After-Action Review: Fire in a Residential High-Rise

May 27, 2010
Part two of this article takes up where we left off in April, when we discussed a fire in a residential high-rise and some of the lessons learned or reinforced. This post-incident analysis involves an apartment fire in Long Branch, NJ, on Sept. 27, 2009. We continue with our lessons learned and reinforced.

Part two of this article takes up where we left off in April, when we discussed a fire in a residential high-rise and some of the lessons learned or reinforced. This post-incident analysis involves an apartment fire in Long Branch, NJ, on Sept. 27, 2009. We continue with our lessons learned and reinforced.

  • Staffing — Our department can ultimately field a second-alarm assignment that consists of eight engines, two ladders and one heavy rescue. Personnel numbers vary depending on the time of day. As such, any large-scale incident relies on mutual aid to accomplish the many tasks that must be completed. The fire that is the subject of this article was a "40-person fire." In other words, given the location and extent of the fire, about 40 members were needed to handle all of the tasks. A fire of greater magnitude on a higher floor or a windswept fire would have easily required 100 or more personnel. Mutual aid or, even better, automatic aid can give a small to midsize department a "big city" response if employed properly. Fires in these types of occupancies demand a sufficient number of personnel. The lesson reinforced here is to get those companies on the road as soon as possible. Here, mutual aid was requested within the first few minutes.
  • Training — Training is the key to any fire department operation. Preparing for a fire in a high-rise building demands hands-on training, not only in basic engine and ladder company operations as they relate to this occupancy, but training in the command and control of such a fire. Effective command and control allows for a smoother-running and more effective operation. For departments with high-rise occupancies and even those departments that may be called upon for mutual aid to these fires, quarterly training would increase department effectiveness.
  • "Defend-in-place" strategy — The department employed a "defend-in-place" strategy immediately and this was responsible for safeguarding more occupants than any evacuation could have. If the building has a public address system, it is imperative that the occupants be notified of the situation and to stay in place. Because of the nature of the occupancy and construction (residential, fire resistive, Type I) and the benefit of compartmentation, occupants with the exception of those in the fire apartment should be left in place. There may be exceptions, such as fire extending to the apartment above and endangering occupants, but barring this, leave everyone in place. The department made the crucial decision to notify the desk in the lobby and the numerous occupants who called asking what they should do were instructed to stay in place. Also, notifying your emergency communications center as to the department strategy would answer incoming 911 calls requesting information as to what occupants should do.
  • Designation of stairs — Our department routinely will designate the stairwells for fires in these types of occupancies. As a minimum, an attack stairwell is designated as is an evacuation stairwell for any occupants that may chose to flee. If a third stairwell is available, it can be designated as the vent stairwell. Find the stairwell with the standpipes, those stairwells that will not put the wind in your face in the case of a windswept fire, those stairwells that would be of greatest value for ventilation and for evacuation. This information is critical to success and the best way to find out is well before the fire.
  • Standpipe operations — Standpipe operations as a minimum require 65 psi at the uppermost outlets based on the older codes, codes in which many of these buildings were constructed. This is a relatively low pressure and the 2½-inch line is the tool of choice. Our department equips engine companies that are routinely first due to high-rises with the following standpipe setups:

    • One hose pack with 100 feet of 2½-inch hose and a 1 1/8-inch smoothbore nozzle
    • One hose pack with 100 feet of additional 2½-inch hose
    • One high-rise bag with a 14-inch pipe wrench, one inline pressure gauge, two spanner wrenches, a dozen door chocks, various adaptors to turn a 1½-inch outlet into a 2½-inch outlet, and a wire brush in the event the threads have paint on them

    The inline pressure gauge is worth its weight in gold if used properly. A firefighter who places this on the standpipe outlet and hooks the hose to it in essence becomes a pump operator, allowing for the right amount of water to be sent to the nozzle. As with any standpipe operations, always hook up in an area of refuge (usually this is the floor below). With 2½-inch hose, stretching it dry can also be of value; just don't violate the principles of safety (see my related article at

    I am not a big fan of 1¾-inch hose or fog nozzles for standpipe operations. The potential for low pressures and clogging are two reasons to go with the bigger line and smoothbore combination. I recommend 2½-inch hose with a 1¼-inch smoothbore nozzle for maximum firepower. This fire did not have any pressure-restricting devices, but had they been present, that problem would have had to be overcome. One note about any high-rise packs: set up the weight to be divided among several members. One firefighter cannot carry all of the needed items. We have found in the past that the use of a "hand truck" or similar dual-wheeled appliance to carry all of our gear was awkward and so was discontinued years ago.

  • The fire department connection (FDC) — This building had a fire pump as well as two FDCs that supplied the building and one that supplied the underground parking garage. It is imperative that the correct FDC be chosen. Pre-incident planning prevented a serious potential problem at this fire. The correct FDC was chosen and not the one that supplies the parking garage. In addition, there was a second FDC on the C side of the building. Had a significant fire been encountered, this FDC should have been supplied as well by a second engine. Further, if additional water was needed, the first-floor standpipe outlet could have been fed by another engine by placing on this outlet a series of adapters to turn it into an inlet. Again, beware of any pressure-restricting devices that may inhibit such a strategy.
  • Elevators — In upper-floor fires, where walking the steps can be time consuming or exhausting, the use of fire service-equipped elevators can be a consideration. Never use an elevator not equipped with firefighter's service. In many cases, elevators will fail due to mechanical malfunction, water or smoke damage. Be sure the elevator stops every few floors and be prepared to force your way out if it gets stuck. A set of irons and a portable radio are a must for any elevator operation! If there is a danger that an elevator could potentially take you to an immediately dangerous to life and health (IDLH) atmosphere, don't use it; take the stairs.
  • Stairwell support — If elevators are not an option, how can we get excess equipment to the upper floors? The answer is a stairwell support team. A firefighter spaced on the landing of every other floor will shuttle equipment to the next set of two floors and so on. This prevents fatigue and moves a lot of equipment relatively quickly. For example, if staging is on the 16th floor, a separate firefighter would be assigned to floors 1–2, 3–4, 5–6, 7–8, 9–10, 11–12, 13–14 and 15–16. Not having to move more than two floors as part of a shuttle of equipment isn't as taxing as one person going up 16 floors to bring two self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) cylinders.
  • Progress reports — Progress reports are the eyes and ears of the incident commander. Members should be in the habit of telling their next-highest-level supervisor the conditions they are encountering and the resources needed to mitigate the problem. Give progress reports early and often. This fire was replete with transmissions indicating the status of the attack and status of the primary and secondary searches. These timely reports allowed the incident commander to be aware of conditions and status on the fire floor.
  • Reconnaissance — Reconnaissance is vital. Scanning the floor below for the floor layout proved vital at this fire and the reconnaissance process found a civilian victim on the fire floor. This simple process was responsible for the removal of an injured civilian. The fire apartment was Apartment 3–12; by "reconning" the floor below and finding Apartment 2–12, we found the apartment quickly, even given the smoke in the hallway.
  • Resources — Resources that prove vital in this type of fire are a sufficient amount of SCBA cylinders. The ability to fill and transport potentially hundreds of SCBA cylinders should be planned for! In addition, think proactively about a rest-and-rehab station or "canteen" unit to provide members with refreshments, especially water. The weather conditions this day were not a major factor, but a fire in 100-degree weather would make for a very serious situation with the potential for many firefighter casualties due to heat.

    Prepare for rehab ahead of time. Stock up on bottled water now so that it is ready to transport and you are not dependent on the building. How can you get your members into air conditioning or heated areas? Plan now for this, not when it's too late. Other resources may include the Red Cross for displaced occupants. Adequate lighting, additional hose and nozzles, fans, positive-pressure ventilation (PPV) blowers and carbon monoxide (CO) meters are all potential items that may be needed.

  • Forcible-entry operations — This building was a fire-resistive occupancy that had a steel-clad door set in a steel frame set in a sheetrock wall. The hydraulic forcible-entry tool (HFT) was of great value to our members, allowing for a very rapid entry into the fire apartment. This tool should be standard equipment in this type of building. To our concern, the volume of heat and fire behind the apartment door caused the door to buckle and bend inward when the HFT was placed just above the lock mechanism. The HFT was then placed just below the lock assembly and again the door warped inward at that point. Thinking outside the box, the HFT operator placed the tool directly on the lock assembly and managed to force the door open.
  • Accountability — Our department relies on a two-tag system. One tag is left on the apparatus and one is given in prior to entering the IDLH area. The lobby control officer is a good choice to act in the capacity of an accountability officer. Any operation that is chaotic presents the chance for members becoming separated. It is imperative that through effective training, accountability becomes second nature to every member! In addition, the use of the Incident Briefing (ICS 201) form lets the incident commander quantify his or her thoughts and place them on paper, significantly helping to clarify the evolving command structure and resource list.
  • Thermal imaging camera — This is another tool that should be standard equipment for any building fire. This aids in a more effective search and enhances firefighter safety.
  • Building staff and building infrastructure — Building personnel can be of great value to the fire department. Seek them out and put them in close proximity to the incident commander or a designee. Any information related to the building layout or system design can be easily found out. Also determine whether the fire pumps are operating or whether any other systems can be used to aid in fire attack. In this building there were phone jacks in every stair that could have been used and portable phones were available at the desk in the lobby.
  • Ventilation — Are there any building features that can aid in evacuating the smoke? Is the heating, ventilating and air conditioning (HVAC) system spreading smoke to uninvolved areas? How do you shut it down? If ventilation is difficult, then a concern should be for the least amount of smoke contamination in the building. In the past, we have used the "stack effect" to our advantage to evacuate smoke from buildings; other times, we have had the opportunity to pressurize the stairwells to assist in smoke movement and control.

This operation was a great success and many civilians in this building did not become victims because of the fire department's proactive and aggressive approach to extinguishing this fire.

Special thanks to Chief of Department Don Pingitore and Assistant Chiefs Sam Tomaine and Al Sico for their generous permission in allowing me to research this incident and to share my findings.

ARMAND F. GUZZI Jr. has been a member of the fire service since 1987. He is a career firefighter with the City of Long Branch, NJ, and has taught for over 20 years with the Monmouth County Fire Academy. He has a master's degree in management and undergraduate degrees in fire science, education and business administration. He can be reached via e-mail at [email protected] or [email protected].

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