High-Rise Firefighting Lessons Learned

Triangle Shirtwaist fire and One Meridian Plaza fire photos

In a previous article, we discussed the initial strategic plan for operations in high-rise fireproof multiple dwellings. The strategy is based on Fire Department of New York (FDNY) procedures in high-rise office buildings but can be applied to fires in multiple dwellings as well. We can ask the question: “How did the procedures come about? What prompted this department to come up with this strategy?”

  1. Determine the fire floor.
  2. Verify the fire floor.
  3. Simultaneously begin the process of evacuation.
  4. Gain control of the building systems.
    1. Elevators.
    2. The heating, ventilating and air-conditioning (HVAC) system.
    3. Communications.
    4. Fire pumps.
  5. Confine and extinguish the fire.

Two fires were turning points in history with respect to how the FDNY deals with fires in high-rise office buildings.

There is a distinctive difference between high-rise office buildings and high-rise fireproof multiple dwellings even though they are basically constructed of the same materials. The following is a description of two types of high-rise office buildings, according to the FDNY High Rise Bulletin. Features of the older buildings (pre-1945), are as follows (these buildings are the types everyone would be familiar with such as the Empire State, Chrysler, and Woolworth Buildings):

  • The construction techniques used in these buildings resulted in a “heavyweight” building, usually weighing about 20-23 pounds per cubic foot.
  • Structural steel components were encased in concrete.
  • Exterior walls were of masonry construction.
  • Exterior walls were substantially tied to all floors.
  • Plenum-type ceilings are generally not found in these buildings.
  • Normally steam heated.
  • Usually not centrally air conditioned.
  • Exterior windows were openable.
  • All buildings erected between 1938 and 1968 were required to have a fire tower. Some built prior to 1938 have fire towers.
  • Floors were constructed of reinforced concrete.
  • Core construction techniques were not used.

Note that the Asch Building, where the Triangle Shirt Waist Fire occurred, would not be considered a high rise in this context, although at the time it was considered a “high rise.”

The following is a description of buildings built after 1968. Buildings built between 1945 and 1968 were a mix of the two codes.

  • The construction techniques used in these buildings resulted in a “lightweight” building, usually weighing about 8 to 10 pounds per cubic foot.
  • They were constructed with a lack of compartmentation.
  • The protection of the structural steel component is usually done by spraying on a fireproofing material.
  • Exterior walls are curtain walls, constructed of a combination of glass and metal.
  • The method of securing exterior curtain walls leaves a space of six to 12 inches, which requires additional fire stopping.
  • The ceiling plenums of these buildings are extensive and lack fire stopping. They are used to return the air to the air-conditioning system and for electrical, communications, and other building support equipment.
  • They are usually heated by HVAC.
  • HVAC systems are usually multi-floor systems.
  • Exterior windows are usually not openable.
  • Fire towers are not required.
  • Floors are light in weight, usually consisting of lightweight concrete, “Q decking,” etc.
  • Core construction techniques are used extensively.
Triangle Shirtwaist Fire cutaway
From the Fire Engineering archive

The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

Although the Asch Building, located at 23 Washington Place in New York City, was only 10 stories, in its day it was considered a “high rise.” The building had wood floors and wooden window frames, yet the buildings department considered it to be “fireproof.” The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory occupied the top three floors of the building.

At the time of the fire, which began at approximately 1630 hours, there were roughly 500 workers on the three floors. One of the secretaries smelled smoke on the eighth floor and raised the alarm. The fabric workers in the area of the fire began an attempt to extinguish the fire, but their efforts were all in vain.





When the fire department critiqued the fire, it was agreed upon that the time spent trying to extinguish the fire would have been better served if they had begun evacuating the area immediately and notifying the fire department.

There were major issues with evacuating the area:

1. There were two stairways in the building; because the owners were concerned with theft, they had locked one of the exit doors. The owners felt that if they kept the stairway on the Washington Place side locked, they could funnel all the workers to the Greene Street stairway and inspect their bags as they clocked out.

2. The exit doors opened inward.

3. The only fire escape was in the rear of the building. The stairs were only 18 inches wide. The fire escape terminated at the second floor on top of a skylight and had no access to the rear yard. The iron shutters opened outward onto the fire escape, effectively blocking the means of egress of anyone attempting to use it.

4. There were no sprinklers in the building.

5. The occupants on the ninth floor were unaware of the fire and the fire department was not notified at this time.

After wasting precious minutes trying to extinguish the fire with a hoseline that didn’t function, they finally made a decision to begin evacuation out the rear fire escape. The discarded materials underneath the cutting tables were spreading the fire with extraordinary speed. One of the machinists who opened the windows on rear fire escape was unsuccessful in his attempt to open the door on the Washington Place side.

The dispatchers realized they had a serious fire on their hands. Approximately 15 minutes after the odor of smoke was first discovered, someone finally pulled the street box, followed by a pneumatic alarm then a subsequent phone call. A patrolman arrived on scene before the fire department arrived and saw fire behind women standing at the windows. The situation was dire. There was heavy fire on at least two floors of a factory, which measured 125 x 125 feet (15,625 square feet), with numerous workers trapped beyond the reach of the departments aerial ladders. Women began jumping.

Engine 72 was the first unit on scene. The location was obvious and evacuation was very slow. They were presented with:

•  Flames out every single window on the Washington Place side.

•  The only operable stairway being the one that leads to the street they are on.

•  The rear fire escape becoming overloaded and eventually collapsing, killing 25 workers.

Two elevator operators, Joseph Zito and Gasper Mortillalo, heroically passed fire in elevators that were open cages and brought approximately 150 women from the eighth and ninth floors. After seven or eight trips, the women began jumping into the elevator shaft hoping to grab the cables. They all missed and eventually piled up on top of the cars, making them inoperable. This open shaft probably contributed to vertical fire spread.

At the time, New York City had a high-pressure hydrant system. The pumping system located on Gansevoort Street was notified of the fire and raised the pressure to 200 psi. Eventually the firemen were able to stretch three hoselines through the interior of the building and used numerous outside streams to extinguish fire. Once they had water on the fire it was “probably will hold” within 18 minutes and “under control” in 30 minutes.

FDNY photo from One New York Plaza
FDNY photo

One New York Plaza

The second fire that was instrumental in effecting change was at One New York Plaza in 1970. The building was of a newer type construction, which had a “center core design.” This is defined as a building in which elevators, stairway, and building support systems are grouped together in one area of the building. It was designed with:

•  Non-openable windows

•  Central HVAC with plenum on each floor

•  Elevator call buttons that were heat, flame, and smoke sensitive

•  Fire safety directors were not required

Like the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, there was a delay in notifying the FDNY. It seems that over the course of history in the FDNY, whenever there was a serious fire, there seemed to be a delay in notifying the fire department. I can attest to this myself at numerous fires, but most notable was the St John the Divine Fire in 2001. The maintenance worker attempted to handle the situation himself before he finally notified the FDNY. I responded on the initial call that came in as an ERS (Street) Box with no address given. Here’s a timeline of the events as they happened at One New York Plaza.

•  At 1745 hours, three secretaries were inspecting their new offices and smelled smoke but took no action.

•  At 1750, a security guard noticed smoke pushing from the plenum. He notified occupants and they exited to the lobby. Two men noticed flaming debris and glass falling into lobby as well as smoke. Four men couldn’t find the source of smoke on the 32nd floor. They proceeded to 33 and found heavy smoke. A security guard on 35 observed smoke coming past the windows.

•  At 1759, the security guard activated the alarm, whichwas not tied into a central station. An occupant across the street saw flames coming from two windows on the 33rd floor. On the 34th floor, conditions were changing rapidly from a light haze to heavy smoke, forcing occupants to make a hasty retreat towards the interior stairs.

When fire department units arrived on scene, they were confronted with heavy fire out the windows on the 33rd floor but were not able to receive information from any of the fleeing occupants.


3 in Elevator Die As Contents Blaze In Fire-Resistive New York Building (1971)

New York F.D. Conducts Fire Tests in High Rise (197o)

Warning in Skyscraper Fire

Similar to the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, fire department units were confronted with an extremely heavy fire condition on two floors, 33 and 34, on the south and east sides of the building. The fire was of such intensity that it blew out the windows on the 34th floor. Engine 10 and Ladder 15 took an elevator operated by two civilian employees to the 32nd floor. When the employees pressed the button to return the car to the lobby, it instead went to the fire floor, where the two employees were hit with a blast of heat and heavy smoke. They somehow were able to regain control of car and closed the door. The elevator then proceeded to the 36th floor. They were able to get out of the car and were resuscitated by firemen. During the course of the operation, there were many elevator malfunctions.

The firefighters were faced with an arduous task—how confine and extinguish a fire of this magnitude? At the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, there were only three floors to deal with. That sounds like a lot but consider that One New York Plaza had the potential to spread to another 16 floors.

Two points to consider:

  1.  The heating and air conditioning System remained in operation during the early stages of the fire, which contributed to the growth of the fire by adding oxygen to and spreading fire and smoke via the ceiling plenums.
  2. The first-alarm engines started their attack on the fire by stretching from the fire tower and another stairway. Probably as a result of this fire, the department made a point of units NOT using the fire tower as an attack stair.They were driven off the fire floor by the intense heat generated by the heavy fire. Several firefighters were burned trying to maintain their positions.

High Rise section 6.3.8 D Note: Fire Towers are not recommended for use as an attack stair because they may draw the heat and smoke of the higher pressure area near the fire towards the lower pressure of the stairway.


In high-rise fireproof multiple dwellings (HRFPMDs), the key to success is getting control of the apartment door. In most HRFPMDs there is either a long center hallway with stairways on either side of the building or a core type with scissor stairs (photo below). Some of my fellow chiefs believe that if the only thing that the first-due ladder does at a fire is get control of the apartment door, they’ve done their job. Getting control of the door is critical in the event of a wind-driven fire. If firefighters cannot get control of the apartment door, then they mustcharge their hose line in the stairway behind the closed attack stairway door. If the door is controlled, then it acceptable to stretch the dry hoseline to the apartment door and charge it at the apartment door.

Scissor stairs
Scissor stairs. Photo by Danny Sheridan.

The engine and ladder company must decide on which stair will be used as an attack stair and which will be used as the evacuation stair. If the building has multiple stairways, choose one to be attack and the rest become evacuation. It is critical that all hoselines stretched come from the attack stair. The door(s) of the evacuation stair(s) must remain closed on the fire floor to prevent contamination of these stairs. Once the attack stair is determined, it must be cleared of occupants before the fire attack is commenced.

Like HRFPMDs, older high-rise office buildings (HRO) are easier to control because of the ability to compartmentalize the floor. The same premise would apply: the first-due ladder company should strive to get control of the door to the occupancy. Again, it should be decided which stairway would be designated for attack, and this information should be broadcast to everyone on scene and over the department radio to all incoming units.

Dispatch to all units responding in to the working fire at box 1234…the A stairway will be designated as the attack stair.”

Difficulty arises when trying to confine the fire in a newer HRO building. The lack of compartmentalization and plenum spaces in the ceiling above make confinement difficult. The plenum can be likened to a small common cockloft that spans the entire floor. I know from my own experience that when I worked on Wall Street during college, my office was an open area on the 36th floor of a 50-story HRO building. I can distinctly remember a few times where the maintenance workers opened the ceilings and being surprised at how vast they were.

In February 1991, a fire at the Meridian Plaza in Philadelphia spread eight floors (22-30) through unprotected openings in the floor and shafts. There was a delay in notifying the fire department, which gave the fire plenty of time to grow and create difficult conditions for the firefighters. Fire also spread via the windows up into the floors above by means of auto-exposure. Without compartmentalization, it is nearly impossible to confine the fire unless it is gotten to in the early stages. Deputy Chief (Ret.) Vincent Dunn of the FDNY wrote in his August 2000 newsletter:

“The best-kept secret in America’s fire service is that firefighters cannot extinguish a fire in a 20- or 30-thousand-square-foot open floor area in a high-rise building. A fire company advancing a 2½-inch hose line with a 1¼-inch nozzle discharges only 300 gallons per minute and can extinguish only about 2,500 square feet of fire. The reach of the streams is only 50 feet. A modern open-floor office design, with cubicle work stations and dwarf partitions that do not extend to the ceiling, allows fire to spread throughout an entire 100- × 200-foot floor area. A fully involved, free burning 20,000-square-foot floor area cannot be extinguished by a couple of firefighters spraying a hose stream from a stairway. City managers and department chiefs will not admit this to the public if they want to keep their jobs. But every fire ground commander knows this is a fact.”

Vincent Dunn

Since the days of building compartmentalized office space seems to be a thing of the past, our only defense going forward is to insist that any HRO building be sprinklered. The only thing that stopped the fire at One Meridian Plaza in 1991 were the sprinklers that activated on the 30th floor. The three fires that were mentioned above all had one common denominator: a delay in notifying the fire department. The fire at One Meridian Plaza was called in by a passerby in the street that saw flames coming from the 22nd floor.

To be successful in newer HRO buildings—or any fire for that matter—firefighters must be notified as soon as possible to get to the fire, confine, and ultimately extinguish it.


First-Due Battalion Chief: Fires in High-Rise Fireproof Multiple Dwellings

First-Due Battalion Chief: The Rapid Intervention Team

First-Due Battalion Chief: Complacency

First-Due Battalion Chief: The Importance of Locating the Fire First

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