High-Rise Rescue

Joseph V. Brocato describes how with the advent of high-rise construction, fire departments have created teams for challenging fires and rescues.


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...


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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)."

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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."


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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.

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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.

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