By Demetrius Kastros
“I have just one expectation. Everyone goes home safe in the morning, with no injuries or dangerous exposures. The rest is just part of the job.”
I used to say this to my company officers every morning. In a high-rise fire, we face a uniquely difficult set of challenges in fighting the fire, communications, rescuing occupants, and fire spread. Clear and simple procedures, strongly reinforced with extensive training AND building knowledge, are the best paths to ensure that most important of firefighter priorities: Everyone home safe.
The time tested acronym, ALS-BASE provides an effective foundation to start procedures and training for high-rise operations. Attack, Lobby, Staging, and BASE are the first functions that need to occur to build a successful high-rise firefighting effort.
Attack. The first-arriving company at a high-rise incident has its hands full. It needs to park its vehicle out of the flow of traffic and enter the building with self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), 200 feet of hose with nozzles, standpipe adaptors, and a set of irons. Priority for the first-in crew is to confirm the location of the fire, make a report of conditions to responding command, and to use the stairs to ascend to the fire floor to begin attack operations. As a wise fire officer has said, “Putting out the fire eliminates 90 percent of the problem.” It is unrealistic to expect a three- or four-person company to effectively evacuate a high-rise building. Hitting the fire early and hopefully confining the burn area are the best rescue efforts the first-in company can make.
The first company on scene is responsible for the following:
- Entering the building.
- Taking hose packs, adaptors, SCBA, irons.
- Investigating: Check alarm panel, confer with front desk.
- Determining nature and extent of emergency.
- Traveling to reported location, i.e., fire floor.
- Communicating “Report of Conditions” to responding command.
- Starting initial operations, fire attack.
The second company on scene is assigned lobby control, and they also will have a multitude of tasks to accomplish quickly. Initial top priorities for lobby control are to gain control of the building’s heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems plus call and secure the elevators to the lobby. Building mechanical personnel are often best suited to operate complex HVAC systems, but if staff personnel are not immediately available, firefighters need to do this and should have prior knowledge of how to initially shut down the ventilation system from building knowledge training. If the HVAC system is sophisticated enough to remove smoke from designated areas of the building, this function can be used as the incident commander (IC) determines appropriate, but absent obvious capabilities to the contrary, lobby unit should give high priority to shutting off the HVAC. Calling down the elevators can often be done from the fire control room, but if that function is not available, use the lobby elevator call buttons to summon down the elevators. Once on the lobby floor, activate the emergency stop switch in each elevator car. Once the switch is pulled, the elevator isn’t going anywhere. This gives complete control of the elevators to the lobby unit, where it should remain. When time allows, shut the elevator main power switches in the elevator equipment room.
Next, lobby control needs to identify a stairwell for firefighter access that runs to all floors of the building. Mutual aid and/or out-of-district companies will likely not know the location of the stairwell, so mark a path by stringing yellow fire line tape from the lobby to the stairwell access. This avoids companies getting lost trying to find the stairwell, and without a clear path, they will!
Lobby control is responsible for establishing a check-in and personnel accountability reporting (PAR) system. All personnel coming into the structure need to check in with lobby unit prior to proceeding farther into the building. Everyone entering the building, whether from an engine or truck company, should be bringing equipment with them. Staging will need a large compliment of hose, nozzles and adaptors, SCBA bottles, forcible entry tools, EMS equipment, and so on.
Lobby unit is the second on-scene unit and should do the following:
- Enter the building lobby area, go to the fire control room and/or alarm panel.
- Confirm location of the fire.
- Establish entry and exit points for the operational period.
- Call down the elevators, lock them out by pulling the emergency stop.
- Control/shut down the HVAC.
- Determine and identify routes/stairwells (use fire line tape to mark a path to stairwell).
- Establish check-in and PAR systems.
Usually established two floors below the fire floor, staging is the point where crews report prior to ascending to the fire floor or higher. A high-rise fire requires considerable resources, both personnel and equipment. Staging also provides rehabilitation for personnel who have been involved in firefighting and/or rescue operations when those personnel need rest, refreshment, to change SCBA bottles, procure equipment, and so on. Staging provides a personnel pool that is accessed by the IC to fulfill the requirements of the incident. No one should report to staging empty handed! Always bring something up to staging with you and try to find out what is needed prior to ascending. If communications are overloaded, bring SCBA bottles, hose, adaptors and nozzles, sets of irons, EMS equipment, and so on. Whatever you can carry from your unit parked in BASE. Staging needs to keep BASE advised of equipment needs.
Staging is ideally located in a hallway or breezeway, but NEVER in a stairwell. If hardwire communications are being used, these are often located in the stairwell or vestibule. In these instances, the staging officer can appoint one person to staff the com-phone, so the officer can remain in staging to coordinate activities.
It is vitally important to establish a check-in system for staging. Multiple resources will flow into and out of staging, so accurate record keeping is essential to properly track and know the location of all crews at the fire.
Try configuring your high-rise hotel hose packs in a coiled, circular pattern with the male end inside, causes a 100-foot length of hose to charge in a simple, round pattern about four feet across. The hose then deploys out easily from this circular pattern, eliminating the need to “flake out” hose up the stairwell, as is the case with accordion folds. This is highly effective for use in a vestibule or stairway landing and does not adversely affect stairwell travel.
Staging is the third on-scene crew and must do the following:
- Establish itself two to three floors below the fire floor IF the atmosphere is clear. Set up in hallway or open area but NOT in a stairwell.
- All personnel ascending into the building report to staging unless otherwise directed by command.
- Everyone ascending into the building should bring tools and equipment. Communicates with BASE to assure needed equipment is brought by personnel entering the building.
- Responsible for dispersal of personnel and equipment.
(1, 2) Configuring your high-rise hose packs in a circular pattern eliminates the need to flake out hose up the stairway. This is an ideal pack for a stairway landing or vestibule. (Photos from fireengineering.com)
Established outside and away from the building, BASE is where incoming vehicles are parked. Make all efforts to place BASE in a location that does not require personnel to cross the street to access the fire building; that simply presents one more potential danger, especially at night. A parking lot or other large area, preferably on the same side of the street as the incident, is an ideal spot. BASE should be far enough away from the incident so as not to be endangered by falling glass or debris. I believe it is of great benefit to have prevention or other staff personnel trained in various incident command system functions, especially BASE; this frees fire companies for suppression and rescue efforts. However, EVERYONE on scene, including staff personnel, should have protective clothing and SCBA. If you need to establish BASE in the street, have the police department set up road blocks or use fire units to completely block all civilian traffic.
BASE is fourth-due and should fulfill the following functions:
- The first point of resource check-in outside the structure.
- A parking area for incoming units and apparatus.
- Easy to locate such as at an intersection of two major streets.
- Away from the fire building in a parking lot or other protected area, ideally on the same side of the street as the fire building.
After these four core functions are filled, other aspects of the fire scene require immediate consideration.
Truck company. Command can designate one or more truck companies to remain parked on the street in front of the building if the truck can be effectively used for rescue, firefighter access, and so on.
Water supply. Most modern high-rise buildings have wet sprinkler/standpipe systems and booster pumps to provide adequate pressure on all floors. Countless older buildings still exist without much protection, except dry standpipes. Circumstances may dictate your procedures, BUT, if you’re having a fire in one of these structures, clearly something has gone terribly wrong! A fire unit needs to be directed to pump the sprinkler/standpipe system to the building, regardless of the built-in protection. You cannot rely on everything working the way it was designed and systems fail or are not properly maintained every day. PUMP THE SYSTEM and do it early. My preference is to have the fourth-due engine lay hose to and pump the building sprinkler/standpipe system, then the captain and firefighter can establish BASE if that function is not assigned to a staff person.
Command. Effective command of a high-rise incident begins long before the initial dispatch is ever received. ICs must have a detailed understanding of these monster buildings and their layouts, potential occupancy, fire command rooms, alarm systems, built-in protection, and so on. With the first indication of a working fire in a high-rise, the IC needs to request significant additional resources. Although the fire may be confined to one room on a particular floor, the HVAC system and natural convection have likely spread smoke and toxic materials to many different levels of the structure.
After the initial four companies are committed to ALS-BASE, your next two or three crews need to get to the fire floor and back up the initial attack company. The fire floor will need at least six personnel to effectively move an initial attack line AND back up hose down a hot, smoky hallway with zero visibility as well as another crew that will be checking the rooms for occupants. So, after you have staffed the initial positions of ALS-BASE, get some more companies up to the fire floor! An absolute minimum is one company on every floor above the fire in addition to those on the fire floor.
Next, together with crews for the upper floors, your plan should include having at least one crew for every two floors below the fire. You will also need relief crews in staging. That’s a lot of companies, so call them early. Divisions are assigned to correspond with building floors, i.e., the eight floor is Division 8, the ninth floor is Division 9, and so on. It streamlines communications to assign an officer as division group supervisor on each floor.
High-rise plan. As do many jurisdictions, Santa Clara County, California, in the South San Francisco Bay area has a countywide mutual-aid plan. Contained therein is the high-rise plan. The plan is accessible on the county’s Web site. Since few departments have all the resources necessary for a high-rise fire, the plan standardizes high-rise procedures and gives all fire departments in the county the same plan for training and response. This makes for standardized operations when multiple departments are called to an incident. A protracted incident will require many different functions to be staffed. Checklists with position descriptions are included in the plan. If yours is like most departments, your agency probably cannot fill all the functions necessary at a high-rise incident. Standardizing your plans is essential.
There are numerous positions that may need to be filled, depending on the extent of the incident. Safety officer is an important role, and medical, salvage, ventilation, rescue, technical, documentation, and air operations are just a few of the possible roles in a high-rise incident. Effective high-rise operations begin long before dispatch, with planning and training. Planning and training for these events must include your area/region/county from which you will be drawing resources. Equally important is detailed building knowledge, so spend some time getting to know these facilities and their built-in fire protection, layouts, systems, occupancy population (hotel or senior living), special hazards, and so on.
Effective high-rise operations require a lot of preparation and organization. Starting with ALS-BASE gives an effective foundation on which to build your incident response. Prefire plans, training, standardized procedures, communications capability, common breathing apparatus, and many resources called early are just a few of the factors that will make your high-rise operations a success and ensure the fire service’s highest priority: Everyone returning home safe in the morning.
Demetrius A. Kastros is a 42-year fire service veteran and a semiretired shift battalion chief from the Milpitas (CA) Fire Department. In 1974, he was among the first group of firefighters in the State of California to be certified as an emergency medical Technician (EMT). Kastros has a college degree in fire science and is a state certified chief officer and master instructor. He continues to work in fire service-related activities. He is the lead instructor for the City of Monterey (CA) Community Emergency Response Team program. He has been published previously in digital editions of Fire Engineering.