Working the interior of a fire building during a wind-driven high-rise fire
By Fred LaFemina
On the fireground, our No. 1 priority is life safety—including the lives of firefighters, which is why clear, concise and acknowledged communication is so important for safe and effective operations. At wind-driven high-rise fires, information gathered and relayed directly affects operations, both offensive and defensive.
Relaying pertinent information to incoming units or mutual-aid companies is just as important as relaying information between first-arriving units. Missions not accomplished are sometimes even more crucial for incoming units to know about because tactics have to be adjusted if a particular mission has failed, and any change in tactics must be communicated to everyone on the fireground.
On the Inside
No matter whether you’re first- or second-arriving, if you’re assigned to the fire building’s interior, your team should receive information from units performing the exterior survey. Some of the information received from the exterior team will dictate interior tactics. If you’re on the inside, the exterior survey information coupled with your interior size-up will help you estimate the types of conditions you may encounter. Important: Don’t underestimate punishing interior conditions; those fortunate (or might I say unfortunate) enough to have encountered them at these types of fires know what I’m talking about.
Relaying Interior Information
The best way to determine what the wind will do in the fire apartment if a window fails is to assign a member to the interior of the apartment directly above the fire apartment. Once there, this person should open a window directly above the fire apartment and keep the door open in this apartment as well. If wind immediately blows into this apartment, transmit this information to the incident commander and the members working on the fire floor. Wind blowing through the apartment above indicates that wind will also blow into the fire apartment if a window is vented or fails and self-vents.
The member transmitting this information must receive acknowledgement from command that they’ve heard and understand the information given. This is vital to the safety of the firefighters on the fire floor. Acknowledgement becomes even more important when members are conducting searches for trapped individuals without the protection of a charged hoseline.
The member on the floor above can also provide other information to the fire floor team. In fire-proof multiple-dwelling buildings, the apartment layouts are generally the same when aligned vertically. (There are exceptions, such as when renovations or alterations are made to the building.) The member operating in the apartment above the fire apartment can actually guide the interior team to the seat of the fire by giving them directions. This is especially important in hot and smoky conditions (the way we like it).
The Hallway Factor
Hallways in the fire building become an important factor during an interior size-up. Long and irregularly shaped hallways are not uncommon; dead-end hallways could also be present. No matter the size or shape of the hallway, chances are you’re going to have to use it; therefore, you must determine the distance from the stairway designated as the “attack stairway” to the fire apartment.
Also, remember the person calling in the fire may not be the occupant of the fire apartment, so try to verify the fire apartment before commencing attack. Otherwise, you might arrive at the entrance to the wrong apartment after getting your ass whipped by the heat and smoke. Take a little time when trying to verify the fire apartment, and prepare for a worst-case scenario. Doing this will make for a much safer operation and will keep you ready. And once you’ve located the fire apartment, if the hallway has smoke stop doors, note their location and close them on the fire floor.
Dead-end hallways should be another concern for firefighters operating in the interior. Heat travels along the ceiling to the dead-end hall and then travels downward from the ceiling looking for a new path. I’ve been at fires in these buildings and thought we were getting close to the fire apartment, but actually we were going in the opposite direction. The heat at the opposite end of the hallway was actually greater than the heat closer to the fire. So we were following our instincts as firefighters, using the heat as a guide to the fire.
The other problem with dead-end hallways: There’s no egress at one end, so you may be cut off by fire and become trapped with no way out. This is a good time to have a set of irons and good technique for forcing doors.
The Attack Stairwel
All operations should be conducted from one stairwell: the attack stairwell. This stairway should also be designated as such and announced to units on the scene as well as incoming units. If there’s more than one stairway, you should also designate an evacuation stairway, separate from the attack stairway, to remove civilians or members in distress. Controlling stairways may also control the drafts and reduce the wind flow through the building.
These are the procedures that should be followed and used as a guideline when operating at wind-driven high-rise fires. Remember:
If you’re a small department that doesn’t have the manpower to operate or the proper equipment, wait until the proper resources are on the scene. The incident commander must take control and direct the orders that will ensure a safe and efficient operation. There will always be a curveball thrown at you, such as a life hazard or a mayday. Weigh the risk-vs.-benefit factor and communicate accordingly.
Chief Fred LaFemina is a 24-year veteran of the New York City Fire Department (FDNY), presently chief of Rescue Operations. He has been with Special Operations for more than 20 years and is the task force leader for New York’s Task Force 1 Urban Search and Rescue team. He is also the operations chief on the USAR IST White Team. LaFemina has written many articles on fire operations and technical rescue and lectures throughout the country.