High-Fire Firefighting: Are We Losing Touch with "The Basics"?

Aug. 1, 2007
Curtis S.D. Massey highlights the need to return to the basics and review high-rise mistakes that have led to firefighter loss of life or serious injury.

How far has the fire service as a whole advanced when it comes to fighting a high-rise fire versus many years ago, when most departments' standard operating procedures (SOPs) and general building codes were written? Are firefighting techniques and procedures refined and more precise? Do they allow for the most efficient means of deploying resources up into a building, while minimizing the time it takes to remove civilians from harm's way and containing fire to its relative area of origin in the shortest time possible? Have we really learned hard-fought lessons from prior fires, so those mistakes are not repeated? Have we truly evolved into a more progressive, highly effective firefighting force, far superior to the troops who passed before us?

After recent fires nationally and personally attending numerous high-rise training exercises in major cities in the past few years, I have come to the conclusion that we must take a strong look at returning to "the basics." Too many things are being missed during training drills that will adversely impact an actual event. Fires have occurred where vital mistakes were made that created a tragic ending. Let's examine some of the things that are happening in many cities which need to be addressed to prevent loss of life or serious injury from occurring to either building occupants or firefighters.

Hoselines. Many departments carry 1 1/2- or 1 3/4-inch high-rise packs on their apparatus, usually 150 feet in length and then wyed off to the standpipe connection, allowing for deployment of two lines simultaneously - two attack lines, or an initial attack line and a backup line. Sometimes, these lines are connected on the fire floor in the stairwell, then spread out in the shaft before charging and advancing the hose onto the floor. That's all of 300 feet of hose, enough to reach the roof of a 30-story residential building. Sometimes, they are deployed from the floor below. Either way, the hose is connected to a standpipe outlet. The outlet pressure can dictate the fire flow. Many outlets have pressure-regulating devices or valves (PRDs/PRVs) with pre-set pressure settings, commonly found in the 65- to 125-psi range. There are "adjustable" and "non-adjustable" PRDs and "field removable" and "non-field removable" PRDs (under emergency conditions). No PRDs are really removable unless the system is drained first. (A pressure reducer washer-type disk can be removed from a standpipe outlet, but not a full-blown PRD coming straight off a riser that is calibrated for each floor's pressure demand). Some are so difficult to adjust that they may as well be deemed non-adjustable as it relates to emergency operations. I have attended numerous high-rise drills recently where the firefighters brought in their high-rise packs consisting of 1½- or 1¾-inch lines and wyed them off to a standpipe PRD with a range of 65-125 psi within the building. Let's examine what is happening here - breaking down the pressure demand to achieve desired fire flows with 1¾-inch hose will be as follows: It is believed that three 50-foot lengths require about 25 psi (total) to overcome friction loss with flow demand around 150 gpm. This is in theory/practice with the hose laid out perfectly straight. In reality, when a hose is kinked and bent going around turns, stair railings and through doorways, the friction loss actually skyrockets up to about 20 pounds per length. Adjustable nozzles range around 75 psi and fog nozzles require 100 psi at the nozzle with water flowing to meet flow demand. Five psi will be lost stretching from the floor below. At least another 10 psi will be lost with the wye. A single- or dual-line stretch off the wye will require 115 psi with adjustable nozzles and 140 psi with fog nozzles in a "perfect stretch," with no kinks, bends or turns. These interesting results occurred in a recent flow test by a major city fire department: one 50-foot length of 1¾-inch line with a straight tip flowed 180 gpm at 65 psi (the low range of PRD settings). When a second line (same setup) was charged off a gated wye, the flow per line dropped to 150 gpm - for a combined 300 gpm (60 gpm less than if they were flowing individually). When an adjustable fog nozzle was put on the second line, the flow dropped all the way down to 70 gpm for that line! This is with no kinks or bends, etc. - dangerously low for firefighter protection and "knockdown" capability. In a real-fire hose stretch, your flow could easily be as low as 50 gpm - enough to extinguish a broom closet. Breaking down the pressure demand to achieve desired fire flows stretching from one floor below off a gated wye with 1½-inch hose will be as follows: It is accepted that three 50-foot sections require 45 psi to overcome friction loss (again, in a perfect hoselay setting). Adjustable nozzles range around 75 psi and fog nozzles require 100 psi to meet flow demand at 95-125 gpm. A single- or dual-line stretch will require 135 psi with adjustable nozzles and 160 psi with fog nozzles using a "perfect hose stretch," which is not reality. Note: In-line pressure gauges should always be used when connecting hose to any standpipe outlet in order to determine accurate flow pressures. Do not trust building static gauge readings! If we do the math and match up with the PRD set at 125 psi (flow pressure), you're barely there with the 1¾-inch hose with an adjustable nozzle and short about 15 pounds with a fog nozzle. With the 1½-inch hose, you fall short of necessary pressure demand by 10 pounds with an adjustable tip and a staggering 35 pounds with a fog nozzle. The fire flow in some of these attack scenarios may be well below what is necessary to effectively mount an assault on the fire and unquestionably expose the hose crew to great danger. Fire departments should strongly consider ensuring the standpipe systems in high-rises are capable of providing adequate pressures that match their current equipment demands. This is an issue that should be deemed critical in nature. Frankly, stretching 1 1/2-inch hose off standpipes in commercial office buildings with today's open-floor cubicle configurations allowing for rapid fire growth and plastic-based fuel loads generating significant BTU outputs (up to 5,000 gpm for a 25,000-square foot floor area) is setting the firefighters up for a serious mishap in a non-sprinklered building. The 1½-inch line should be viewed as "house fire" hose and left on the rig when confronting a fire in an office building. Even 1¾-inch hose is too small. Departments such as New York and Chicago stretch 2½-inch lines in these buildings. They learned over the years that you must flow a fair amount of water in order to establish an effective fire attack. Some contend that you can get the same flow (around 200-250 gpm) out of an adjustable nozzle on a 1¾-inch hose, but the pressure demand to meet that flow is most likely not going to be extracted from these standpipes with PRDs. To get 250-gpm flow from a 2 1/2-inch line (150-foot length) with a 1 1/8-inch straight tip, you need only 70 pounds leading off from one floor down. Plus, with this type of tip, you're getting very good penetration capability into the seat of the fire with a solid stream, where other nozzles can easily have their straight or fog streams "eaten up" by the fire before it has a chance to get to the core of the burn area. Although 2 1/2-inch lines require extra manpower to advance and are difficult to maneuver once on the floor versus smaller-diameter hose, dictating longer stretch times in getting to the fire area, the necessary flow demands and the safety of the attack crew must be considered when advancing a small hose that simply will not accomplish fire knockdown against a decent-sized fire. Several firefighters have been injured and killed in recent years in the U.S. when they attempted to advance small-diameter attack lines on well-developed high-rise fires and were overwhelmed by the fire. Unfortunately, smaller cities can only send two to three firefighters up on the initial attack, which would make advancing a 2 1/2-inch line difficult. Although disputable, it may be wiser to wait until a second crew arrives and lead off with a line that has a greater potential of doing the job and protecting the crew. Safety first! Also, when using a gated wye off the standpipe, it should be a 2 1/2-inch to 2 1/2-inch dual-outlet type with reducers for smaller lines (if that is to be the department's approach to line size), not 2 1/2-inch to 1½-inch wyes. If a 2 1/2-inch line needs to be stretched as a backup or even the lead line due to heavier-than-expected fire volume, the entire attack has to cease while the connection to the standpipe is changed out with a different appliance (if the same floor and connection is to be used). This way, you may be able to at least hold your ground with one small line while the bigger line is being stretched. Stretching from the fire floor standpipe. I have seen many departments lead off from the standpipe connection in the stairwell on the fire floor on high-rise drills and have this tactic written into SOPs. Some departments believe they should stretch from out on the fire floor, which exposes the crew to great danger if things should "head south." Leading from the stairwell is the only safe option and stretching from the floor below is the best and safest option, which is done in the biggest cities. The backup line should come from two floors below, as executed in cities such as New York. Leading off from the standpipe right next to the fire-floor stairwell door forces the crew to play out all the hoseline into the stair at and above that landing with the line jumping several feet straight out from the standpipe once charged under pressure; then they have to fight their way onto the floor if the fire is close to the stair door. Coming from the floor below in that circumstance can allow the crew to advance the hose up to, but just below, the fire-floor stair door, have a member open the door while staying low, then let the hose team stay below the intense heat and push the fire and heat back from the door opening. If the immediate area of fire is darkened down, the line can be shut down for a quick advancement up and onto the floor for further fire attack. After chocking the door open, the extra member can assist with the hose advancement. How much more awkward would it be if the hose connection were in a vestibule between the floor and the stair tower? The hose would have to be stretched back into the stair, then up a landing or more, then back down and back through the vestibule again to gain access to the fire floor with a charged line. If the vestibule happens to be a smoke tower, attacking from this stair in prior history has proven unwise. You are leading off out of a "chimney," which is attempting to pull smoke into the smoke shaft adjacent to the landing (either open to the outside or an actual dedicated shaft if it is an enclosed smoke tower). This action will draw the fire toward you - especially if windows blow - and make the attack likely unsuccessful if the fire is anywhere near the immediate area. Performing fire attack and search and rescue operations from the same stairwell. I have seen this too often during drills. In a high-rise fire where the building has two core stairs, one stairwell should be designated as the "attack stair" and the other the "search and rescue stair." Teams designated for each duty are mixed together, creating a highly confusing and congested situation, even excluding the mixing of hoselines and tag/rope lines for search safety. You also would not want to be rescuing victims and leading/carrying them back to a stair filled with hose and probably smoke on and around the fire floor. Remember that this stair may contain serious amounts of carbon monoxide (CO) at and above the fire floor. CO is the number-one killer in most fires. Civilians should be located and led down to safety from the stair opposite the one from which the fire is being fought. Ideally, this stair would also be the one farther from the fire area. This being the smoke tower stair (if present) would be even better. Despite the pluses of having stair-pressurization capability in modern commercial buildings, some smoke still migrates into the stairs in most serious fires due to multiple doors being opened and closed throughout the shaftway(s) and the fire floor "attack stair" door being propped fully open for hose advancement. The stair pressurization then equalizes. Performing both assignments (attack and search/rescue/evacuation) from the same stair is not a good idea. Avoiding the use of elevators serving the fire floor. Several departments have designated in their SOPs to not use elevators serving the fire floor, including freights. A few base this on a fire many years ago where a member died in an elevator, or nearly died...sometimes even entire crews. How many of these incidents occurred with the elevator in "fireman's in-car phase 2 override"? Two departments have told me they couldn't recall or did not know. Modern, state-of-the-art elevators tend to be reliable when not being exposed to water, smoke or heat (or, in some cases, fire department radios) affecting their circuitry. If proper precautions are taken, such as ensuring the fire is not in or near the elevator machinery room for the bank you're considering using and the cabs have firefighter override capability, then it is usually worth attempting to use elevators. This lets your department dispatch attack and search teams quickly up to the floor two floors below the fire. Additional tips to consider: Thoroughly familiarize yourself with in-car features (key settings and buttons) Check the shaft with a flashlight for smoke Listen for water running down the shaft Repeat this process in quick fashion every five floors Verify that your crew has full control over the car and the controls are functioning properly This provides you three major advantages: 1. People in danger are quickly rescued or led from harm's way. 2. Water is put on the fire in the shortest time frame possible, preventing it from gaining more headway - remember that a fire doubles in size every minute that it burns unchecked by man or suppression systems. 3. Fire crews are spared great exhaustion. I have attended drills where the teams wore themselves out hiking the stairs while avoiding the elevators and had virtually nothing left when they got to the fire floor, then in turn sucked up most of their air supply in the first few minutes of the mock firefight due to them huffing and puffing intensely when they put their masks on. This even included younger firefighters who were in very good shape physically. The lactic acid buildup in the thighs alone has to be a killer. Barely five to 10 minutes into their fire-floor operations, including searches, I could hear low-air alarms sounding on 30-minute cylinders and crews being directed out of the area by officers when no replacement crews were yet available to relieve them. This would be a huge concern in smaller departments that simply do not have the resources/manpower that big cities have - your relief crews could be quite a while getting to their assigned positions. The end result? People aren't rescued and the fire may gain enough headway to no longer be controllable. There are pluses and minuses to both ways of addressing the use or non-use of elevators, but they can indeed serve as a highly valuable asset to your overall operations and should be considered in your strategic and tactical guidelines. Ideally, if the fire is on the bottom end of a mid-rise floor, taking the low-rise bank as high as it goes, and taking the stairs the rest of the way (three to five floors) would be the safest and most efficient method of fire-floor approach. It doesn't always pan out that way. For anything above a 10-floor hike, elevators can be a huge benefit to your operations by greatly conserving precious manpower while getting resources where they need to be in rapid fashion. Taking engineers or security guards up into the building during initial stages of a fire. Some departments consider it standard procedure to take a guard or engineer with them to investigate an alarm, or even to assist them during confirmed working fires. Although they can be valuable in operating the elevators in phase 2 for fire crews as well as locating and shutting things off, this is a very risky procedure. Taking civilians toward the source of danger with no protective gear and no training is simply a bad idea. If the elevator should stall or malfunction, the civilian quickly goes from an asset to a liability. I have spoken with several engineers and security personnel over the years who were directed by fire crews to go up into the building with them, only to be presented with a situation where they were put in peril. They all swear they will never do that again, regardless of what the firefighters say - a smart move. Most of the time, it tends to be the fire crew asking them to operate the elevators for them due to the firefighters' unfamiliarity with that particular cab's in-car procedure. Avoid taking civilians anyplace where they may be placed in harm's way. If necessary, have them show you how to use the cab while in the lobby and if things need to be turned off or isolated, use the building's pre-plan (if available) or radio back downstairs for potential advice on where and how to do so. Fire department stair pressurization. Many departments use fans to either mechanically augment an existing pressurized stairshaft at the bottom of the building or pressurize them using fans (only) when a pressurization system does not exist. Be aware that many stairshafts do not have pressure relief dampers or exhausts at the top of the shafts and others that do, may not work. This tactic may create enough internal pressure in the stairshafts to prevent occupants from exiting their floors into the shaft without exerting excessive force against the door, unless multiple doors are being opened at a time, thus relieving excessive pressure onto the floors. Have crews upstairs check to ensure there is little difficulty in opening stairwell doors. It would be tragic to find a victim small in stature who died on a floor due to not being able to enter a stairshaft because the fire department created too high an internal pressure with the intention of maintaining a "safe area of refuge" for building occupants! Not capturing elevators upon arrival. This is something easily missed when fire departments that are not experienced or well versed in high-rise procedures arrive on the scene of a working fire and jump right into heading upstairs to begin search/rescue/fire attack. They forget or don't realize how important it is to ensure elevators, especially any bank serving the fire floor, are recalled to the lobby level (or sky-lobby level) and cleared of all occupants/victims. It is easy for people to take the elevator to the fire floor or the cab be called to that floor by a fleeing tenant on that floor or a heat-sensing button being activated by the fire nearby (found in older buildings). Many buildings do not have automatic recall on alarm and even with modern buildings that do, one or two cars will occasionally not recall and will continue to move up and down in that shaft until captured by fire personnel. Make sure those elevators are accounted for and there will be no need for rescues/extrications that will further tax your resources on a serious working fire. One excellent idea given to me by an FDNY chief is to utilize the cab's security cameras (if present), which are monitored at the security console, to quickly verify which cabs are occupied and which are not. If a cab is stalled in a shaft and you can visually verify that the lone cab not accounted for has no one in it, precious crews don't have to be committed to locating and gaining entry into the cab unnecessarily. Things fail sometimes. Sometimes, not all cabs will recall on alarm. Sometimes, only one stair will pressurize on alarm, instead of two. Sometimes, numerous stairwell door unlocking devices will fail to activate, even though you will be told that "all stair doors unlock at alarm." Sometimes, automatic smoke-removal systems fail due to lack of maintenance and testing. In a complex of buildings being planned in the Middle East, a fire chief discovered that the smoke-purge system was defective because the dampers were never installed and surely would have failed to function in a real fire. I was told that 80% of the emergency generators that were called on to function during the blackout in New York years ago failed to do their job due to lack of maintenance - not running them periodically with a full load and having poor fuel that had aged/gelled and gone bad. Don't trust anything to work as it was designed. Anything man-made is subject to failure. Verify things are in fact working, despite what you may be told by building personnel. Also, verify that there are no trapped victims in the stairwells above the fire floor, especially in buildings that you know have no automatic door lock releases. Start with the "attack stair," where you most likely will be presented with the potential for trapped victims above the fire floor coming down a "chimney," fighting their way through significant amounts of CO. Search this stair especially (preferably both or all stairs that penetrate the fire floor) all the way up to the roof continually until the danger passes, not just the three to five floors above the fire. CO is a lighter-than-air gas that quickly rises up any open shaftway. This odorless, colorless, tasteless gas recently killed six people in a stairwell 10 floors above the fire in an office high-rise incident. Not protecting elevator shafts. Too often on fires, it is not considered important to prevent water from entering elevator shafts via either sprinklers or hose lines. Some departments have even "Squeegee-d" water off the floor into these shafts after fires to dewater the floor quickly and efficiently. This is not a good idea. Using watervacs is a better solution. One building I was in recently incurred tens of thousands of dollars in equipment damage because fire personnel shoved water into their elevator shafts during mop-up on a small office fire, with no regard for the considerable excess damage that it was causing. If anything, these shafts should be protected by firefighters as an area of great importance. You may have to use those cars and equipment, so why damage them? Why increase the losses to the building when it is quite unnecessary? If the fire area is deemed safe, the property manager or owner can assign staff or a professional restoration/clean-up company to deal with this issue. It should be recommended to fire departments to carry hazmat-type "sausages" to protect these shafts from water penetration. Besides, remember where that water is going - to the bottom of the building. Where do the most important items that must be protected at all costs (within reason) reside in most high-rise buildings? The basement. Protecting transformer vaults, switchgear rooms, emergency generator rooms, fire pump rooms, bulk storage areas of haz-mat, etc., should be placed at a high level of importance in the incident commander's thought process. Take a very good look at your current high-rise SOPs/SOGs (standard operating guidelines) at least every few years to ensure they are unquestionably covering all the proper bases and continually address new age technology being introduced into these buildings that will impact firefighter (and civilian) safety. High-rise fires are very rare, so the task of dealing with them tends to stay on the back burner and not be a high priority for many departments. Not studying best practices, not tweaking the SOPs/SOGs regularly, not putting on or attending refresher classes on the subject and not at least annually executing mock exercises for each shift in these buildings can come back to haunt you on the day of the "big one." Even drills cannot realistically simulate the difficult charged-hoseline advancement, chaos, confusion, collapsed ceilings and actual heat conditions/fire flow demands of a real fire. It's a dangerous job. Be smart, be prepared. Many thanks to those who assisted with reviewing this article, especially my good friend FDNY Division Chief Roger Sakowich. CURTIS S.D. MASSEY is president of Massey Enterprises Inc., the world's leading disaster-planning firm. Massey Disaster/Pre-Fire Plans protect the vast majority of the tallest and highest-profile buildings in North America. He also teaches an advanced course on High-Rise Fire Department Emergency Operations to major city fire departments throughout the U.S. and Canada. Massey also regularly writes articles regarding "new-age" technology that impacts firefighter safety.

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