By Michael M. Dugan
Firefighters battle a multiple alarm blaze in a multi-story elderly assisted living facility in Southwest Houston. Photo Ryan McDonald
All high-rise fires are not created equal: High-rise residential structures, office buildings and mixed occupancy buildings all present different challenges for truck companies. In a mixed-occupancy building, for example, the truck company must locate the fire floor (residential or commercial) and determine the corresponding life hazards. But a fire in a residential high-rise is different than one in an office high-rise, because the open floor plans in a high-rise office space create large, non-compartmented areas that allow for easy fire spread.
As such, the first action any truck company must take when responding to a high-rise fire is to determine the occupancy type. That, in turn, will determine the duties the crew will need to perform.
Find the Fire
The first-due truck company responding to a high-rise faces an immediate challenge: locating the fire. This job is difficult at best and requires coordination of the unit’s resources. Why is this a truck company responsibility? Even more so than in residential fires, finding the fire is a truck company responsibility due to the labor-intensive procedure of positioning personnel and attack lines in high-rise buildings. If we stretch the line and then find out it’s in the wrong spot, repositioning the line will be difficult to impossible.
Locating the fire depends on the type of high-rise building. In most residential high-rises, 9-1-1 callers will report the fire from the fire floor and floors above due to the smoke conditions. In office high-rises, the fire might be reported on several different floors due to the HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) system moving the products of combustion through the duct work. Smoke can travel through the HVAC system and be reported on many floors if fire dampers and smoke stops are not required or working properly.
The presence of access stairs might also lead to reports of smoke on different floors in office high-rises. Access stairs are used if a building tenant occupies more than one floor; they allow employees to travel between floors without leaving the office space and going outside to wait for an elevator. Depending on the local building codes and when the structure was erected, the office space can have up to three floors of access stairs.
Once the fire is located, the truck company must verify the fire floor for the engine companies. Remember: You must ensure that the fire is not below you before committing a hoseline, especially in an office high-rise. This verification and communication will allow the engine company to begin transporting firefighters and hose to the proper location.
Tip: The floor above the fire at any high-rise fire should be considered part of the fire area because of the possibility of fire extension and fire involvement of the floor above by access stairs or other openings in the structure.
Determine the Path of Fire Attack
Next, the truck company must locate stairways and determine which would allow the best location for fire attack. The chosen stairway will be named the “attack stairs.” Note: The truck company determines the attack stairs because they will have located the fire and will therefore know how to best access it.
One of the other stairways should be designated as the primary evacuation stairway. It should be located as far from the fire as possible so as to afford the safest movement of building occupants who may be trapped above the fire. The evacuation stairs should also be used by any members assigned to duties above the fire floor. Communicate the attack and evacuation stair designations to the incident commander (IC) and all firefighters.
The engine company will then leave the staging area to move to the attack stairs. Tip: This stairway will become contaminated with heat and smoke when the hoseline is stretched through it; therefore, you must search for building occupants or workers in this stairway at least five floors above the fire floor before the fire attack commences. The member searching the stairs should be in contact with the truck company officer, who will control the door to the fire floor to protect their position.
Search the Fire Floor
Searching fire floors in high-rise buildings is highly dependent on the type of building. Searching a high-rise residential building will involve a search of the fire apartment, which may contain a lot of rooms and require an extensive search. The high-rise office building search will often require a large-area search using a search rope and a thermal imaging camera (TIC).
Searching the fire floor must be done as quickly as possible but with firefighter safety as the first priority. The search might be done toward a second means of egress, such as another set of stairs or a fire tower. Searching crews should take into account the location of fire and where the engine company operating a handline will push the products of combustion. Note: Firefighters should not be placed beyond the operating engine company unless there is a known life hazard, and then communication will be necessary to ensure their safety.
Vent the Fire Area
The last thing that the first-in truck company is responsible for is the ventilation of the fire area. High-rise buildings are normally difficult to vent because it’s not as simple as removing a few windows. Although removing windows is one option for venting, you must take into account the high winds on upper levels of the building. In addition, removal of glass should be done only if the glass can be brought inside and the street below is cleared as a precaution.
Other options for high-rise ventilation include the use of the HVAC system to pressurize the fire area with fresh air. This will require the assistance of building personnel familiar with the building’s systems.
Another way to remove the smoke is by introducing positive pressure ventilation (PPV) fans into the attack stairway. Use the PPV fans to build pressure in the stairway. Then, open the door in that stairway on the fire floor and at roof level. This will allow the smoke to move in the path created by the fans.
Regardless of the method, any ventilation taking place in a high-rise building must be coordinated and controlled, and all members must be aware that it’s taking place. The IC should be the one making all decisions about ventilation and operating personnel should report any adverse or positive effects of the ventilation to the IC.
The initial alarm at any high-rise fire should include at least two truck companies, and any indication of a working fire should trigger a request for an additional truck company. The second-due truck company will be assigned to the floor above the fire, and their duties are very similar to the first-due crew. They will work with the engine companies assigned to the floor above the fire floor.
The third-due truck company is usually assigned to the roof and the top five floors of the building. From this vantage point, they can advise the IC of ventilation points, including stairway bulkheads, elevator shafts and any other shaft that terminates at roof level. Remember: Ventilation must not be undertaken until the IC grants permission after communicating with members on the fire floor. Once any ventilation is undertaken, members must report any effects on smoke movement.
The third-due truck company should also look for the number of stairway bulkheads at roof level. This will help determine if any stairway that serves the fire floor terminates at a floor other than the roof; if it does, it requires a search as quickly as resources are available. The third-due crew should also search the top five floors of the building and all stairways servicing those floors.
Depending on the number of floors between the fire floor and the roof, additional truck companies might be required. Someone must coordinate the search of the floors above the initial fire area; this is a logical assignment for an additional chief officer. If a chief is not available, another officer must direct the search and evacuation of these floors. This is necessary to avoid duplicated searches when limited staffing is available.
Wind is another consideration at high-rise fires; it has been a factor in several firefighter injuries and line-of-duty deaths at high-rise incidents. All members operating inside the structure must be alerted to possible wind conditions before they’re committed. Tip: The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has completed a thorough study into wind-driven high-rise fires (www.fire.gov/WDF/index.htm
). Incorporate it into your high-rise training.
Finally, you must also account for the elevators. Elevators have an enormous impact on the outcome at fires in a high-rise building. If the elevators work and firefighters can use them to get to two floors below the fire, it will make it easier for them to fight the fire. If they walk up 15 or 20 stories to get to the fire, they’ll be tired before they even begin the fire attack. Elevators are also an enormous help in transporting supplies such as spare air cylinders, hose and tools. If these all have to be carried to the staging area, it requires a significant amount of time and energy.
Any time an elevator is being used for transportation of firefighters and supplies to the staging area, it should be operated by a firefighter. These elevators should be in the “fire service” mode so that the member operating the elevator has complete control of the elevator. In addition to the “fire service” mode, the firefighter in the elevator should carry a set of forcible entry tools or irons so if the elevator car starts to malfunction, the door can be forced open, stopping the elevator car.
Once all operating units are transported to the fire area or staging area, a firefighter should maintain the elevator in the standby mode ready to be operated if the need arises. Elevators should be staged at the lobby command post and at the staging area below the fire. This way, at least one elevator is available at the fire area and one at the lobby command post.
Truck companies should carry their normal complement of tools for high-rise firefighting and include, if possible, a search line and a TIC. The carbon monoxide meter is another tool that will help determine conditions, especially if the sprinklers are operating. FDNY members responding to a high-rise building after the initial alarm are also required to bring a spare SCBA cylinder, which can be left at a central location.
A Final Word
High-rise firefighting is extremely taxing on a truck company. They must accomplish numerous duties simultaneously and without delay, while always keeping the safety of the operating fire forces in mind. High-rise building fires are inherently dangerous, but good truck company work can make the operation safer for all personnel.
Michael M. Dugan is a 33-year veteran of the fire service and a 23-year veteran of the New York City Fire Department (FDNY), currently serving as captain of Ladder Company 123 in Brooklyn. As a firefighter in Ladder Company 43, Dugan received the James Gordon Bennett medal in 1992 and the Harry M. Archer Medal in 1993, the FDNY’s highest award for bravery. He was an instructor at the inception of the FDNY’s Annual Education Day and has developed programs currently taught to all FDNY members during the annual event. Dugan is a member of the IAFC Safety, Health & Survival Section. He serves as a HOT instructor at Firehouse Expo and FDIC, and is a regular contributor to fire service magazines. He also lectures at various events around the country on topics dealing with truck company operations, building construction, scene size-up and today’s fire service. Contact Captain Dugan at email@example.com or visit his Web site, www.NYfiretraining.com.
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