Building Systems and Lobby Control in Residential High-Rises

BY MICHAEL POSNER AND BOB CARPENTER

 

“Engine 10 arrival on a 25-story residential high-rise. Heavy smoke and flames on the 22nd floor. We have people trapped on balconies on the 23rd and 24th floors. This unit will be Command.”

 

We have all heard the saying, “As goes the first line, so goes the fire.” There is another aspect that will help ensure a positive and safer outcome of this type of incident—having a thorough working knowledge of building systems, understanding lobby control, and knowing how to establish it. Let’s begin with a discussion of the various building systems.

 

FIRE ALARM SYSTEM PANEL (FAS)

 

The initial report given above contains a lot of obvious information relative to what is showing on arrival. What about the times when you arrive on the scene of a reported fire and there is no visible evidence? In today’s modern high-rises, energy conservation measures often button the building up so tightly that you can have a well-advanced fire that is consuming one or more rooms and their contents with absolutely nothing showing from the street. In this case, the fire alarm system (FAS) panel is paramount in importance.

Here is a case in point: On a recent alarm in Miami-Dade, companies arrived at a modern residential high-rise based on a 911 caller’s report of smoke on the 10th floor. An engine and a ladder were sent to investigate, and the incident commander (IC) sent another crew to the FAS panel to determine if additional information was available.

It was also determined immediately that the elevators were inoperative. The first-arriving ladder company relayed this finding to the IC and suggested that the elevators be checked and the situation be corrected, if possible. The ladder company began its ascent. The officer of the third company, on arriving at the FAS panel, was able to redirect the crew, through Command, to the ninth-floor electric meter room, which was showing smoke detector activation on the panel. This coincided with information obtained from a building occupant who passed the ascending ladder company in the stairwell. Although this turned out to be a minor alarm, more advanced conditions could have been developing on the ninth floor as the crew was advancing unprotected and unaware of the floor above the fire.

Building maintenance personnel, if available, can direct you to the FAS panel location. They should also be able to assist you in finding the remainder of the building systems, the stairs, and the elevators. They may have keys for the locked locations. Keep in mind, however, that the building agent is not likely to understand the fire department’s priorities; therefore, be careful when making tactical decisions based on civilian information. The officer or firefighter at the FAS panel can relay information to Command, such as the location of the alarm, the type of alarm ringing, and the smoke sensors or water flow indicators activated. The person at the FAS panel should silence the alarm after the fire condition has been determined. This will make it much easier to communicate in the building, and subsequent additional alarms will override the silence command.

Information obtained from the FAS panel may indicate that a pull station has been activated. The panel may tell you of smoke sensors that have been activated and might even give you the exact apartment involved. With nothing showing from the ground, this at least gives you somewhere to start your investigation, even if it is a false prank call or an accidental activation because of device or system failure.

A water flow alarm may be indicated. Depending on the age of the system and the method it used to indicate water flow (electric bell vs. old-school water motor gong), this will be important to let you know that there may have been a fire or that sprinklers are holding a fire in check. The panel may also tell you if the fire pump is running. Send a firefighter with a radio to locate the fire pump and confirm if it is working properly. We will discuss fire pumps more thoroughly later in the article.

Radio failure is a major problem in high-rise buildings because construction materials cause interference with even the most advanced radio systems. Some FAS panels have an emergency phone system (photo 1) for in-house communications; it may be the only means of communication in the building. The emergency phone system handsets are in the FAS panel room; the electrical room; the fire pump room; or, in newer high-rise buildings, the “command center.” Check your local fire codes; there should be at least six handsets. The jacks into which they should be plugged (photo 2) are on all floors, near or in stairwells and in the elevators.

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(1) A typical fire alarm system panel (FAS). (Photos by Elvin Gonzalez.)
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(2) A FAS handset jack.

The FAS panel may also include a voice communication system that will enable you to make announcements throughout the building. For example, you may use this system to direct occupants to remain in their apartments (defend in place) or proceed to a specific stairwell for evacuation, or you could update them on the status of the emergency. You can make announcements to specific floors and, in some cases, specific apartments. Continuously monitor the FAS panel during the incident for possible changes or new device activations. Obviously, if used properly, you can receive and pass on much information from the FAS panel. This is not the job for the probie. Assign a command officer who is experienced in high-rise buildings to this panel.

 

FIRE DEPARTMENT CONNECTIONS

 

While developing your prefire plan, note the location of the fire department connection (FDC). If you do not, chances are that it will be well hidden from your view in the beautiful hedges around the building. Determine if the standpipe and sprinkler share the FDC or if they are separate. Split systems should be clearly and permanently labeled (photos 3, 4). FDCs can be mounted on the wall or on a post. Some authorities having jurisdiction have adopted codes requiring the FDC to be mounted on a post. In Miami-Dade County, the newest code requires that the FDC be a minimum of 50 feet from the building unless the builder can demonstrate that the footprint of the building would make this impossible. In that case, the builder must seek a variance. This is, in part, for safety reasons, to keep firefighters away from the falling debris while making connections. Check your local code for requirements in your community.

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(3, 4) FDC connections for separate standpipe and sprinkler systems.
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FDCs are magnets for garbage and debris left by passersby, so be sure to check for obstructions prior to connecting. Also, check the clapper valve and the female swivel to ensure they are functioning properly. Often, you will find that the FDC is open and the clappers are exposed. Metallic plugs were once the norm, but these heavy bronze plugs have some value as scrap metal. Therefore, covers or plastic covers held in place with wing nuts are not commonly found. If you should find that metallic plugs are in place, remove both plugs prior to charging the first line. Failing to do this can make it impossible to remove the second plug, or it will come off explosively under pressure if the clapper does not function properly. If you find the swivels frozen or damaged during preplanning, alert the building agent and ask that it be repaired. If you discover this during an incident, you can resolve the problem easily with a double male/double female adapter.

Use two supply lines when connecting to the FDC, but do not wait for both lines to be connected to charge the FDC. Get the first line charged to support the interior crews, and then connect the second line. Connecting both lines ensures a continuous water supply in case something happens to one of the lines. Conventional wisdom suggests starting an engine discharge pressure of 150 to 200 pounds per square inch (psi), depending on building height and friction loss for the three-inch hose connections. Consult your local standard operating procedures or guidelines. We will discuss optimum pressures later.

 

FIRE PUMPS

 

As discussed earlier, it is very important to confirm that the fire pump is running. In addition, you must ensure that it is pumping water and that the intake and the supply valves have not been closed through an act of sabotage or an oversight.

Let us review fire pump basics. The fire pump supplies pressure to the standpipe and sprinkler system throughout the building. The fire pump controller and a separate jockey pump controller monitor the pressure in the system (photo 5). If the fire pump controller detects a drop in pressure, such as when one or more sprinklers are activated because of a fire or a standpipe discharge is opened, the pump should start automatically and maintain the preset pressure. The jockey pump controller monitors the jockey pump for nominal pressure fluctuations caused by minor leaks, inadvertent use of water from within the system, and so on, and to prevent unneeded, intermittent operation of the main fire pump.

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(5) (Left) Jockey pump controller; (right) fire pump controller.

Engineers determine the pressures needed to get water to all areas of the building. Because of pressure loss caused by elevation, very high discharge pressures may be needed to ensure adequate pressure on upper floors. For example, if a system needs 275 psi to reach the top floor and maintain adequate discharge pressure, this would result in potentially dangerously high pressures on the lower floors. The pump does not know where the fire is. In this example, it is set to maintain a 275-psi pump discharge to overcome the elevation and achieve 100 psi at the highest discharge in the system.

To prevent excess discharge pressures on lower floors, pressure-regulating devices (PRDs) or pressure-reducing valves (PRVs) are installed in the standpipe. PRDs or PRVs are necessary when static pressures greater than 175 psi are in the system. Also, if flow pressures exceed 100 psi, you must install an approved device. The PRD controls the amount of pressure available at the standpipe hose outlet. Some of these devices are factory set; others are field adjustable. A critical issue at the One Meridian Plaza fire in Philadelphia on February 23, 1991, was that the PRDs were set improperly and did not allow enough pressure for the attack lines. The PRDs were field adjustable, but by the time a technician who knew how to operate them arrived, it was hours into the incident. Discussion of the various types of PRDs is beyond the scope of this article.

We mentioned earlier that a radio-equipped firefighter must locate the fire pump and ensure that it is operating. If the fire pump is found to be inoperative, you must correct this condition. Consult the pump specification plate to determine the highest operating pressure on the pump. Relay this information to the driver of the engine so that he may adjust his discharge pressures to get adequate flows to standpipe discharges. Underpumping will result in inadequate and possibly dangerously low flow on lower floors. Furthermore, using an inline pressure gauge at the standpipe discharge will confirm proper pressures, which must be set while flowing water, and remove the guesswork as well as provide direct control at the point of attack. You will discover and address many of these issues during prefire planning, the importance of which cannot be overemphasized.

 

STANDPIPES

 

Standpipes are required in all new buildings in South Florida greater than 30 feet in height. Previous codes stated that buildings 50 feet or taller would require them. All buildings have until 2012 to meet the new requirements. You should be familiar with your jurisdiction’s codes regarding standpipes, as they may vary. Again, the best way to determine if a building has a standpipe is through prefire planning. Also, remember that builders will do anything to save a dime, even if it means buildings that are one inch shy of the code requirement. South Florida has many 49-foot, 11-inch buildings. Remember to check for debris and water, and flush the discharge outlet before hooking up and charging your line.

Recall that there are three basic classifications of standpipes:

  • Class I is for fire department use only. Discharges are 2½ inches and are intended for heavy stream operations.
  • Class II is for first-aid appliances used by occupants. Typically, the discharges are in a hose cabinet in common areas, and they will have an attached occupant use hose and nozzle assembly. Warning: Firefighters should never rely on these attached hoses for fire attack.
  • Class III is a combined system that provides for 1½- and 2½-inch discharges suitable for engaging in fire attack on fires beyond the incipient stage.

 

Chapter 9 in the Fire Department of New York’s “Engine Company Operations” sums up the types of standpipes most succinctly. They can be categorized in one of two ways, according to whether or not the system riser contains water. Standpipe systems can be broadly classified as wet, dry, or combination. Wet systems, which contain water in the riser at all times, are supplied by city mains, gravity tank, pressure tank, and/or a fire pump.

Dry systems may be equipped with an automatic source of water supply, but many dry pipes may contain no water and need supply from an engine company. This latter type is called a “manual dry” system.

Combination systems consist of sprinklers that are interconnected with a standpipe system. Most of these systems are “wet” and are of special concern because fire department pumpers must promptly augment the water flow demands of both sprinkler heads and hoselines attached to the standpipe system.

 

SPRINKLERS

 

Properly functioning sprinklers are a firefighter’s best ally. They will control or extinguish fires in the incipient stage a vast majority of the time and result in substantially reduced fire losses, provided that they are working properly and the coverage area is unobstructed. As with all good things, there are negatives as well. One of the negatives of sprinklers is that the discharging water cools the smoke, which makes ventilation more difficult. There is also the potential for increased water damage. Although automatic sprinklers are very effective, do not get complacent when you arrive at a sprinkled building. To be effective, the system must be operating as designed, which includes maintaining adequate operating pressure—for example, if there is a fire above the 12th floor and the fire pump is not running (see Fire Pumps above), it is unlikely that there will be enough water flowing to control the fire with only domestic pressure.

There are numerous indicators that a building has a fire suppression sprinkler system. There might be a report of a water flow alarm on dispatch, sprinkler FDC connection noted on arrival, or water flowing out of a system drainpipe. However, the best method for determining sprinklers’ presence is, once again, through prefire planning.

One parting thought on sprinklers: Shut down the system only after the fire is out; this must be confirmed by your companies, not a bystander. Do not turn the sprinklers off because you think the fire is small, because you are worried about working under the spray, or because you feel the limited water supply can be better used elsewhere. Remember: The vast majority of the time, sprinklers will be your ally.

 

HVAC SYSTEMS

 

The HVAC systems in residential high-rises differ from those in commercial buildings. In a commercial building, the climate and air quality are controlled throughout large areas or zones, such as for the entire floor or multiple floor zones. Conversely, in residential high-rises, the common areas, such as the corridors, lobbies, and assembly areas, are controlled by centralized air-handling systems; the individual residences have package units for their climate control. The common areas are also served by a smoke-removal or evacuation system, which is separate. When a smoke detector in a common area activates, it will typically exhaust the affected floor and pressurize the floor immediately above and below. When functioning properly, this prevents the intrusion of smoke from an apartment into the stairs.

 

ELEVATORS

 

There is much discussion about when to use the elevators. Most agree that if the fire is below the sixth floor, take the stairs. If it is above the sixth floor, use the elevator. When using the elevator for fire calls, it is imperative that you use it in Fireman’s Service. Failing to do so could send firefighters directly to the fire floor, where they may find themselves at the gates of hell when the hoistway door opens.

Assign one firefighter in full bunker gear to each car operating in Fireman’s Service. This firefighter needs to be knowledgeable in the use of elevators in Fireman’s Service and must have a radio and forcible entry tools. Remember, the tools are not just for forcible entry. If something goes wrong, the firefighter may need forcible exit tools. Elevators used for any type of fire call must be operated under Fireman’s Service even if it seems like the problem is “minor.” Operating in this mode during nonfire events will enable firefighters to be proficient in using elevators in this mode and will eliminate guesswork during a true emergency. In addition, when using elevator banks that service intermediate elevator landings but do not service the fire floor, Fireman’s Service should still be used to ensure constant control of all conveyances to the fire.

Let us briefly review elevator operation in Fireman’s Service mode. Fireman’s Service has two phases: Phase 1 recalls the elevators to a designated floor automatically on the activation of a sprinkler water flow alarm or smoke detector or by activation of the fire recall key switch in the lobby. Activation of a heat detector will “shunt” the power and disable the elevator completely.

Phase 2 refers to manually operating the elevator from within the car for firefighting activities. The elevator key can be found in a key box on the main floor elevator landing. Retrieve the key, place it into the lobby elevator key panel (photo 6), and turn it to the ON position; remove the key. This recalls the cars of this elevator bank to the first floor. When the elevator arrives, look in the elevator shaft with a flashlight for smoke, fire, or water. If you see any of them, do not use this elevator.

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(6) An elevator in Phase 1 Fireman’s Service.

Assign a radio-equipped firefighter (with tools) to remain with the elevator car. On reaching the desired floor, this firefighter returns the car to the main floor for additional crews and resources; he stays with the car. On entering the elevator car, insert the same key into the Fireman’s Service slot (photo 7), and turn to the ON position. You are now in a Phase 2 mode. Clear the memory by pressing the Call Cancel button. When using the elevator, do not take it directly to the fire floor—one or two floors below the reported fire floor is recommended. It is also a good idea to try going to a lower floor just to make sure the elevator is functioning properly. Older heat-sensitive call buttons at the elevator landing can call the car directly to the fire floor if the system is not functioning properly. On that note, be fully prepared for an unforeseeable malfunction that might take you directly to the fire floor. This means self-contained breathing apparatus in place, irons or wood chocks prepared to jam the doors to prevent uncontrolled opening, and the water can at the ready.

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(7) You must take the elevator keys into the car to achieve Phase 2 Fireman’s Service.

When you push the floor of choice, remember to hold the door CLOSE button, or it will stay open. Likewise, when you arrive at your destination, press and hold the door OPEN button. It is a good idea to open the door halfway just to get a look at what you will be dealing with on that floor. Most elevators also have a safety feature that closes the door at a 50-percent faster rate than it opens. Also, watch the illuminated firefighter helmet on the panel. If it begins flashing, exit the elevator immediately. This indicates the smoke sensor in the elevator shaft or machine room has activated. This may lead to a “shunt trip,” which will disable this elevator.

 

LOBBY CONTROL

 

Lobby control and, therefore, a lobby control officer (LCO) are needed early but NOT in place of the initial attack line being stretched and advanced onto the fire floor. Remember: Things only get better when we put water on the fire. This task will not be easy and will necessitate the teaming up of two or more crews to make sure it is done quickly and efficiently. As these other functions are taking place, share the information gathered with the engine and truck companies. Lobby control entails many functions such as accountability, securing the elevators, locating the FAS panel and building systems, and evacuation.

The LCO should assign or delegate these functions and ensure that each receives the necessary support. The LCO is a position for a command officer who has the authority and knowledge to oversee these functions. Placing these functions under the supervision of a command officer provides an appropriate span of control of related functions

Accountability. Many departments are lacking or inconsistent in this function. It may be one of the most important ones from Command’s perspective, since we always must know where our people are. Remember, when there is a change in tactics or any other major change on-scene, conduct a roll call.

Assign an accountability officer (AO), and establish a formal accountability system (photo 8). This function needs to begin early and must be monitored until all crews have completed their assignments, have exited the building, and have been released. The AO needs to be at the funnel or choke point at which members are entering and exiting the building. You may need more than one AO if multiple access points are used. The AO will direct companies to the appropriate stairs or elevator bank. When a staging or personnel group is established on upper floors, the accountability officer coordinates accountability efforts with that officer.

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(8) A formal accountability board is used to track company locations and status.

• Evacuation. Carefully consider the need to evacuate. Occupant mobility; building layout; and, of course, the building’s fire resistance are all factors in planning and carrying out evacuation. Most often, occupants not immediately threatened by the fire are better off remaining in place. However, the occupants are often unaware of our strategy or progress and will evacuate on their own. Place firefighters at appropriate intervals in the attack stairs to direct occupants to a different stairwell if they are intent on exiting the building. Using the voice communication system can minimize the difficulties encountered here.

People congregating in the lobby or the exit ways will interfere with firefighters trying to enter. The U.S. Fire Administration stated in 1996 (USFA-TR-082) that occupant evacuation is one of the major issues during high-rise fires. Consider assigning a crew or a liaison with police to oversee the evacuating occupants and to prevent them from gathering in the lobby. Establish a safe area within which to corral the occupants. This is where including the police in your training exercises will pay huge dividends. In Miami-Dade, we have included the police department in drills whenever possible, which makes for a much smoother operation on a real call. Each knows the expectations of the other, and a positive rapport is established during controlled conditions instead of during the emergency.

 

•••

 

We have just scratched the surface of the many aspects of response to a residential high-rise. Locating the building’s FAS panel or fire command center to gather information prior to committing companies will result in a more expeditious and coordinated response in what amounts to a vertical neighborhood. Commanders can then direct members to ensure that the engineered systems are working as designed and in the fire department’s favor. Control of the elevators is crucial to the movement to upper floors. Controlling the congestion in the lobby is critical to ensure that access and egress for responding companies are unimpeded.

As is true of all skills, they will diminish if they are used only seldomly. Some territories or response areas contain only high-rises. For departments or companies that serve a mixed jurisdiction, the high-rise incidence rate is probably the lowest. Familiarity, preplanning, and training are the best ways to ensure the highest level of service to the citizens occupying these structures and to keep each other safe.

MICHAEL POSNER is a 21-year veteran of Miami-Dade (FL) Fire Rescue, where he is a captain and the Central Operations training officer. He assisted in developing and presenting the Officer Development Program (ODP) and is a lead instructor for ODP Drill Week. He previously served with Margate Fire Rescue.

BOB CARPENTER is a 30-year veteran of the fire service and a 23-year veteran of Miami-Dade (FL) Fire Rescue, where he is the North Operations district training officer and was the OIC of the Recruit Training Bureau. He assisted in developing and presenting the Officer Development Program (ODP) and is a lead instructor for ODP Drill Week. He previously worked for a combination department and served as a volunteer firefighter.

 

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