Only a select few firefighters have ever been inserted by helicopter (helo) onto the roof of a burning high-rise building. The pool of people who can speak from personal experience about conducting search, rescue, and firefighting operations by “working from the roof down” in high-rise emergencies after being deployed by helicopter is, thus, quite limited. Therefore, it’s difficult for most of us (including me) to speak with true authority about if, when, and under exactly what conditions helicopters may (or may not) prove effective during the full range of high-rise emergencies we are likely to encounter in the coming years. It is hoped that this article will start the debate in an open forum so that we can develop a consensus based on experience and facts.

(1) Firefighters training for rappel insertions from helicopter operations training tower. Effective interaction and coordination between the HHRT and the helicopter crew are critical for safe and effective operations. (Photos by author.)


It’s important to recognize four truths about helo high-rise operations:

  • The concept of helo high-rise teams (HHRT) is relatively new.
  • Few departments have daily access to helicopters with which to test these protocols and methods.
  • Helicopter-equipped fire departments with active helo high-rise programs are even rarer.
  • “Working” high-rise fires occur with relative infrequency in most cities.

Consequently, several concepts proposed here are based on theories, assumptions, testing, training, and implementation developed within the confines of the world’s limited experience with HHRT operations. Others are sound, proven principles that have been transferred from other helicopter-based fire/rescue disciplines, as well as standard firefighting practices.


There are advantages in being able to fly specially trained and equipped firefighters and equipment to the roofs of burning high-rise buildings and those damaged by earthquakes and explosions—especially when fire, explosion, or a partial collapse has damaged stairwells and elevator systems. Flying firefighters to the roof may facilitate critical tasks such as size-up, ventilation, search, rescue, firefighting, and rapid intervention by quickly getting them into position without the need to climb stairs. Firefighters deployed to the roof by helicopter have greater reserves of strength, stamina, and breathable air because they haven’t worn themselves out prematurely by climbing many flights of stairs in full bunker gear carrying extra air bottles and equipment just to reach their assignment.

Case studies show that the faster we can get firefighters in place to conduct these operations, the faster we can intervene in the fire’s evolution, perhaps leading to faster containment or control and saving lives by making the atmosphere above the fire more tenable until victims can be removed to safety. And past practice during wildland fires has demonstrated that helicopter deployment of firefighting teams1 to inaccessible places is a very effective tactic under certain conditions.

(2, 3) During the rappel evolution, it’s critical to avoid shock-loading the rope and the anchor system. This method, which involves the firefighter’s lowering himself below the skid until he is inverted and then allowing his feet to leave the skid, may be a bit disconcerting to the uninitiated (particularly while wearing full structure firefighting PPE), but it reduces the shock loading to nil.



All four parameters of LCES (Lookouts, Communications, Escape Routes, and Safety Zones) can be enhanced through the use of helicopters to provide aerial lookout, communicate conditions to the incident commander and others operating at the emergency, provide emergency escape for firefighters trapped above the fire, and remove them (and trapped citizens) to safe zones.

Finally, in the aftermath of the 9-11 attacks (and recognizing the potential for terrorists to attack additional high-rise buildings with airplanes, explosives, tanker trucks, and other methods that cause worst-case scenarios), the concept of helo high-rise team operations begs to be addressed. Only the most naïve among us believe that terrorists have exhausted their options for attacking high-rise buildings. In fact, it’s far more logical to conclude that terrorist groups are only now beginning to realize the full extent to which they can cause havoc through attacks on high-rises. As evidence, consider a recently foiled plot to cause the collapse of Tel Aviv’s tallest skyscraper by exploding a massive truck bomb, the European hijacking of an El Al plane by a Muslim terrorist who indicated his intent to dive-bomb a high-rise building, and the plot to fly a commercial airline into an Italian building in which President Bush was attending a G-8 convention.


(4) The 8 plate is used for HHRT operations because it can be installed on the rope more quickly when preparing to rappel and can be disconnected from the rope more quickly after the rappel is completed. This speed factor is important to reduce the overall time that the helicopter is required to hover over the high-rise building; to get all members of the HHRT onto the roof quickly; and to allow the helicopter to perform other functions such as observation, lighting, and transporting additional HHRTs and other firefighters and equipment to the roof.

Another example occurred on December 13, 2002, when Colombian terrorists exploded a large bomb on the 30th floor of a high-rise building in Bogota, injuring 23 people at a gathering of national lawmakers. The bomb, hidden in a suitcase and detonated by remote control, blew out windows and tossed people and tables but failed to ignite the building or cause structural collapse. If terrorists deem attacks on high-rise buildings beneficial to achieving their aims, then events like these are ominous harbingers of things to come in South America and elsewhere.


(5) Once the firefighter is connected to the rappel line, the air crewman unclips the firefighter’s pickoff strap (which was used to prevent him from falling from the copter while transitioning from the seat to the skid) from the anchor and clips it to the firefighter’s turnout jacket to keep it out of the way. After a final safety check, the firefighter will be ready to rappel.

The World Trade Center attacks provided the clearest example of the need to develop the capability to quickly deploy firefighters to the roofs of high-rise buildings (and to extract people trapped above the fire or severe structural damage). A recently released audiotape of radio conversations between FDNY firefighters operating in the North Tower of the World Trade Center before it collapsed supports this position.2

The tape, released by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and federal prosecutors in November 2002, makes it clear that FDNY personnel were indeed attacking the fires and organizing the rescue of victims as high as the 78th floor of the South Tower before the structure failed. Radio traffic recorded that day indicated that Ladder 15 and other companies were pushing their way into the fire floors and knocking down flame with success. They were organizing medical triage/treatment areas on the 40th floor, to which victims on the upper floors could be shuttled using elevators and stairwells. In short, they were working effectively to gain control of this disastrous incident until the moment the towers collapsed.

(6) HHRT members wearing full PPE and carrying packs filled with tools that will be deployed to the roof with them.


In the course of future high-rise disasters, who is to say how much more success we may have if systems are in place to fly teams of firefighters to the roof during the early stages? Who can say whether helo high-rise capabilities might allow firefighters to limit vertical extension and knock down enough fire to delay the collapse of high-rise buildings whose structural integrity is being attacked by fire?3 Who is to say whether it might be possible to rescue dozens—or even hundreds—of people by inserting firefighters on the roof to force locked doors at the top of the stairwells, and to facilitate helicopter-based extractions,4 while other firefighters equipped with closed-circuit SCBAs (with more than four hours’ supply of air on their backs) work their way down to attack the fires and protect egress through the stairwells?

With the current level of experience in helo high-rise operations, we do not yet have the answers to these questions. But emerging information indicates the readiness of local fire departments to place well-trained and properly equipped firefighters on the roof may be a key factor in future high-rise emergencies. This sentiment is echoed by Vincent Dunn, 42-year veteran and retired deputy fire chief of FDNY, who wrote after the 9-11 attacks:


(7) Following normal procedure for HHRT rappels, this firefighter has descended below the level of the wheels, nearly inverting to avoid shock-loading the rope system. At this point he will remove his feet from the step and begin a free-space rappel to the roof. HHRT members must be cognizant of the higher center of gravity resulting from the SCBA and other PPE, which is a factor in the rappelling process. This is addressed through constant practice and preparation of the HHRT members.

The FDNY needs firefighting helicopters. There is a helicopter that can rescue people trapped on the roof of a high-rise building. Also, there is a helicopter that can spray 1,000 gallons of water into the upper floors of a burning high-rise building [and return repeatedly with new loads of water after refilling by engine companies on the ground or from nearby helipad standpipe systems]. This helicopter would allow firefighters to fight a fire caused by a terrorist bomb in the upper floors of a high-rise building from the outside, something we cannot do today. The people of New York need a fire department that has helicopters.5

Helicopters can help firefighters save lives during high-rise emergencies. Indeed, helicopters have already been used to place firefighters on the roof to conduct ventilation, firefighting, search and rescue, and other critical tasks during the course of high-rise fire emergencies. Consider the following examples:

  • At the MGM Grand Fire in Las Vegas, helicopters from the U.S. Coast Guard, Air National Guard, and other agencies rescued victims from the roof of the burning high-rise hotel in which more than 80 people died.
  • At the One Meridian Plaza Fire, where three Philadelphia firefighters became lost while conducting fireground operations in upper floors, in a desperate attempt to locate and rescue the firefighters, an ad-hoc helo high-rise team was assembled using engine company personnel, who were inserted on the roof. Although these firefighters were unable to locate the original missing firefighters, they managed to direct other lost firefighters to safety.
  • At the First Interstate Fire, where Los Angeles Fire Department personnel were confronted with four floors (levels 12 through 16) of a 63-story building fully involved in fire, a preestablished LAFD helo high-rise team was deployed to the roof in early-morning darkness to open the stairwells for improved ventilation; to search the upper floors for a number of missing victims (in-cluding a man trapped above the fire who was carried to the roof by firefighters); and other tasks. The HHRT took a severe beating while working its way down the stairwells but managed to perform a vital role. If the same fire had occurred during normal office hours, it’s possible that thousands of people would have been trapped above the fire; HHRT operations would have been even more important.
  • Using a plan that had been established for years, members of Baltimore (MD) Fire Department’s Rescue 1 and Technical Res-cue Team were deployed by a Maryland state trooper helicopter to the roof of a burning high-rise hotel at night in 1999 and managed to conduct topside size-up, open the stairwells, and conduct search and rescue operations on the upper floors until the fire was knocked down by companies working their way up from the ground floor.
  • In the aftermath of the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, the New York Police Department deployed a team of emergency service unit members to the roof of the North Tower. In a prelude to the problems that complicated operations at the 9-11 attacks on the WTC, the NYPD was roundly criticized for failing to participate in a unified command structure at a major fire disaster; for failing to coordinate the helicopter deployment with the FDNY fire command; for deploying police officers without proper personnel protective clothing; for deploying personnel without formal training and experience in fighting fires (especially those in high-rise buildings); and for refusing to establish and maintain communication with the fire department incident commander and the many fire department units operating in the towers.
  • When terrorists set fire to a high-rise hotel in Puerto Rico in the 1980s, helicopters were used to deploy firefighters to the roof and to extract victims from atop the smoke-filled building.
  • Helicopters rescued 350 people trapped atop the flaming 31-story Andraus Building in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on February 24, 1972, in one of the most remarkable high-rise rescue operations ever. The fire exhibited astonishingly rapid autoextension, trapping so many people on the roof under such heavy fire conditions that the roof was the only refuge for people above the fire. It took nearly one and a half hours for the first helicopter to land on the roof, a factor that would have been much different if the local fire department had had a standing helo high-rise team system in place. It should be noted that the 331-foot-high building had a helipad on the roof, something that is required of every high-rise building in the city of Los Angeles, whose fire department has for years planned to use helicopters to rescue trapped victims and insert firefighting crews on the roof.

Just two years later, another devastating high-rise fire occurred in Sao Paulo, but this time helicopters had great difficulty getting close enough to the roof to rescue trapped victims. The 25-story high-rise became fully involved, trapping 170 people on the roof; 90 people were rescued, but the others were trapped in untenable conditions and perished.

Click here to view Sample Helo High-Rise Guidelines.

There have been many other instances in which helicopters were used to attempt last-ditch rescue operations during high-rise disasters. High-rise disasters create the sudden need for helicopters for rescue and fire support operations. Therefore, it makes sense for the fire service to develop formal helicopter programs that use a logical approach; time-tested methods; and well-exercised systems based on realistic assumptions, probable needs, available resources, and shared experience.


Skeptics might argue that helicopters have very limited application in high-rise fires and other emergencies, that the time-tested method of firefighters’ entering at the ground floor and working their way up the stairwells from below to attack the fire and conduct other tasks (sometimes using elevators to transport equipment and personnel to levels below the fire) remains the most effective approach in every case.

This school of thought maintains that the rotor wash from helicopters may fan flames inside the building, the thermal columns and smoke may prevent helicopters from reaching the roof or cause them to crash, there is no guarantee the copter can get back to the roof to retrieve the firefighters (making it a virtual suicide mission), and conditions may be untenable for firefighters to operate above the fire.

To many in the fire service, the concept of placing firefighters above the fire seems unnatural and may violate a sort of universal understanding about attacking fires in buildings and wildland areas: that working above the fire is excessively dangerous (one of the “Situations That Call Watch Out”). Finally, skeptics might point out that the world’s fire services do not have a clear record of success on which to base helo high-rise firefighting/rescue operations.


The counterpoint to the skeptics might be this: It is the “worst-case scenario” that should compel fire departments to develop and maintain HHRT capabilities. How many firefighters (except members of FDNY) have personally responded to a fire, explosion, earthquake, or airline crash in a high-rise building with hundreds of people leaping to their deaths, with little hope of reaching all the trapped victims from below because the stairwells are damaged or blocked, and with the fire so high that it takes nearly one hour to reach it? The 9-11 attacks demonstrated that such worst-case scenarios are not only possible but perhaps even probable in the future.

A growing number of firefighters and officers are coming to the conclusion that helicopters are an underused tool that enables us to quickly place companies of properly trained and equipped firefighters on the roof, to assess the conditions and report them to the incident commander (who, armed with more data, can make better decisions). They argue that helicopter deployment of specially trained companies of firefighters to the roof will also help accomplish the following goals:

All would be done in a more timely manner than may be possible by firefighters hiking up from the lower floors.

Anyone who has climbed the stairs of a high-rise building wearing full turnouts and carrying a spare SCBA bottle in one hand with a hose pack and other equipment over a shoulder can attest to the demands and the time required just to reach the fire floor(s). We all have heard of firefighters who were so physically spent just reaching the fire that fire attack was hampered by exhaustion, heat stress, and even cardiac problems related to the stair climb (one reason some agencies establish a staging area and rehab area two floors below the fire floor).

Some otherwise healthy firefighters, struggling under the combined effect of the weight of their gear, the heat-retaining properties of their equipment, the climb, and adrenaline, have been known to suffer chest pains and cardiac problems and basically became incapacitated (or even in need of medical assistance themselves) before they reached the fire floor. Many of these complications can be alleviated by placing firefighters on the roof and allowing them to walk down the stairs.

Helicopter deployment of well-trained companies of firefighters and officers has the potential for getting a faster assessment of conditions above the fire, evaluating structural integrity, getting fresh personnel in position to establish effective vertical ventilation faster, safeguarding or removing trapped occupants, getting water on the fire faster (thereby preventing fire spread and reducing the potential for structural collapse), and generally improving the situation for those trapped above the fire and those attempting to command the incident and control the fire.


The problem is, few (if any) fire departments in the world have sufficient experience using helicopter-deployed firefighting teams at “working” high-rise fires to definitively prove or disprove the concept or to say in exactly which situations it’s appropriate (or not appropriate) to deploy firefighters to the roof with helicopters.

One would be hard-pressed to state categorically that the concept of helo high-rise teams is viable in every place that has high-rise buildings. Few of us can state authoritatively when helicopter-deployed teams will work. The fact is, more research, development, exercises, and experience in actual “working” high-rise fires is needed to make definitive statements about the efficacy of helicopter-deployed firefighting teams.

Until these questions can be answered with certainty through additional testing and experimentation, and through HHRT operations at “working” high-rise fires, fire departments with high-rise buildings in their jurisdictions should be prepared to try it when a “worst-case scenario” makes it necessary, even if it means practicing with local outside agencies (including law enforcement and the military) that can provide helicopters for this purpose. Fire departments with their own helicopters and high-rise hazards should develop the capability to deploy specially trained firefighters to the roof when conditions clearly call for this tactic.

Some fire departments have developed teams of firefighters from rescue companies, USAR task force fire stations, truck companies, or other designated units whose job it is to be placed by helicopter on the roof of burning high-rise buildings. The experience thus far indicates favorable results, as noted by the previously mentioned HHRT operations. The successful use of HHRTs in those fires indicates that organized teams of firefighters, properly trained and equipped to be deployed to the roof, can be an advantage during major high-rise fires.


The 9-11 World Trade Center attacks naturally raised questions about helicopter high-rise operations. The conditions that confronted FDNY on September 11, 2001, were so extraordinary that it’s difficult to draw definitive conclusions about the ultimate efficacy of using helicopters for high-rise fire/rescue operations. To some, the WTC attack raised more questions than conclusions in this regard:

Crews without full turnouts and SCBA, without extensive high-rise firefighting experience, without fire department communications, and operating outside the fireground command system are ill-prepared to operate effectively on the floors above a high-rise fire. They are more likely to be a liability. In short, it’s a bad idea, when well-trained and highly experienced firefighters could be placed on the roof in their stead.

“Nonfire department” agencies with helicopters on the scene of a burning high-rise have a moral and societal (and perhaps legal) responsibility to coordinate all their efforts and operations with the jurisdictional fire department incident commander, to establish open radio and other communications with the firefighting forces operating inside the building (and their commanders), to immediately share critical intelligence with the fire department, and to operate under the aegis of the fire department. To do anything less is to endanger the lives of citizens, firefighters, and other people affected by the event.

Nonfire department agencies that refuse to operate by these rules confirm the argument that more fire departments should operate their own helicopter fleets to effectively execute the fire department mission without interference from uncooperative outside helicopter-equipped agencies.

Firefighters assigned to a helo high-rise team should be experienced in fighting difficult fires. High-rise firefighting experience is obviously an advantage. All helo high-rise team members should wear full turnouts and SCBA (preferably a “rebreather” closed-circuit SCBA that allows at least four hours of rated working time, and up to eight hours if the wearer becomes trapped and conserves his air/oxygen, or a one-hour SCBA bottle) and should have the following equipment:


The sample procedures and protocols discussed here are intended for HHRT operations associated with helicopters where the team is transported in the cabin and deploys from the cabin or the skids.

En Route

En route to the high-rise emergency, the HHRT and its leader should be monitoring the radio to ascertain the overall situation and begin preplanning potential needs. The leader should establish contact with the incident commander to give him the estimated time of arrival, determine the mission to be completed, and discuss any specifics.

The HHRT leader should brief the team on conditions and the assignment and coordinate with the pilot and flight crew to ensure they are clear on the nature of the mission. While en route, the HHRT members should double-check each other’s personal protective equipment (including rappelling gear) using the buddy system and preestablished checklists. Team members will also double-check the crewman’s equipment before the cabin door is slid open on arrival, to ensure the safety of the crewperson (who should be tethered to the cabin of the copter by his harness and appropriate connections).

On Arrival

The following are tasks the HHRT may perform on arrival at a high-rise emergency.

If conditions indicate the need for HHRT operations, the incident commander will direct the HHRT to deploy onto the roof.

Getting HHRTs on the Roof

The HHRT will generally deploy to the roof of a high-rise building by the following methods (in order of preference).

Helicopter landing insertion. The helicopter lands on the roof (if it has a designated helipad or a roof that’s certified to accommodate the helicopter landing). The firefighters step out of the helicopter with their equipment. If there is no helipad, or if it is uncertain whether the roof can accommodate the weight of a helicopter landing, one of the other following methods will be used:

—One-skid insertion. The helicopter places a skid on the edge of the roof. The pilot maintains power to hold the copter steady at roof level while the HHRT members step off the copter, unload their equipment, and move out of the way.

—Rappel insertion. HHRT members rappel from the helicopter onto the roof. Helicopter crew members use the rappel rope to lower their equipment down to them. The rope is dropped onto the roof for firefighters to use for potential rescues or searches.

—Hoist insertion. The HHRT members are lowered onto the roof using the hoist cable as the helicopter hovers over the roof. Their equipment is lowered to them in the same manner.

Operations on the roof. Once on the roof, HHRT members should be prepared to do the following:

—Remove rooftop obstructions to clear access for helicopter access (to facilitate additional firefighters and equipment being de-livered to the roof and to ensure rapid extraction of trapped victims and firefighters as necessary).

—In coordination with Command, open stairwells to help facilitate vertical ventilation to improve the atmosphere above the fire (improving survivability for victims and visibility for firefighters operating inside).

—Perform other tasks, as assigned, to improve ventilation.

—Search upper floors for victims (using thermal imaging cameras, night vision, and so on), and remove them to a safe atmosphere or shelter in place as necessary.

—Conduct fire attack on upper floors to reduce vertical extension and horizontal extension and to protect stairwells and victims.

—Conduct crowd control on the roof and on upper floors if victims are trapped above the fire floor(s); shelter in place operations as directed; and evacuate/rescue victims, either to the roof or down the stairwells (with proper coordination with Command, assuming the stairwells are secure and moving down is the best option at the time).

—Evacuate by helicopter victims trapped on the roof if other avenues of escape are cut off and it’s deemed necessary to undertake helicopter evacuation. In many cases (except in cases of potential terrorist attacks with possible secondary attacks on adjacent buildings), it is advantageous to move victims from the rooftop of one high-rise to the rooftop of another high-rise. In this case, at least one member of the HHRT should be transferred to the roof of the second building with or before the first group of victims.

—Conduct rapid intervention crew (RIC) operations from above, and facilitate (as necessary) the rooftop evacuation of downed firefighters.

—Conduct forcible entry to free victims trapped in stairwells and offices that may be damaged by fire, collapse, explosion, or other forces.

—Effect rescue of victims trapped in elevators.

—Conduct high-angle rescue of victims trapped in situations requiring those tactics.

—Coordinate the rooftop deployment of additional companies and equipment as Command deems necessary.

—Conduct other tasks as directed by the incident commander or other officers.

Rooftop Evacuation of Victims By Helicopter

In order of preference, the helo-high rise team can employ the following rooftop evacuation tactics.

Roof landing extraction: As the HHRT controls the crowd and as the team leader communicates with the pilot of the incoming helicopter, it lands on the roof. The HHRT members assist people into the cabin of the copter (the number of people on each flight to be determined by the respective pilot). An air crewman or a member of the HHRT secures the door before takeoff.

One-skid extraction: As the crowd is controlled and kept at a safe distance, and at the signal from the HHRT leader, the copter approaches the building and performs a “one skid” while the helo-high rise team members assist a prescribed number of people into the cabin, with the air crewman securing the door before the copter departs.

Short-haul extraction: As the crowd is controlled, one or more citizens are placed in an evacuation harness (or, in the case of injured patients, an appropriate rescue litter). The copter is signaled in, and the pilot hovers overhead while a short-haul line is lowered. Members of the HHRT attach the victim to the loop in the rope and signal the air crewman (standing on the skid above) to go ahead and lift.

In turn, the air crewman, on “hot mic” inside the cabin, directs the pilot to ascend. As the victim is short-hauled to the other building or to the ground, the air crewman maintains a close watch to communicate the victim’s position to the pilot until the victim is set down at the designated point. At that time, the remaining member of the HHRT assists the victim’s “touch down,”disconnects the rope from the victim, and signals the copter to go back to the burning high-rise to evacuate more victims.

Back on the roof of the burning high-rise, the HHRT should already have harnessed up the next citizen to be extracted, using additional harnesses to set up a “round robin” that will expedite the process of removing victims.

At the set-down point, the remaining member of the HHRT would be removing the harness from the victim just extracted. This harness will be clipped to the end of the short haul when the next person is dropped off, so the air crew can transfer the harness back to the roof of the burning high-rise, where it will be placed on another citizen.

Hoist extraction: As members of the HHRT control the crowd, one or more citizens are placed in an evacuation harness (or, in the case of injured patients, an appropriate rescue litter). The copter is signaled in, and the pilot hovers overhead while the hoist cable is lowered. Members of the HHRT attach the victim(s) to the cable and signal the air crewman (standing on the skid above) to begin hoisting. In turn, the air crewman, on “hot mic” inside the cabin, directs the pilot to very slowly begin to ascend until the power of the helicopter itself was lifting the victim(s) off the rooftop (this is standard protocol for hoist operations).

Normally, once the victims are actually suspended in the air under power of the copter, the pilot tells the air crewman, “Okay, you’ve got the load,” at which time the air crewman activates the hoist motor to begin lifting the victims toward the copter, eventually bringing them all the way to the level of the cabin and assisting them into the cabin for securing inside. However, in the case of a high-rise fire with multiple victims waiting to be evacuated, the hoist cable might be treated as a sort of short haul, and the victim might simply be “short hauled” at the end of the extended cable directly to the roof of an adjacent high-rise or to the ground. This would have the effect of reducing the time between each “rescue cycle” by eliminating the time it takes to retract the hoist cable for each victim.

As each victim is set down, the designated member of the HHRT disconnects the victim’s harness from the cable and signals the copter to return to the burning high-rise to evacuate more victims.

Back on the roof of the burning high-rise, the HHRT should already have harnessed up the next citizen to be extracted, using additional harnesses. Finally, back at the set-down point, the designated member of the HHRT removes the harness from the victim. The harness would be connected to the cable after the next person is dropped off, and the cycle would continue until all the victims—and possibly the remaining firefighters from the HHRT—are extracted from the roof of the burning high-rise.

Operational Retreat

In all of these cases, the helo-high rise team and the team leader must be cognizant of the potential for an “operational retreat” ordered by the incident commander. This would mean it’s time to bring the helicopter back and evacuate all the firefighters off the roof IF the smoke and other conditions allow the copter to get back to the roof.

As some HHRT members have been reminded by pilots, a rooftop evacuation under those circumstances might resemble a battlefield evacuation under fire in the sense that there is urgency to get in and out without delay: The copter swoops in, touches down “hot” (or perhaps with one skid just off the deck or the edge of the building) for a few moments as the firefighters bail into the cabin, and immediately takes off, getting away from the building as quickly as possible.

Every member of the HHRT must also recognize before accepting assignment on the team that it’s possible that conditions will deteriorate to the point where it may become impossible for the helicopter to return to the rooftop at all, effectively stranding the rescuers above a raging high-rise fire with the potential for structural failure—a grave situation indeed. This emphasizes the need for fireground commanders to be prepared to deploy the HHRT when conditions dictate and for members of the HHRT to be fully aware of these risks associated with the mission and how to reduce them to the most reasonable level. It also emphasizes the need for timely operations and constant evaluation of the fire, smoke, and structural conditions.


1. Using designated “flight crews” to quickly insert specially trained firefighters by helicopter in strategic but hard-to-reach locations to cut a fire line and perform other tasks is a time-tested strategy that’s used on practically a daily basis in wildfire-prone places like Southern California.

2. “9/11 Tape Raises Added Questions on Radio Failures,” Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn, New York Times, November 9, 2002.

3. Have the engineers, architects, and building authorities conducting official studies on high-rise collapse considered the possible effects of helicopter-deployed firefighting teams on the roof and the potential to delay or prevent collapse through faster application of water by deploying firefighters to the roof?

4. Have fire service helicopter pilots—with experience flying in and around heavy smoke and fire conditions at wildland fires and assessing the effects of thermal column and smoke—been empaneled to evaluate the potential for rooftop helicopter operations during high-rise emergencies?

5. Dunn, Vincent, “An Open Letter to Tom Ridge, Homeland Security Director,” Firehouse, April 2002.

LARRY COLLINS has been a member of the County of Los Angeles Fire Department (LACoFD) for 23 years. He is a captain; USAR specialist; and paramedic assigned to USAR Task Force 103, a unit trained and equipped to conduct helicopter high-rise operations. Collins has had various helicopter-related assignments since 1984 as a firefighter/paramedic and a USAR company captain, including helicopter-based mountain rescue, swiftwater and marine rescue operations, post-earthquake aerial damage assessment and rescue, and urban rescue operations. He is a search team manager for the LACoFD’s FEMA Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) Task Force and a USAR specialist on the “Red” FEMA USAR Incident Support Team. An instructor at FDIC and FDIC West, he is the author of the upcoming book Rescue: A Guide to Urban Search and Technical Rescue (Fire Engineering).

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