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

March 31, 2010
This post-incident analysis of an apartment fire in a residential high-rise building looks at the actions of the Long Branch, NJ, Fire Department on Sept. 27, 2009. Using a "defend-in-place" strategy, many civilian injuries were prevented. This fire offers an opportunity to share a significant number of lessons. While the fire attack and its aftermath involved bravery, skill and daring on the part of the responders — no different than any other department — this account seeks to discuss lessons that can be shared, and not the highlights of individual or company actions.

This post-incident analysis of an apartment fire in a residential high-rise building looks at the actions of the Long Branch, NJ, Fire Department on Sept. 27, 2009. Using a "defend-in-place" strategy, many civilian injuries were prevented. This fire offers an opportunity to share a significant number of lessons. While the fire attack and its aftermath involved bravery, skill and daring on the part of the responders — no different than any other department — this account seeks to discuss lessons that can be shared, and not the highlights of individual or company actions.

The Long Branch Fire Department is a combination agency consisting of career and volunteer firefighters and fire officers who staff eight engine companies, two ladder companies and one rescue company. The department protects a small shoreline city of about five square miles with a population of between 30,000 and 40,000, with a summer population well exceeding those numbers, especially during holiday events. The department responds to 1,500 to 2,000 fire and emergency calls annually; it does not handle EMS responses. Neighboring suburban volunteer fire departments respond into the city for mutual aid.

The Building and The Fire

The fire building, 717 Ocean Ave., is an 11-story residential high-rise with 130 apartments. The building is of Type I, fire-resistive, construction and is 375 feet wide by 90 feet deep. It consists of two stairwells, one on the east side and one on the west side. Both stairwells penetrate the roof and are standpipe equipped. Neither stairwell has any pressurization equipment provided. Each apartment has its own heating and air conditioning system. Natural gas utilities are provided only to the common areas on the first floor.

The A side of the building is a parking area over a two-story, below-grade parking facility. The B side is the property and beach facilities that adjoin the Atlantic Ocean. The C side is a narrow grass strip with limited access. The D side is Ocean Avenue. There are three fire department connections (FDCs). One is on the D side next to Ocean Avenue and supplies the underground parking garage. The other FDCs are on the building itself, one on the A side and one on the C side; both are linked and supply the sprinkler and standpipe system in the building and not the parking garage.

The only parts of the building that are sprinklered are the common areas on the first floor and in the two underground parking garage levels. Given the nature of the occupancy, compartmentation provides an advantage to fire suppression forces. The apartments vary in size, with some having been renovated over the years, and have a "footprint" equal to two or three standard apartments. There are no access stairways.

At about 11:50 A.M., the fire department was dispatched to a reported fire alarm at the building. The initial response consisted of two engine companies and one ladder company staffed by a total of five members, one chief officer responding in a chief's car, and a department member who met us at the scene. Enroute, additional information was received reporting a fire on the third floor. The first-due engine, with staffing of two members, arrived within two minutes of the initial dispatch and faced a heavy smoke condition showing from the A-side (north) third floor. A second alarm was transmitted immediately on arrival as well as for a request for a rapid intervention team. Shortly thereafter, a third alarm was transmitted due to the potential life hazard.

A civilian victim appeared on the third-floor balcony, with her means of egress blocked by fire and with the glass doors and windows on the balcony failing due to heat. The chauffeur of the aerial ladder from the first-alarm assignment initiated a ladder rescue of the civilian victim using the aerial ladder. Additional arriving members and police aided him. The interior operation initially included the designation of the attack and evacuation stairwells. The floor below was "reconned," and a quick search of the fire floor to ascertain location and extent was initiated. An additional injured civilian was found in the hallway and removed via the attack stairwell. Five members initially hooked up a 2½-inch handline and began an aggressive interior attack of the fire apartment. The size of the line and volume available made short work of the fire.

During the attack, additional members and apparatus arrived. The Incident Command System (ICS) was put into place immediately with command, operations and what can now be viewed as the attack group supervisor. This was the foundation on which fire department operations were built. A "defend-in-place" strategy was initiated early in the fire and occupants were so notified. The FDC on the building's A side was supplied with two 2½-inch lines and augmented the building's fire pump. After the fire was knocked down and additional personnel were on scene, a search and evacuation post was designated to search the rest of the building. There were no fire department injuries and two civilian were saved from harm's way.

Lessons Learned Or Reinforced

While this fire was a serious incident, it could have been far worse. If the fire was on an upper floor requiring a longer reflex time, or if we were faced with a windswept fire from off the ocean, then many more personnel and a more detailed use of the ICS would have been required. This was a 40-person fire, but if the conditions were worst case, it would have easily required 100 or more firefighters.

The time from arrival to water on the fire was fast. A 2½-inch handline was in operation within eight minutes of arrival of the first-due company, relatively quick for a fire in a residential high-rise. The fire was knocked down and a rescue and a removal were made within short order. The biggest problem soon became smoke penetration of the interior stairs and the fire floor hallway. This required coordination of fire department resources to prevent any danger or panic to the occupants.

  1. Complacency — Fire alarms in these residential high rises are a common and daily response for the department. Complacency can become a dangerous enemy if it is allowed to persist. You may be greeted with more than "food on the stove."
  2. Incident management — Success at this fire was attributed to a successful use of the ICS. Let's take a look at those positions that are a must at any fire in these types of buildings. Effective ICS relies on three major principles that, if used correctly, will offer great opportunities for fireground success. These three ingredients of effective ICS are:

    • The need for somebody to be in charge — This is the ability of the incident commander to look at the incident and break it down into bite-sized pieces, with each piece being led by someone the commander can trust. It is here that section chiefs, branch directors, and division and group supervisors play their part in carrying out the incident commander's Incident Action Plan (IAP).
    • The need for staging — In larger-scale incidents, it is imperative to "corral" all of the responding personnel and resources. Failure to do so will result in freelancing. (As it relates to high-rise operations, staging is an allotment of personnel usually two floors below the fire. A staging area manager manages it. To prevent confusion, the ICS also uses the terminology of a "base" to describe a more permanent area for the parking and gathering of personnel and apparatus. A base is an area where personnel will not be immediately available for action, as they would be in staging. In this incident, this clarification could have prevented some confusion. A place to park outside would have been best described as a "base" and controlled by a base manager. The staging of resources ready to go into action immediately, a couple of floors below the fire floor would have been the staging area.)
    • Command — Somebody must be in charge; otherwise the system will degrade into chaos. We have found that the lobby is a good place for the command post. Here, we have access to the building's infrastructure to include the alarm annunciator panel, building communications, any building plans and layouts that may be available, and building personnel such as the building engineer (who in this case was of enormous value to the fire department). In addition, the status of any building systems such as the heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system and fire pumps could be readily determined.
    • Operations — The operations section chief is vital to success. Operations will usually be on the floor below the fire. It is that element of the ICS that carries out the actual tactics that complete the incident commander's overall strategy. It is vital that the operations section chief be aware that extra personnel be available. At this fire, the operations section chief kept extra personnel in a non-IDLH (immediately dangerous to life or health) atmosphere ready to maintain the momentum of the attack. The 30-minute self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) will not last long, so it is vital that fresh personnel be ready to take over immediately. The operations section chief must give periodic progress reports to the incident commander so as to paint a complete picture.
    • Attack group supervisor — The attack group supervisor is tasked with keeping the lines in operation, monitoring for fatigue and rotating fresh personnel into the fight. At this fire, a company officer successfully handled those responsibilities. Our attack group supervisor maintained the momentum of the attack and made sure the searches were coordinated with the attack.
    • Staging area manager — Located two floors below the fire, the staging area manager is responsible for maintaining an appropriate allotment of resources. This fire did not last long and the person in the role of operations effectively handled resources coming up. If this fire had lasted longer, this position would have been mandated. Resources to include SCBA cylinders, personnel to staff two or three 2½-inch handlines continuously would be required. Think about this — putting one 2½-inch handline in operation may require as many as four to six personnel. If their air is good for 10 minutes of actual attack operations, they must be rotated out and another team put in place, which in turn requires another four to six members. Keeping one line in operation will need three teams; one team on the line, one team ready to relieve them and a third team in rehab. These units can rotate at intervals and thus keep the line moving. These numbers add up quickly. Two lines in sustained action may require 18 members each. That's three dozen firefighters and officers, not to mention personnel for searches and venting. If a third line is needed or to check extension above, even more personnel will be required. Also, a hot fire in this type of building can be taxing on personnel. Members may only be able to be used once before they are physically exhausted and must be rotated out of the building completely.
    • Base manager — All apparatus and personnel that may potentially be required need a place to arrive at and park. A base manager can be responsible outside to coordinate these resources to where they are needed.
    • Lobby control officer — A person in the lobby designated as the lobby control officer could have taken a large burden off the shoulders of the incident commander. This role would have been responsible for accountability of those members being sent to staging. Any arriving resources would be sent by the lobby control officer to the appropriate stairwell, and the control of the elevators would be designated for use.
    • Safety officer — A safety officer enhances fireground safety and effectiveness. It allows for an officer to concentrate his or her thinking on one specific and vital aspect of any given emergency.
    • Liaison officer — If the incident expanded in size, a liaison officer could have shouldered some of the burden that would have been on the incident commander's shoulders. An officer trained to interact with additional agencies and resources increases department effectiveness.
    • Public information officer (PIO) — At this fire, the local media showed up. A PIO reduces the burden on the incident commander.
    • Search and evacuation (SAE) group supervisor — The SAE post was initiated once enough personnel arrived. It was set up two floors above the fire and relied on a stairwell that was designated as the evacuation stairwell. This stairwell was devoid of smoke, so there was limited chance of further smoke contamination. It was this officer's responsibility to execute a thorough search of all areas above the fire floor. This was time consuming and required consistent progress reports and a sufficient amount of personnel. It was critical that all areas were checked. Building maintenance personnel were of great value in providing keys to apartments and other information concerning occupants.
    • Emergency medical services — EMS is provided by agencies independent of the fire department in the city. Ideally, EMS/rest and rehab should be available below staging in a more serious situation that could be many floors up. Communication and coordination is critical here as well. There were two injuries to civilians and EMS was set up outside. In a situation where the fire is up many floors, these units must be equipped to provide basic life support quickly. If a firefighter has a heart attack on the 18th floor, you cannot wait until he is down in the lobby to use a defibrillator.
    • Rapid intervention team — The rapid intervention team was called for initially at the first sign of a working fire. This is an insurance policy to our members and is a critical element of National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1500, Standard on Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health Program. This four-member team assembled with its equipment on the floor below the fire.
    • Other positions — The titles identified here did offer or would have lessened the incident commander's burden. It is critical to decentralize the fireground and put the right people in the right positions with the proper amount of resources to get the job done. Other titles that would have been required for a large-scale operation include a logistics section chief, planning section chief, water supply group supervisor (if copious amounts of water were needed high up), ventilation group supervisor (to work with building personnel to use the building infrastructure to advantage), communications group supervisor to handle radio traffic and frequencies, and stairwell support group supervisor to get equipment to the upper floors. These titles were not used in this incident because the size and scope of the fire did not warrant them. The ICS is flexible and can be used to great advantage if you know how it works. Trained personnel are the key to fireground success.

Next: Engine and ladder company operations and more lessons learned or reinforced.

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. Guzzi may be contacted via e-mail at [email protected] or [email protected].

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