof towers and sprinklers have all worked toward making buildings safer. But many older high-rises, built before these codes were enacted, do not contain such safety features as sprinklers.

In Baltimore, there are upwards of 1,600 buildings that are 10 stories or more in height. Therefore, the problem of mass evacuation of persons trapped beyond the scope of conventional means such as ladders and aerial towers has been one of great concern.

In response to this need, the Baltimore City Fire Department, with our neighboring county fire departments, developed the High-Rise Emergency Aerial Team (H.E.A.T.).

H.E.A.T. was a group of professional firefighters from the Baltimore City, Baltimore County and Anne Arundel County fire departments, with helicopter support from the Maryland State Police. H.E.A.T. was developed as a metropolitan team for high-rise rescue problems statewide. When formed, the team was conceived strictly to deal with helicopter rescue in case of a catastrophic high-rise fire.

Founded in 1981, the team consisted of 24 firefighters from the three jurisdictions. Eight members of the Baltimore City Fire Department were selected from applications submitted. Original members were subjected to an interview and a rigorous physical agility test as part of the selection process (this procedure remains in effect today). Initial team training consisted of two weeks of intensive rope work (knots, rappeling, etc.) and helicopter operations. In addition, monthly training was mandated to keep members proficient in tactical operations. Team members' commitment was total, as they would be on call 24 hours a day.

Photo by John Kisser
Team member Lieutenant Jeff Segal gives a hand signal to the helicopter pilot, indicating he is 10 feet from the deck.

Original operations consisted of a Vietnam-era Bell UH1B Huey aircraft, a rappel master from the Maryland State Police State Tactical Assault Team Element (S.T.A.T.E.) and H.E.A.T. members. Team members would rappel from the helicopter skids four at a time, under the direction of the rappel master, using doubled half-inch kernmantle rope. The rappel master, in communication with the pilot, would direct him into final position. As the roof needed to be directly below the helicopter, the pilot would be unable to see his objective once in final position. He would need to hold a hover under direct conditions caused by factors such as weather and shifts in weight caused be rappelers and equipment. Teamwork by all those involved was critical. Consequently, only several pilots were qualified for H.E.A.T. operations.

Once on the roof, victims would don special harnesses that team members brought with them. Victims would then be connected to the ends of the rappel ropes and lifted from the roof to the ground. They would dangle approximately 150 feet below the helicopter throughout the rescue process. Additional victims could be removed by way of a slideline rope, which could be set between two buildings or the building involved and the ground. Members could also rappel down the building, picking up a victim, then continuing to the ground or aerial platform.

As H.E.A.T. became operational, one problem was apparent: with only one helicopter and several pilots available, operational readiness could be compromised should one or the other be unavailable. Likewise, only certain Maryland State Police personnel were trained as rappel masters.

In 1987, the Maryland State Police decided to buy new helicopters to replace its fleet of Bell Jet Rangers (used for medevac missions). The new aircraft would have twin engines and hoist capabilities. The fleet would now consist of 11 Dauphine aircraft in all deployed, as before, statewide, giving the Maryland State Police the largest non-military fleet of helicopters in North America. With the addition of these new aircraft and the retirement of "our" Huey we needed to rethink our operations.

Photo by John Kisser
A "Billy Pugh" net is lowered by helicopter winch cable to the roof.

Meetings were conducted between H.E.A.T. leaders and the Maryland State Police Aviation Division. The result of these meetings was a radical change in mission operations. No longer would members rappel four at a time. Two members would now be inserted by hoist using a special strap attached to the hoist hook. Victims would then be extracted (winched into the helicopter) using a basket device known as a "Billy Pugh" net, which each new helicopter would carry. It was decided to train all pilots and flight medics on hoisting and H.E.A.T. operations, alleviating the concern for operational readiness. Any helicopter in the state could, on request, be pressed into service with trained personnel.

As what became known as "technical rescue" evolved, H.E.A.T. was itself changing. Besides helicopter rescue, we began to address other forms of high angle rescue and incorporating pig rig systems, Z rigs, tyroleans and the like into our operations. The team members trained in other areas of technical rescue such as swift water and confined space (both of which are based on a thorough knowledge of rope work) and structural and trench collapse.

In 1993, the Baltimore City Fire Department changed the name of its portion of the team to reflect the changing role. The Baltimore County Fire Department had previously changed the name of its unit to Advanced Tactical Rescue Team (ATR). Anne Arundel County has chosen to keep the H.E.A.T. name. It was decided by each jurisdiction's team leaders to continue to use the term H.E.A.T. to refer to helicopter rescue operations. In effect, H.E.A.T. had become a sub-group.

Thus was born the Baltimore City Fire Department's Special Rescue Operations (SRO) team, which was expanded from its original eight members to 12 (many SRO team members are assigned to Rescue 1, Baltimore City's heavy rescue unit). New members were subjected to the same interview and physical fitness standards as original members as well as a one-year probationary period. During this time, the probationary members were trained and certified in the different technical rescue disciplines. Members of the Baltimore County ATR team were instrumental in the training and certification process.

Photo by John Kisser
A "victim" is removed from the roof by a "Billy Pugh" net during a training session.

Photo by Steve Cobo
Members of the Baltimore City Fire Department Special Rescue Operations (SRO) team include, left to right: (standing) Lieutenant Jeff Segal, Lieutenant Bob Scarpati, EVD Brian Holden, Captain Joseph V. Brocato, Captain Mark Wagner and Firefighter Rodne Williams; (kneeling) Firefighter John Kirkner, EVD Steve Cobo, Lieutenant Steve Gibson, Lieutenant John Kisser and Firefighter Dominic Fiaschetti (person second from right is no longer a member of the team; not pictured is Firefighter Scott Merbach).

There are two SRO team activation levels. First is "low level," which activates the Baltimore City SRO team only. An example of a low-level activation would be the rescue of a trapped window washer on the side of a building. In this instance, the resources of SRO and Rescue 1 would be sufficient to mitigate the situation. Second is "high level," mobilizing the metropolitan team along with the Maryland State Police. An example of a high-level activation would be a high-rise fire such as the MGM Grand. This situation would bring to bear all the resources of the metro team along with multiple helicopter support. Mutual aid agreements allow for offering assistance or receiving it, as necessary, in the event of a large-scale rescue operation.

The Special Rescue Operations fleet has grown to include SRO 1, Collapse 1 and Rescue 1, which houses the units. Personnel have been cross-trained in equipment and operational procedures. All three units are designed to function independently or as a group, depending on the rescue operation.

The SRO team has developed over the years good working relationships with its counterparts from the counties that continues to this day. It is only through the continued cooperation of the Baltimore City, Baltimore County and Anne Arundel County fire departments and the Maryland State Police that this type of high-level rescue operation is successful.

H.E.A.T. was, in 1981, one of the first organized teams of its kind in the nation. Although much has changed in the 15 years since H.E.A.T. was founded, the team continues to grow and diversify. While H.E.A.T. may not be the complete answer to the problem of evacuation from high-rise buildings, it is a highly effective tool for command officers to use in their arsenal against these deadly infernos.

Joseph V. Brocato is a 16-year veteran of the Baltimore City Fire Department and captain of Rescue Company 1. He is the Special Rescue Operations Team leader and nationally certified Fire Officer II and Fire Instructor III. Brocato is an adjunct instructor in rescue operations at the Baltimore City Fire Academy.