Houston Firefighters Make Dramatic Rescues at Office Fire

Tom McDonald reports on a fire that claimed the lives of three workers in a partially sprinklered high-rise building.


A wind-fanned blaze tore through the top two floors of an occupied, mid-rise, atrium office building on Houston's east side during the evening rush hour on March 28, 2007. Three civilians died, but Houston Fire Department (HFD) firefighters manning aerial ladders rescued many others who were trapped...


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1. Fires in partially sprinklered buildings can spread flames unchecked everywhere there are not sprinklers, and can spread lethal smoke everywhere there are sprinklers. This fire is a perfect example of how a partial sprinkler system can result in the worst of consequences, including destruction of a large office building, multiple loss of life and serious endangerment of firefighters. The only way to ensure reasonable occupant safety in such buildings is with total sprinkler coverage, including all offices, shafts and storage areas.

2. The top priority at major fires in mid-rise structures like this should be to remove all occupants who present at windows on all floors by the fastest and simplest exterior means possible: aerial, tower or ground ladder. If occupants are waving from multiple windows or on multiple floors, remove those closest to and those above the main body of fire first. There may be little or no smoke showing from windows where people are waving. In fact, the main fire may be several floors above them, but they also may not have any other way out of the room they are in because of heavy smoke conditions outside their door. Those conditions can also change in an instant. These exterior rescues should be made first, but an interior search should be initiated as soon as additional manpower is available.

3. The direction and force of wind plays a huge role at fires like this. It can significantly worsen the conditions of a fire (as it did here), or reduce its lethality by taking smoke away from a building (had the fire initially been on the leeward side). When the main body of fire is on the windward side in an atrium office building, all the smoke will be forced back into the building's interior and will spread immediately to every floor, even into enclosed stairwells as they end up being frequently opened by firefighters and occupants seeking egress. Therefore, ventilation becomes the next highest priority after exterior rescue because, for all practical purposes, it will be necessary before any effective interior search or fire attack can be performed. Roof hatches, skylights, and leeward windows need to be opened as quickly and safely as possible, typically from the outside.

4. At fires in tall buildings such as this, ALL personnel on the ground but within the building's exterior collapse zone (including apparatus operators and EMS personnel) should be wearing helmets and bunker gear as minimum protection from flying glass that could drop instantly from windows broken by occupants.

5. If your radio system is capable, consider devoting the channel on which a lost or down firefighter is talking to nothing but communication associated with his rescue until it is completed. If possible, move all other tactical radio traffic for the incident to another frequency. The incident commander should also devote a divisional commander to oversee nothing but the rescue of the firefighter.

6. Remember that the fastest way to access a missing firefighter in a reachable upper floor of a smoke-filled atrium structure such as this may be via an aerial ladder through a window nearest the point where the firefighter last reported being. Interior stairwells can become filled with smoke, as they were in this fire, and severely delay rescuers using them. While the lost firefighter should be encouraged to make his way to an exterior window and to break it out, ladder crews on the outside should expeditiously open as many windows as possible for access and ventilation. Tag lines, a charged attack hoseline, and an extra breathing device should be deployed by crews entering the building from an aerial to search for a missing firefighter.

7. Fires in office buildings that cater to medical professionals can hold many added dangers for firefighters, most notably large cylinders of medical gases such as oxygen. Fire crews should be familiar with such facilities in their districts and know what types of gases are stored and where.

8. Company officers are the eyes and ears of the incident commander inside structures like this. From the outside, it is difficult for an incident commander to know exactly what conditions are being encountered, thus it is imperative that company officers give frequent, concise, yet descriptive, radio reports of what they see. If officers feel conditions inside become unsafe to continue interior operations, they need to convey that clearly and immediately to the incident commander and evacuate with crews intact.