Safety and Survival Sidebar: Chicago Fire Department Conducts High-Rise Drill

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.

As the additional companies reported to the command post in the lobby, they were given assignments per protocol. Engine 42, the second engine, was assigned to assist Engine 13 in stretching the first line. The third engine (Engine 98) was assigned to “lobby control” to assist the incident commander and the fourth engine, Engine 1, reported to Forward Fire Command (two floors below the fire floor). Battalion 2, Chief Joe Gloudie, was assigned to direct fire attack on the fire floor as the “fire attack chief.” Battalion 4, Chief Mike Altman, was assigned as “forward fire commander.” The three truck companies were assigned to support Truck 6 on the fire floor or assume the duty of the Rapid Ascent Team (RAT) in both the attack and evacuation stairways. The third-due truck is assigned as RAT for the fire attack stairwell and the fourth-due truck is assigned as RAT for the evacuation stairwell. The RAT concept is used for searching all stairwells for potential victims.

Engine 13 confirmed a working fire to Gubricki. This required increasing the alarm to a “still and box alarm,” adding four engines, three trucks, four battalion chiefs and a deputy district chief plus auxiliary units to the assignment. The SOP requires a “Still and Box” assignment whenever a hoseline is stretched on a high-rise fire.

Each engine responding must carry 200 feet of 2½-inch line, a smooth-bore 1¼-inch nozzle and ancillary fittings plus extra self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) bottles. The first two engines, Engine 42 and Engine 13, were charged with leading out and operating the first line. Engine 13 advised Engine 42 that the line was short of the fire room and an additional 100 feet needed to be added. Having two engines dedicated to getting the first line on the fire greatly assisted in efficient stretching and placement of the first line.

Truck 6, Truck 3 and Squad 1 began the primary search of the fire floor and discovered the first victims. This introduced the issue of removing them to the support area three floors below the fire floor for triage by EMS. It should be noted that the SOP calls for an EMS Plan 1 (five ambulances) upon the request for a “still and box” in a high-rise building. Because elevators were not available, victims were taken down the stairs for triage.



One of the major changes from the previous high-rise SOP has the fourth engine company report to the forward fire commander to assist with communications. Previously, the fourth engine was assigned to assist with the first line or begin a second line. All portable radios were be taken off “scan” mode and placed in “manual” mode. The fourth-due engine crew would monitor Channel 4 (fireground) and Channel 9 (search and rescue). Additionally, Channel 10 was assigned to companies arriving in the staging area. Channel 5 was designated as the “command channel” and all chiefs were directed to operate on this channel after the communications van arrived on scene.

EMS, the deputy district chief assigned on the “still and box,” Kevin Krasneck, and Special Operations Battalion Chief Pat Maloney brought portable “radio in a box” (“RIB”) radios into the scene. These units are powered by 110-volt AC and are basically transportable base stations. The unit, in this case, takes a portable radio and increases the power output from five watts to 25 watts. RIB radio sets were assigned to EMS in the lobby, the incident commander in the lobby and forward fire command.


Command and control

Four additional battalion chiefs (for a total of seven) respond on the high-rise “still and box.” The plans chief is assigned to the communications van; the search and rescue chief reports to forward fire command to coordinate search and rescue of the fire floor and floors above; the support area chief is assigned to the support area three floors below the fire floor and the rapid intervention team (RIT) chief oversees the operation of that team.

Due to the size of the building and the number of floors above the fire floor that would require a search, Krasneck requested a 2-11 alarm. This brought four engines, three trucks and two battalion chiefs and the on-duty district chief. These units were assigned to relieve companies on the fire floor or assist in the support area.

The total assignment to a 2-11 in a high-rise in Chicago consists of 12 engine companies, 10 truck companies, one squad, 10 battalion chiefs, five ALS ambulances and various supervisors and support units, including the CFD helicopter. High rise fires require a tremendous amount of resources in order to perform all of the required tasks and provide relief in a timely fashion for operating units.


After-action review

One week after the, Santiago, McNicholas and Vogt conducted an after-action review of the operation to address lessons learned and reinforced and discuss actions that may require re-evaluation. Present were many of the chiefs who operated at the scene as well as the evaluators and other command staff. Below is a summary of the most important points:



• Battalion Chief 1 set up the command post in the lobby promptly and gave clear instructions to the fire investigation team

• Battalion Chief 1 ordered a change to Channel 5 (command) for all chief officers after the plans chief arrived in the communications van

• The search and rescue chief maintained a forward staging area of one engine and one; this is an important factor due to the time it takes for a company to move from staging area to the search area

• A runner was used when communication failed between forward fire command and fire attack chiefs

• The lead-out by both engines was excellent and the officer of Engine 13 communicated well with the officer of Engine 42

• Search and rescue was well organized and efficient



• The fourth engine was assigned to assist the forward fire commander, but the radios interfered with one another

• Messages were lost due to members talking over one another

• Progress reports to the command van were not acknowledged or not heard

• The RIB radio had a few technical issues – a knotted cord, cross-threaded coax and a loose antenna – that must be checked

• Entire companies were reporting as a group to the forward fire commander, not the officer only as required

• Few companies reported completion of an assigned task via radio or in person

• Even though there were an adequate number of channels available, the quality of communications was sometimes poor

• The issue of how to get multiple victims from EMS triage to the lobby for further treatment or transport must be addressed



• The deputy district chief should stay at the lobby command post

• All companies should be trained to use the RIB radio

• The command van should have the computerized ability to see the status of companies arriving on scene

• The command van should be given the responsibility to set a staging area in/near the building lobby; the length of time for a company to move from a vehicle staging area into the lobby and then up into the building is excessive

• Radio signal strength appears better near the outer windows, so consider moving forward fire commander to the perimeter of the building.


Value of hands-on drills

The need for practical, hands-on training is present in every community and every size building. Training in high-rise operations often is difficult to achieve due to the very magnitude of the operation; the requirement for building management to essentially turn part of the building over to the fire department and the amount of fire department resources committed.

Chicago is fortunate that the progressive management team of the AON Building recognizes the need for high-rise training on a realistic scale. As occurs in any training session, some things went right and some need improvement. It was a learning experience for every member on the scene.


Appreciation is extended to Fire Commissioner Jose Santiago, Deputy Fire Commissioner John McNicholas, District Chief William Vogt and all of the officers and members of the Chicago Fire Department as well as Thomas W. Begg Jr. of Jones Lang LaSalle Americas (Illinois) for their assistance and direction in the preparation of this article.