By William Shouldis
The memories of the World Trade Center attacks and the One Meridian Plaza fire were on the minds of Philadelphia (PA) Fire Department responders on the morning of January 12, 2003. At 0703 hours, a dispatch was broadcasted for Engine Co. 19. At the time, the call seemed routine. The single resource was sent to begin the investigation of an automatic alarm from a residential high-rise building. The 911 phone call was from the night clerk, who called after hearing the alarm bells ringing and smelling smoke.
When the first company approached the front of the 50- x 200-foot structure, nothing was showing. On entering the first floor lobby, they saw that the annunciator panel pinpointed problems on the upper floors. The clerk informed them that a fire was being reported in Apartment 507. The 14-story building had 140 units, and only the common hallways were sprinklered. Immediately, a verbal status report was given to the Dispatch Center outlining the situation. The first-in officer, Lieutenant Ron Frei, established command and a requested a full first-alarm assignment. A base was established about 200 feet from the building.
Engine Co. 19 knew that their initial task was to gather information and proceed upward by way of a stair shaft. Determining the exact location and severity of the fire is always a priority. The crew entered the lobby and recalled all elevators to the ground floor. The first-in pumper supplied the dry standpipe siamese. The company commander followed the high-rise firefighting procedure.
Engine 19’s team ascended the West Tower to the fourth floor and connected to the standpipe outlet. Carrying a high-rise package consisting of a nozzle, gated wye, and three lengths of 1 3/4-inch hose, they were met by residents self-evacuating. Dialogue was exchanged. Coordination would be needed because the fleeing occupants stated that smoke was starting to penetrate the upper floors. Occupants had to be warned to stay out of the West stairs because the firefighting crew was prepared to connected their hoseline together and stretch up the stairs to the fifth floor.
When they reached the fire floor, the hoseline was pressurized. They encountered heavy smoke in the common hallway, and it was evident that the Fire Attack Sector could not advance down the hallway until evacuation was restricted. As more fire companies arrived, they were deployed to work in the Evacuation Sector and detour residents to the East Tower, which was clearly designated as the evacuation stairs. In the West Tower, a ladder company was designated the Ventilation Sector and sent to the roof to open the bulkhead door so that the stair shaft could be used for suppression and ventilation.
Once companies were in position, the fifth-floor fire door in the West Tower was opened. As expected, the smoke poured into the attack/ventilation tower. The exit door had to be wedged open so the charged hoselines could safely move forward. It was obvious that the fire attack team needed to quickly move the distance from the stairs to the entrance of the burning apartment.
Once at Apartment 507, members initiated a direct assault. It was time for forcible entry and fire containment. Controlling the occupants and limiting the spread of smoke were assignments that had to be delegated to other units.
As the responding on-duty deputy commander, I acknowledged receipt of alarm. As I listened to the radio reports, I had the “gut feeling” that more personnel would be needed. I knew that on confirmation of a working high-rise fire, additional units are
automatically alerted to handle the lobby control function and the rapid intervention assignment, enhance air-refilling capabilities, and create on-site medical stations. I still clarified the need for an expanded Major Incident Response Assignment (MIRA). This provided more staffing. Another engine, ladder, and battalion chief were dispatched. At this incident, the total response force would be more than 60 members. In a short period of time, a clear organizational chart had to be formulated.
On my arrival, the first-in battalion chief, William DeVaughan, informed me that the fire appeared confined to the single apartment and that one occupant was found unconscious during the primary search. I could see from my 360-degree walk-around that no other occupants were visible on the exterior open balconies. I imagined that the interior hallways were relatively clear of danger and, after getting confirmation that medium smoke was confined to the 6th and 7th floors, I ordered a protect-in-place tactic to reduce the downward movement of occupants. An engine company was placed in the East Tower at the fire floor to ensure that the door was not opened. The rapid intervention team was moved closer to the high hazard area.
Much of the critical information was now being transmitted over the portable radio between the Operations Section near the fire floor and stationary Command Post in front of the building.
Unfortunately, the rescued occupant, a 91-year-old female, was in cardiac arrest. She was moved out of the IDLH (Immediate Danger Life and Health) atmosphere. Firefighters started CPR in the fourth-floor hallway. Knowing life safety issues dictate the concept of risk assessment, a difficult decision was made to bring the elevator car within one floor of the fire. Lobby Control was ordered to dispatch an elevator car to the fourth floor. One firefighter, using the “Firefighter Service Mode” on the elevator car, having access to a portable radio, wearing full protective gear, and finding the elevator shaft free of smoke, delivered the elevator car to the fourth floor. The elevator car would transport the victim to the Triage area in the lobby.
As paramedics took over the performance of CPR and “packaged” the women, I was informed that no vital signs were obtained from the “soot-covered” victim. Despite the valiant efforts, another fire fatality would be added to the New Year statistics.
Fire departments respond to a wide range of emergencies in high-rise building. Having a procedure in place for effective command control, communication, and coordination of all resources is vital to a safe operation. Understanding the roles and responsibilities of responders is the key to success. Follow the basics by determining the fire floor, controlling the flow of occupants, monitoring the “built-in” fire protection features, and confining the fire to the smallest area.
High-rise fires are complex because of the elements of distance and time. These factors will greatly influence the scope of the situation and management of resources.
William Shouldis is a deputy chief with the Philadelphia (PA) Fire Department, where he has served for more than 29 years. He is an adjunct instructor for the National Fire Academy’s resident and field programs, teaching courses in fireground operations, health and safety, and prevention. Shouldis has a bachelor’s degree in fire science administration and a master’s degree in public safety. He is a member of the Fire Engineering editorial advisory board and a frequent FDIC speaker.