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The Chicago Fire Department (CFD) completely revamped its response and procedures to be followed for high-rise fires as a result of a tragic downtown fire in which six lives were lost in 2003. Notably, a top-to-bottom revision of CFD tactics, including a new Strategic Operating Plan (SOP), was developed and implemented in 2004. The SOP included increasing the initial response for a telephone alarm from two engines, two trucks and a battalion chief to four engines, four trucks, a squad, three battalion chiefs, an advanced life support (ALS) ambulance and an EMS paramedic field chief.
During the ensuing years, the SOP worked well but, not unexpectedly, a major issue revolved around communications. Effective communications inside a high-rise building continues to be an issue of great concern.
Objectives & scenario
Chicago Fire Commissioner Jose Santiago has risen through the ranks to achieve every position within the Chicago Fire Department, from firefighter to commissioner. At one point, he was chief of District 1, which includes the downtown “Loop” and surrounding areas. In November 2012, the CFD and the Chicago Office of Emergency Management and Communications (OEMC) placed an entirely new radio system into operation with multiple-frequency capabilities. One of the many objectives of this new system was to relieve the overloading of the one fireground frequency, used heretofore, by providing multiple new frequencies.
Recently, Santiago and Deputy Fire Commissioner John McNicholas embarked on a plan to conduct a full-scale high-rise drill with the goal of evaluating the new communications system and review the effectiveness of the nine-year-old SOP. Finding a building with an owner and a building manager interested in supporting this plan was not easy. Fortunately, Chicago is home to the AON Building at 200 East Randolph St. The 83-story building opened in 1973 and was originally named the Standard Oil Building. The building was retrofitted with automatic sprinklers in 1983 and is essentially a vertical city with 10,000 tenant employees and visitors daily. Thomas W. Begg Jr., director of security and life safety of Jones Lang LaSalle Americas (Illinois), the building manager, coordinated the effort with the CFD for the drill, which took place on June 2, 2013. The plan was to put in place a mock fire scenario on the 75th floor that involved 17 mock victims, artificial smoke and a 2-11 (second alarm) response.
The demand for resources at a fire in a high-rise building is more severe than the typical building fire at ground level. CFD’s heavy initial response is unusual, but necessary due to the exposure of life and property in a high-rise. Having adequate resources on the initial alarm can make all the difference between success and failure. District Chief William Vogt was assigned the task of pulling this entire drill together. The goal was to begin with an “automatic-alarm” assignment (one engine, one truck and a battalion chief) and escalate the incident from there to a 2-11 alarm.
A drill of this magnitude required multiple staff chiefs located throughout the operation to evaluate the effectiveness of the practices, procedures and communications. Eighteen evaluators were stationed throughout the drill from the staging area to victim removal and triage. Their assignment was to provide objective views on which practices worked well and which practices need review.
The drill begins
At about 9:15 A.M., Engine 13, Truck 6 and Battalion 1, Chief Mike Gubricki, were dispatched to an “automatic alarm” in the AON Building. Gubricki assumed the position of incident commander in the lobby and the two companies, after consulting the alarm panel and meeting building management, proceeded as the Fire Investigation Team (FIT). The FIT gained control of the elevators and then responded three floors below the reported location of the fire, per protocol. After exiting the elevators on Floor 72, they went up the stairwell designated as the fire attack stairwell to Floor 75. Upon arrival at the fire floor, they reported “smoke,” which necessitated Battalion 1 requesting a “full still” alarm, bringing four engines, four ladders, Squad 1, a communications van, three battalion chiefs plus EMS, consisting of one ALS ambulance and an EMS paramedic field chief.