by Jimmy Taylor

Prefire planning is more than just gathering contact information. It is time for you to gather information on the building and its contents so that you will be familiar with hazards before there is a fire. There are additional items that need your attention when preplanning a high-rise structure. The first thing is a knowledgeable building engineer who can give you technical information. Your preplanning should include the following:

1. Lockbox location. This is the primary access point for the structure and is usually as close to the Fire Control Room as possible. I recommend three sets of building master keys in the lockbox. You will probably need more master keys later in the incident, but this should be enough to accommodate initial crews. The building engineer should have access to additional keys when needed. Check that there are a sufficient number of keys in the box, and ensure that these keys will unlock the building. In my department’s jurisdiction, if the building has 24-hour security, a lockbox will not be needed. If the building has 24-four-hour security, the fire code doesn’t require that the alarm system be monitored , and it is up to the security personnel to call 911. This could delay reporting the fire until a security guard investigates. Be familiar with the code requirements in your jurisdiction.

2. Fire Control Room location and contents. The fire code requires that numerous items in a Fire Control Room be checked, including;

  • The fire alarm system.
  • The emergency phone system. Have a member actually plug a handset in and test the system to ensure it operates.
  • Emergency system’s status indicators.
  • Elevator control panel. In addition to the keys available to the lobby’s lockbox, the elevator control panel should have keys and should allow phase I operation from that location.
  • HVAC shut down (unless it shuts down on alarm).
  • Stairwell door unlock switches (unless they unlock on alarm).
  • A telephone with an outside line.
  • There is usually a box of spare sprinkler heads with a wrench needed to change them. Ensure that the wrench will fit the sprinkler head.

Familiarize yourself with the manual control of the smoke control system and the voice communication system, which allows firefighters in the control room to direct evacuating occupants to specific stairwells or to implement or facilitate the protect-in-place strategy by advising occupants to stay in their apartments.

3. Fire pump room location. The fire pump room must be located and checked for the test header location. Note if there is a control valve for the test header in case you need to use it as a wall hydrant for additional water supply. You should know where the fire pump control switch is located in case you have to shut it down because of overheating.

4. Elevators and elevator control room. Where are the elevator keys located? Is there a key for every elevator? Where do the elevators recall to when phase I operation is activated? Where do the elevators recall to when a lobby smoke detector is activated on the recall floor (secondary location)? Recall the elevators to ensure that the keys work and then place the elevator in phase II operation and move the car to ensure the elevator responds appropriately. Check the freight elevator. Ensure that the hoistway door key will unlock the hoistway door. Check the elevator control room to ensure that the control switches are marked for each elevator in case you need to shut one down. The elevator control room is usually the site of some alarms when the electrical motors that move the elevator cars burn up. Find out the elevator company name and telephone number now so a representative can be requested when needed.

5. Stairwells. Identify the stairwell that penetrates the roof along with the key to open it. Most jurisdictions now require that some of the stairwell doors remain unlocked since Chicago’s Cook County Administration Fire claimed six lives on October 17, 2003. In Cobb County, every fifth floor will remain unlocked; most jurisdictions require some stairwell doors to be unlocked so that fleeing occupants who encounter smoke in the stairwell can exit and take refuge on an upper floor. Locate the stairwell pressurization fans and control switches. . Shut down the pressurization fan on the stairwell you use for ventilation. . Check the standpipe for pressure-reducing or restricting valves, and note ways to overcome these devices. Check the sprinkler control valves to see how they are secured. These valves are often locked with a chain that must be cut if you need access. The roof standpipe valve is usually in the stairway that penetrates the roof and is sometimes secured. Assess the building for the presence of access stairs; these unprotected stairways will rapidly spread smoke and fire vertically.

6. Standpipe/sprinkler system. Determine if the high-rise building standpipe system is equipped with pressure-reducing devices that can be removed or otherwise circumvented or pressure-regulating valves that are field adjustable. Note the locations of all the fire department connections (FDCs). Each FDC will be marked to indicate what it supplies. Most new systems are combination systems, meaning that the FDC will supply the sprinkler and the standpipe. Keep in mind that a building equipped with pressure-regulating standpipe outlet valves will probably also have pressure-regulating section control valves for the sprinkler system. In most cases, the standpipe will be “wet,” meaning it has water in it. Parking decks are usually “dry” systems that do not have water until you supply the appropriate FDC. Some older buildings may have two FDCs, indicating that the building had been enlarged or there is a separate FDC for the standpipe and one for the sprinkler. Make sure that the connections are accurately marked to indicate what floors they serve (floors are zoned) and with the water pressures needed to reach the floors at the upper levels.

7. Windows. Does the building have operable windows or fixed windows? Operable windows are advantageous in that they can be used for ventilation. Operable windows allow us to ventilate horizontally so that the stairwells can be used for occupant egress. Most fixed windows in a high-rise building are difficult to break or remove. Determine the type of glass, i.e., thermopane or laminated impact-resistant glass, both of which can be difficult to break to effect horizontal ventilation. Some even necessitate a special type of saw blade to cut them, making quick ventilation almost impossible. Determine if windows that are normally closed can be opened by the use of a special key or an Allen wrench. Fixed windows sometimes extend from the floor to the ceiling and become a hazard for firefighting crews once they are removed. Vertical extension can occur in the space between a full glass-panel wall and the floor slab above, although most building codes have addressed this issue by requiring fire-resistant foam in this space.

8. Access. Determine building access during prefire planning. Most buildings have parking decks in close proximity and limited access to the building. Some buildings have massive atriums that extend far out from the building; some even have courtyards that are inaccessible by vehicle. Preplanning is the time to determine ladder truck placement so that you get the greatest scrub area.

9. Compartmentalization. Determine the degree of compartmentalization in the building. For example, the floors of a modern office building consist of cubicle workstations and partitions that do not reach the underside of the floor slab above, hence the space between the ceiling and the underside of the upper floor slab is wide open and is commonly used for electric wiring, telecommunication cables, and a return-air plenum These spaces can allow rapid horizontal fire extension.

A building used by many companies will often be compartmentalized with limited access into each unit. This type of building will be advantageous in stopping or limiting the horizontal movement of fire throughout the floor.

10. Communications. Test communications during prefire planning. My department uses 800 MHz and has difficulty with communications in our buildings. We haven’t seen any improvement in communications after switching to digital mode, either. We do have a low band that seems to work well, but some dead spots persist. Find out during prefire planning if communications will be difficult so you can select an alternate mode of communication prior to an incident. Crews sent up for any assignment should have the phone number to the fire control room. Just about everyone has a cell phone these days; this phone could be used for an alternate mode of communication. One scenario we use is to leave the incident commander (IC) in the command vehicle so he can operate off a mobile instead of a portable. When the IC is outside, an officer is assigned to the fire control room so that crews have a contact point inside the building and the IC has a set of eyes on the alarm panel and emergency systems’ status indicators. The crews ascending need to take a fire phone with them so they have direct communications to the fire control room.

If all of the buildings’ emergency systems fail, how will you attack the fire safely? What additional resources would be needed? The issues above represent a few of the things you need to check during a high-rise preplan to ensure that operations are successful during a fire. There may be other things not mentioned, or you may encounter special circumstances that necessitate additional prefire planning.

Jimmy Taylor, a 24-year fire service veteran, is a battalion chief and paramedic with Cobb County (GA) Fire & Emergency Services. Taylor has a fire science diploma from West Georgia Technical College. He is a Georgia-certified instructor and has taught classes on incident command for high-rise operations at the Georgia Fire Academy.

Subject: High-rise fire preplans