High-Rise Firefighting Perils: Veterans’ Perspectives

BY JEFF CROW

A high-rise fire can be a most challenging event for a firefighter or fire department: Thousands of people could be in an enclosed structure from which there are very limited means of egress and in which the fire load is extremely heavy. And, even though high-rise fires can be the most challenging and dangerous, they are among the least frequent types of fires to which we respond. This is as true for firefighters who work in high-rise districts as for those who don’t.

Firefighters who work in suburban or rural areas may think, “There’s not a high-rise building anywhere in my response area.” Are you sure of that? What exactly is a high-rise building? Departments and building codes define high-rise buildings differently. In general, a high-rise is any building tall enough so that its top cannot be reached by your department’s tallest aerial apparatus. That can be a building as low as six or seven stories. Today, most communities have at least one six- or seven-story building in their area. And whether a fire is on the 70th floor of the Sears Tower in Chicago or the seventh floor of a hotel in a small town, firefighters face similar challenges. They have to rescue or shelter in place occupants who cannot escape through doors and windows, and they have to move firefighters and equipment up and down many floors to accomplish their tasks.

And even if one-story ranch houses and restaurants are all you have in your territory, if a major fire were to break out in a high-rise building on the other side of town, your company, and even companies from many miles away, may have to respond. You may have seen the photos of fire trucks running hot across the Brooklyn Bridge and other outer-borough bridges into Manhattan on the morning of September 11, 2001. That obviously was an extreme situation, and none of us hopes or expects to respond to another 9/11, but the principle remains the same.

“The downtown companies aren’t going to put out the fire,” says Assistant Chief (Ret.) Bob Ramirez, Los Angeles County (CA) Fire Department. “You know who’s going to put it out? The outlying companies.” He explains: “At a major high-rise fire, the first-in crews aren’t going to be anything more than pathfinders. They’re going to set up the fire … and they’re going to be spent.” Ramirez may be the person most responsible for putting out one of the biggest high-rise fires in U.S. history—the First Interstate fire in Los Angeles (LA).

That fire consumed five floors of a downtown LA high-rise before Ramirez and his crews stopped the fire on the 16th floor; they nearly lost their lives in the process. On the fire floor, Ramirez recalls, “We were standing on a floor that was so hot that the plastic carpet was melting at our feet. We had no air. You couldn’t stand up. You couldn’t kneel down. Your feet were slipping in the melting carpet.”

But they persevered and put out that massive fire. “The First Interstate fire,” Ramirez says, “was literally a battle between Murphy’s Law and firemen, and firemen won” (photo 1).


(1) A helicopter searches for civilians trapped on the 50th floor at the First Interstate fire. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Fire Administration.)

The reason the high-rise district firefighters called to extinguish high-rise fires often do not put out the fire is that the greater alarm companies come in “fresh” and pick up the hose and put out the fire, Ramirez explains. “I’ve seen it happen time after time after time,” he adds.

The point is that high-rise fires are not just the problem of a big city or downtown firefighters. They are every firefighter’s potential problem.

LEARNING FROM OTHERS’ EXPERIENCE

“[A] high-rise [fire] is probably the most difficult incident you’ll ever have to deal with as a fire officer, and you can’t really get good at it, because these fires are so rare,” Chief (Ret.) Jack Bennett, Ramirez’ colleague in the LA County Fire Department, relates. Among many other incidents, Bennett was incident commander at the Fickett Towers fire at which 12 floors on one side of an elderly residential high-rise building were engulfed in flame. To the credit of the LA County Fire Department, not one of the building’s 300 residents was killed.

So if experience is the best teacher, what do we do when we can’t get enough on-the-job experience to learn? We have to rely on training and, to a large extent, “second-hand” learning from others’ experiences. Young firefighters learn by talking to veterans about their past experiences of fighting fires when “the fire was hotter and the water was wetter.” In the same way, we can learn about high-rise fires from the experiences of firefighters who have fought major high-rise fires.

I’ve interviewed firefighters from around the nation who responded to some of the most significant, intense high-rise fires. Following is a summary of their most important points—the lessons to be learned from their “voices of experience.”

BUILDING SYSTEMS

Few firefighters in the world probably have responded to, analyzed, and taught about as many high-rise fires as Deputy Chief Vincent Dunn, who retired from the Fire Department of New York (FDNY) after 42 years of service.1 Dunn says that high-rise firefighting is all about the building systems.

What’s the biggest difference between a high-rise fire and other types of fires? First of all, a high-rise is the only building where we’re totally dependent on the systems in that building. Our firefighting fails if the elevators fail. Our firefighting fails if the communication system fails. Our firefighting fails if the water or standpipe system fails.
Now, in a low-rise fire, we control all those systems. Your portable radio never fails. Your hose stretching never fails. Maybe you get a kink or a burst line, but you can always fix it. And your feet are your transportation system. [At a high-rise fire, on the other hand], you’re totally dependent upon the systems of the building. And if the systems fail, we fail.

John Norman, FDNY deputy assistant chief (ret.), concurs: “For me, knowing the building, knowing the systems, knowing the way the systems were designed—that’s the bottom line.”2 Norman explains:

A big problem is the building. We have to rely on the building, and when the buildings fail us, we’re in big trouble—whether it’s First Interstate, where the fire pumps failed, or any of the other numerous high-rise fires where systems in the building have failed. That’s when we make headlines, you know.

FALSE ALARMS AND COMPLACENCY

Often, the first and most frequent systems with which we interact in these buildings are those downtown firefighters have come to hate—the alarm systems. Their purpose is to warn occupants and the fire department that a fire is in the building. The problem is that, more often than not, when the alarm systems in these buildings activate, they turn out to be false alarms.

“We go to those buildings all the time on false alarms, smoke detector malfunctions—you name it,” Bennett says. “You know. I guess it’s just, again, we’re back to the discipline that’s involved.”

“We call [high-rise districts] ‘the electronic ghetto,’ ” Norman says, “where you’re running automatic alarms all day.”

Repeated false alarms are a problem, because they make us run hot down city streets for no good reason, endangering firefighters and citizens. They cause needless wear and tear on fire apparatus and keep apparatus out of service and unavailable to respond to real emergencies. But the biggest problem with frequent false alarms in high-rise buildings is that they can lead to complacency on the part of the firefighters who respond to them.

This leads to a situation, says Assistant Chief Bruce Kolar of the Clark County (NV) Fire Department, where “guys don’t want to put on their turnouts; they don’t want to put on their SCBA.” Back in 1981, Kolar was a young firefighter just starting his career among the newly constructed high-rise buildings of Las Vegas. Recalling his complacency in those days, he says, “I remember thinking that Vegas was a new town and we would never have the ‘big one.’ I never felt that, being in a new town, I would ever get any kind of experience.”

He got plenty of experience that winter when, in the space of a couple of weeks, he responded to the MGM Grand fire, where 84 people died, and the fire in the Las Vegas Hilton, where there were eight fatalities. He cautions: “It’s so easy to let your guard down, especially as a firefighter going to a new building. When the call came in for the MGM Grand, I distinctly remember thinking, ‘It’s a new building. What are you going to have there? (photo 2). There’s nothing that’s going to go on there.’ Then, in a couple of minutes, you hear guys screaming on the radio, and they were in deep [trouble].”


(2) The MGM Grand fire. [Photo courtesy of the Clark County (NV) Fire Department; used with permission.]

Billy Sands, now a federal court judge in Georgia, was a captain in the Jacksonville (FL) Fire and Rescue Department in 1994 when he responded to a fire at the Cathedral Towers high-rise building, which was home to some 250 senior citizens. Heavy smoke and fire broke out on the 14th floor. Sands recalls, “It was one of these places that you go to every week. You get complacent. Nothing’s going to happen. And this time, these people were going crazy.” Jacksonville Fire and Rescue was able to save all of the Cathedral Towers’ occupants; but, Sands warns, “Complacency is what will kill you.”

“You think [new buildings] are not going to burn,” Kolar points out. “And it’s hard for you to have that mindset that, hey, this could happen. But I’m telling you that probably the biggest thing you’ll learn in your career is that whenever you let your guard down, you’re going to get smacked.”

So how do we keep from getting “smacked” because of complacency? According to James Mockler, a 26-year veteran of the Houston (TX) Fire Department, it all begins with leadership by example. “I find that they’ll [my members] do what I do. People do what the captain does. I don’t really explain myself. I just kind of do what I think is necessary, and people follow me.”

Mockler, assigned to the downtown high-rise district, was on the department’s heavy rescue squad in 2001 when it responded to a fire at the Four Leaf Towers high-rise apartment building. Mockler’s crew was sent upstairs to rescue the captain of the first-in fire attack team, who had become disoriented, was running out of air, and called a Mayday. Mockler recalls hearing the captain saying, “Where’s my backup engine?” and then, “We’re having trouble,” before declaring a Mayday.

“Eventually, we found him,” Mockler says. “It was a big rugby scrum. Some guys were running out of air. One of the guys knocked me over.” After a desperate struggle that nearly cost the lives of Mockler and his crew, they succeeded in reaching the downed captain and removing him from the fire floor. Despite their heroic efforts, the captain did not survive.

In Mockler’s eyes, the crew will avoid complacency so long as their leader doesn’t show complacency. “I think it’s a leadership thing,” he says. He asks, “When responding to calls for alarms sounding in hotels and apartment buildings, do company officers put on their gear? I think there are a lot of guys who don’t put their equipment on,” he offered. Mockler stresses that he doesn’t intend to be a victim of complacency: “I don’t want to be on the fire floor and have to come running out because I went up without my gear or something,” he explains.

Mockler uses the frequent false alarm responses he makes in high-rises as opportunities to train his crews and teach them about the building. “We use all these automatic alarms we make,” he says, “as a fire drill for us. We don’t look to write up any tickets about excessive alarms. It’s like a training session for us.” When responding to automatic alarms, he adds, “We go to the fire control center; we get the firefighter’s key, and then we proceed as if we had an incident. And then I drill—you know, each guy gets to run the elevator at different incidents.” In this way, Mockler transforms a false alarm from an annoyance to a learning opportunity and transforms the “electronic ghetto” into a training ground.

LOGISTICS

If, as Ramirez says, the downtown companies—the first to arrive on the scene—often are not the ones who will put out the fire, what should they be doing? The answer is: They’re doing the most important part of high-rise firefighting—logistics. “You have to understand that a high-rise fire is a logistics problem,” Ramirez says (photo 3).


(3) The equipment pool in the lobby at the First Interstate fire. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Fire Administration.)

Bennett puts it bluntly: “We had several fires where we forgot logistics until we were up to our necks in alligators.”

What is meant by logistics? Roughly speaking, logistics is everything except fire attack and rescue, including elevator and stairway management, resource pool setup, transport of personnel and equipment to a staging area, lobby control, and other activities. Although logistics may not be as exciting as fire attack or rescue, it is, by interviewees’ consensus, the most important part of high-rise firefighting. Logistics is the groundwork that must be laid before the fire attack and rescue can be accomplished.

At a normal fire, like a house fire, most of the firefighters on-scene will be directly involved in the firefighting or rescue effort. At a high-rise fire, the opposite is true. A relatively small percentage of personnel will be engaged in firefighting and rescue operations, and a much larger percentage will be involved in logistics. Ramirez cites the following rule of thumb: “Four firefighters for every firefighter on a hoseline is a good estimate.” High-rise fire logistics is inherently personnel intensive. Ramirez says, “These buildings will eat resources like you’ve never seen before.”

Kolar recalls:

The MGM [fire] just overwhelmed everybody. That casino was fully involved in less than a minute. In less than a minute, all the resources of your department are totally overwhelmed (photo 4). That [fire] was so overwhelming, to go from seven o’clock in the morning [when] you’ve no problem to 7:12 [when] you’ve 5,000 people you need to put someplace, and you’ve got a fire that you’re dealing with ….


(4) The MGM Grand Hotel fire overwhelmed everyone. The fire moved with unbelievable speed. [Photo courtesy of the Clark County (NV) Fire Department.]

To keep from being overwhelmed, Bennett says, “Assign a logistics officer early in the resource game—maybe even before operations.”

“When you attack the fire, it has to be a sustained attack. You cannot stop to run down 20 flights of stairs to get another air bottle or another length of hose,” explains Ramirez. “The hose and air bottle have to be right there (photo 5). Otherwise, you lose the fire.”


(5) Air bottles staged in the lobby at the First Interstate fire. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Fire Administration.)

Raymond Orozco, commissioner of the Chicago (IL) Fire Department (CFD), was incident commander at the 2004 high-rise fire at 135 S. La Salle Street, at which four floors of a heavily occupied office building were engulfed in flames. “At a large fire in a high-rise building, deploy additional resources to aboveground staging/support areas,” he recommends. “This practice will reduce reflex time. If you lose the elevators, those resources will then have to walk up from the lobby.” At this incident, the CFD was able to rescue all of the building’s occupants. Coming as it did about a year after a disastrous high-rise fire in which six Chicago citizens were killed, the La Salle Street fire is considered the incident at which the CFD put into practice the lessons learned from the previous year’s tragedy.

At a high-rise fire, just like at any other fire, aggressive crews want to be attacking the fire and performing rescue. Warns Ramirez, “Everybody wants to go squirt water, but you can’t do it. Your most aggressive officers and crews may not want to be assigned to logistics, but they should be.”

Ramirez related the following concerning a high-rise fire he commanded:

Early in the game, I took my best battalion chief, who later became the number two man in the fire department. I told him, ‘You’re going to be logistics.’ I could almost see his face drop [as if he were thinking], ‘I was going to get a chance to fight fire and now I’ve got [this] job.’ He may have been thinking that; but he said, ‘Yes, sir,’ and he set it up.

CREW FATIGUE

The logistical requirements of high-rise firefighting demand that people and equipment be moved up many floors before fire attack and rescue can begin. For that reason, one of the most important aspects of logistics is how you manage and conserve the most valuable tool on the fireground: the firefighters.

Bennett recommends this basic method for reducing crew fatigue at a high-rise fire. Set up a rotation of crews among three positions near the fire floor: (1) one group actively engaged in firefighting operations; (2) one group standing by, ready to move into action; and (3) a group resting in staging after having just left active operations. So, he says, “You’ve got one company involved on the [fire] floor; one in the stairway ready to relieve the other company, to take over their hoseline or to get another line to back them up, as the case may be; and one down in staging. Go through that rotation twice, and then relieve [the crews] with fresh crews that have not yet been in action. This way, you have three companies rotating. And that continues until you have three companies that are too tired and have to be rehabbed.”

FIRE ATTACK

After a solid logistical foundation has been established, fire attack can begin. It has to be decisive. Dunn says, “You can’t switch from an offensive to a defensive, outside attack if your fire is above the reach of the hose streams. You know, your ability to do an exterior, defensive attack is taken away from you. In other words, ‘You’ve only got one chance to put out a high-rise fire.’ ”

For that reason, using large-diameter hose and a solid stream nozzle is crucial. That is why, Orozco says, “The CFD prohibits the use of 1¾-inch hose and fog nozzles in high-rise buildings.” Relative to the successful attack at the La Salle Street fire, he says, “On verification of the fire floor, the first two engine companies combined to lead out a 2½-inch attack line with a smooth bore nozzle.”

Norman agrees: “For FDNY, 2½-hose with solid tip nozzle is mandatory.”

“You’d better cover your back by having the largest diameter hose and hook up on the floor below the fire,” cautions Dunn.

When advancing the hoseline, Bennett says it is important to check the ceiling space above your head. “What’s happened to our guys,” Bennett says, “is that they’ve advanced the hoseline into the building about 15 to 20 feet, and guess what? The fire was behind them!” He recommends using either the fire hose stream or a pike pole to “knock those [ceiling] panels out to make sure you don’t have fire above you as you advance down the hallway or into the fire.”

VENTILATION

During the fire attack, Bennett says, “Smoke will enter stairways.” He says that using blowers in tandem may ventilate those stairways with postiive pressure.

Dwayne Ayers, a Jacksonville firefighter who was among the first to arrive at the Cathedral Towers fire, saw this method work effectively. At that fire, Ayers says, “We set the fans up on the ground floor, blowing into the stairwells. We opened the firefighting stairwells to the fire floor, and it worked great.”

As for the ventilation of the fire-involved areas, Bennett says, “You’re not bashful about the windows. You take those babies out.”

When the fire floors become heavily involved, firefighters may not have to open windows for ventilation. Glass will break of its own accord and rain down on the streets around the building.

“There was so much glass coming down at First Interstate,” Bennett says, “that it trimmed all the trees on all four sides of the building.” For this reason, he counsels: “Protect the inlet connections and the hoselines by using ladders and salvage covers. Lay lines fire-to-hydrant. Place pumpers as far away as possible from the building.” By the time the glass starts falling, it will be too dangerous to send firefighters to the apparatus to reposition them. Fire apparatus should be parked a considerable distance from the fire building as early as possible in the operation.

ELEVATOR USE

The topic of elevator use is controversial. The normal way of moving up and down in high-rise buildings, of course, is the elevator. In fact, the invention of the modern safety elevator was one of the things that made high-rise buildings possible. These generally safe and reliable transport systems move thousands of people up and down the dizzying heights of high-rise buildings every day. However, the use of elevators during high-rise fires is a complex and contentious topic.

When used correctly at a high-rise fire, elevators can be the key to getting personnel and equipment close to where they need to be to fight the fire and rescue occupants. When used incorrectly, they can be a death trap. “If you ask, ‘how is the next firefighter going to die at a high-rise fire?’ ” Dunn says, “you can say, ‘It’s going to be in an elevator.’ ”

Sometimes elevator use is not an option. At the First Interstate fire, Ramirez says, “[The elevators] never worked. They were already stopped. There was a dead guy in one of them.” So he and his crews had to climb up 16 flights of stairs to attack one of the biggest high-rise fires in history.

Sometimes elevators work; sometimes they don’t. Dunn says, “You know, a bucket of water can put these elevators out, but I’ve seen freight elevators work with water pouring down through them.”

There is a lot of disagreement on this subject. Ramirez is adamant that elevators that serve the fire floor should never be used at working high-rise fires. Many fire departments, Ramirez says, “compromise the firefighter’s safety by jumping in elevators. They haven’t thought it out—the fact that fire gets in the elevator shaft. The heat and the smoke are going to go to the top and are going to affect the mechanism … trap people [in the elevator.]”

When I told him that many departments, including mine, allow fire crews to take the elevator to five floors below the fire, he didn’t mince words. “Oh, you’re crazy,” he said. “You’re out of your mind.”

Bennett is just as adamant. “Do not use elevators. Walk the floors. Elevators can be life threatening. We lost a captain years ago in a multistory building fire.”

However, most with whom I talked saw elevator use at a high-rise fire as a calculated risk. “We just do it [use the elevators],” says Norman, “We do it with caution. We take a lot of precautionary stops. We try to make sure that we’re checking the shaft as we ascend … knowing where the staircases are on each floor as we travel up. But to us, it’s just a necessary evil.”

When told of Ramirez and Bennett’s objections to elevator use, Dunn explained, “I think most of America uses elevators. That’s why they have fireman service.”

Norman says, “I’ve walked 30 flights, 32 flights of stairs, but in tall high-rises, it’s just not practical.” Kolar agrees, “When you get a guy up 25 floors, what kind of shape is he going to be in?” “The issue,” Dunn says, “is not whether to use or not use elevators. The issue is how to use them.” That means taking precautions.

Norman gives this advice when using elevators:

Every five floors, you’re supposed to get out and verify the location of the stairwell, because the staircases do change on different floors …. And check the shaft. Shine your light up the shaft. Look for water, smoke. Look for fire. If you have a hatch on the elevator, while you’re traveling, open it and constantly keep an eye up that shaft.
If you press ‘5’ and it doesn’t stop at 5, well then you should be pressing the emergency stop button. If that doesn’t work, force the doors open to trip the interlock.

Others echoed the importance of the precautionary stops. “The Fire Investigation Team will check at five-floor intervals to ensure that the elevator is still under fire department control, as well as check for smoke and water,” says Orozco. “The operator of every elevator car must have some type of forcible entry tool, an SCBA, a portable radio, and one extra air bottle,” he adds.

Dunn agrees, “When you use an elevator, you had better have a handheld radio in there; you had better have forcible entry tools to force your way out; [and] you’ve got to keep testing your controls every fifth floor.”

Norman says that elevators should be used early if they are going to be used. “You have to move your resources up close to the point of attack as early as you can, because you’re going to lose the elevators,” he says.

At a certain point in a high-rise fire—for instance, when water or smoke enters the elevator shaft—elevators should no longer be used for moving people. But that doesn’t mean that they can’t be used at all.

David White, president of Fire and Safety Specialists, Inc., in College Station, Texas, a high-rise consulting firm, offers the following suggestion:

If we can’t do anything else with the elevators, let’s use them for freight. I’m going to fill that elevator up with air bottles, hose, generators, lights, whatever else I need; push a button; and send it to the 25th floor. I can get my men up there, eventually; but when I’ve got to carry air bottles up there and a thousand feet of 2½-inch hose, there’s no way. So we can just use the elevator as a freight truck.

In this way, White says, we’re addressing the most difficult task in a high-rise incident—taking care of logistics. In other words, when it becomes too risky to put people in the elevators, take them out of firefighter service, put them in regular mode, and use them to move equipment.

Mockler has another idea he learned from hard experience: Use the map in the lobby that directs occupants to stairwells for evacuation as an aid. When he and his crew members got lost and disoriented at the Four Leaf Towers fire, they pulled that map off the wall and used it to find the exit stairwell. “That made a profound impression on me,” Mockler says. “One of the things to check is that map, or check for exits, to orient yourself.” He says he makes a point of telling everyone that the first thing you do when you get off the elevator is look at the map. “I teach it as a basic survival skill,” he adds.

STAIRWELL MANAGEMENT

Inevitably, when enough smoke and water enter the shafts, the elevators will stop working. When that happens, the stairways become the prime means of moving up and down inside the building. At that point, managing the stairwells and their use by civilians and firefighters becomes crucial.

It is important to prevent occupants from trying to self-evacuate through smoke- and heat-filled stairwells, as happened at the Cook County Administration Building fire in Chicago in 2003, where six civilians were found dead in the stairwells. In the wake of that tragedy, the CFD now deploys what it calls “rapid ascent teams” (RATS) to ascend each stairway above the fire floor to check for occupants and direct those in the ventilation/fire attack stairwell to move to another stairwell or enter safe floors and shelter in place.

At the LaSalle Street fire, Orozco says, the RATS “deployed above the fire floor and directed civilians to the designated evacuation stairwell.” CFD policy requires that the fire attack stairwell be cleared of building occupants for a minimum of five floors above the fire floor before the attack line is advanced onto the fire floor.

Norman says if there are indications that people are coming down from above [the fire floor], you have to physically verify those spots so that no people are in that staircase, and you have to withhold the attack until the attack stair has been checked.

SHELTER IN PLACE VS. SELF-EVACUATION

To minimize the risk to occupants in stairwells, often the best option is to have most of them shelter in place. According to Dunn, “A high-rise fire takes away two important strategies from the fire incident commander. The first strategy is rescue. You can’t use ladders to rescue people. Your ability to use a ladder to get people out is taken away from you. Your ability to rescue people from the exterior and the ability to switch to an exterior/defensive attack are the two major differences of a high-rise fire.” For this reason, Dunn adds, “The strategy for high-rise residential buildings is total defense in place. Everybody stays in place.”

Ramirez agrees, “Sheltering in place is a part of high-rise firefighting. It is really what it’s all about.”

“At a high-rise residential building,” Dunn says, “you have to tell everybody: ‘Stay in your apartment.’ Every single apartment is subdivided. You don’t have central air systems. So the safest place for them to be is in their apartments.”

Norman notes that FDNY tries to educate building managers that there are other threats than fire.

At the MGM Grand, Kolar recalls, “Some people who stayed in their rooms fared a little better. The ones who went for the stairwell didn’t do so well.”

Ayers says his experience at Cathedral Towers brought home the rationale behind sheltering in place at a residential high-rise fire. “I’ll tell you what [the Cathedral Towers fire] did for me,” he says. “It gave me a lot more respect for the building itself (photo 6). I came to appreciate the actual structure, how the building is designed to contain the fire.”


(6) The Cathedral Towers fire. (Photos courtesy of Working Fire Training System; used with permission.)

Some types of high-rise construction contain fire better than others. Bennett relates that the center core and the center hallway are the two main types of construction found in a high-rise building. Most residential high-rises are compartmentalized and have a hallway down the center of the floor. That’s why, he says, as a general rule, fire spreads less in a residential high-rise.

Ramirez considers residential high-rises “a slam-dunk.” Your biggest problem there, he says, “is going to be external flame spread, lapping.”

On the other hand, according to Bennett, “With center core type, you’re going to have more fire. If you have hallways with one-hour construction, you’re not going to have as much fire spread. {There’s a] big difference.”

A goal, notes Ayers, is to teach occupants of a high-rise to realize that they can be safe in a burning building. The problem, especially in a post-9/11 world, is getting the public to understand this. After watching the collapse of the World Trade Center towers on 9/11, civilians tend to overestimate the risk of building collapse during a high-rise fire, disregard firefighters’ instructions, and risk their lives trying to self-evacuate when they should be sheltering in place. In fact, Orozco says, “The reality of the post-9/11 era is that you must be prepared to address the fact that most occupants will not shelter in place.”

In Florida, Dunn reports, the elderly sit in the stairs. “They can’t even get down the stairs. They bail out of their buildings. They’re dying in the hallways and stairways. And nobody knows what to do.”

Happily, that was not the case at the Cathedral Towers, at which Jacksonville fire crews were able to evacuate all residents with no fatalities. They did it by proper management of the stairwells. Jacksonville assigned a section officer in the lobby to control all of the stairwells and companies to go up those stairwells. “If you tell people to go to the 47th floor and shelter in place,” cautions Ramirez, “you’d better get firefighters up there to calm them down. We’ve done it, and you can have near panic up there.”

According to Lieutenant William Langley, who responded to the Cathedral Towers on the first-in unit, that’s exactly what Jacksonville did:

As rough as this may sound, we were very firm with the occupants of the building. If they tried, if they wanted to go down the [wrong] stairwell—no matter what—we would not allow it (photos 7-8). We forced the flow of traffic. Once we controlled the flow of traffic headed in the right direction, it was like they almost forgot about that stairwell we were using for a fire attack stairwell, so to speak. We had people, firefighters—uniformed, dressed firefighters—at every floor level, actually blocking the exit and telling people, ‘You cannot go this way. You must go that way.’


(7) Firefighters rescue a resident from the Cathedral Towers fire.

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(8) A resident is given fresh air at the Cathedral Towers fire.

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COMMUNICATION

“For any one of these defend-in-place strategies, you need three things,” Dunn says. “You need to be able to extinguish the fire. The building’s got to be fire resistive and confine the fire to that floor without letting it spread. And people have got to pay attention to and comply with your instructions.”

Effective communication to the building occupants is crucial to defend-in-place strategy. Norman says that the building’s personnel should make public address system announcements. “We give them what we want them to tell them {occupants], but they handle the system, make the announcements, because they already began that before we arrived.”

Dunn asked the fire safety director to make an announcement such as the following: “The fire’s on the 13th floor. Everybody on the 13th and 14th floors—the fire floor and the floor above—evacuate. Everybody else stay in place.”

You must make sure that those who evacuate take the right stairwell. For that reason, Dunn recommends that the decision of which stairway will be used for fire attack and which one for evacuation be made early.

There will always be some people who will not do what the firefighters tell them for whatever reason—they don’t understand the directions or can’t identify the correct stairway, for example. “We really don’t expect them all to listen,” Norman says.

Communication among firefighters working in the building is as important as communicating with building occupants. However, communication among firefighters is one of the toughest problems when fighting fires in high-rise buildings. And, it is serious!

“If you’re a chief officer and you don’t have communication at a fire, you might as well go home,” Dunn stresses. “All we do at fires is communicate. It’s the name of our game.”

Langley underscores the communication difficulties. “The radio traffic, in my opinion, is eventually going to get a lot of people killed, because people cannot get through on that radio,” he explains. “Everybody is trying to talk. It’s the same problem that all major departments have.”

Dunn speaks for all high-rise firefighters when he says, “I want one radio that works in high-rise buildings.” As of yet, that ideal radio does not exist. The 9/11 Commission criticized FDNY for not having an effective communication system when responding to the World Trade Center attacks. Although no one’s found a perfect solution to the problem, some progress has been made. Most notably, FDNY has developed what it calls the post (short for “command post”) radio—actually a powerful repeater to amplify and extend the range of weak handheld radio signals in the building.

Norman says that since 9/11, FDNY deployed a number of new items and the post radio is probably the “biggest item …. We’ve tested it in virtually every commercial high-rise in the city and have had real good luck,” he reports. “Whereas before, you were lucky to penetrate eight or nine floors, we’re now routinely getting to every floor, 100 stories,” he explains.

Norman, however, warns: “Radio communication is not everything. One of the big things we do try to use is hard-wired communications within the building, in the lobby command post area. We have floor warden stations out on the floors. We have phone systems in the staircase. They’re redundant systems, separate systems.”

Orozco describes the redundant communication systems at the La Salle Street fire:

Radio traffic was very heavy, as can be expected. To deal with this, we utilized a tactical channel as well as a command channel. We also utilized the building’s communication system as designated in our General Order. Chief officers utilized the fire phones located in the stairwells to communicate with the command post in the lobby. We also deployed the engineers of apparatus not committed to pump operations to serve as runners.

If we can’t always have the perfect communication systems for use in high-rise buildings, we should at least be aware of what to expect from the buildings in our area. We should use prefire planning and high-rise building inspections to find out to what extent our radios work in the buildings. What we really should be doing at every high-rise building is checking our radios,” says Dunn. “We send a firefighter to the roof, and he should be able to communicate from the lobby to the roof and the lobby to the lower floor.”

•••

Communication is the key—whether it’s between firefighters on different levels of a high-rise or firefighters with different levels of experience. Because high-rise fires are rare, high-rise firefighting experience is a rare and valuable commodity. Like any other commodity, it must be traded and exchanged to be of use.

Few of us will ever respond to enough working high-rise fires to master all of the skills we need to deal with them successfully—whether it be controlling building systems, setting up logistics, handling stairwell evacuation and ventilation, or any other of the many special challenges of these fires.

It’s one thing to learn these skills from drills, books, or articles. It’s quite another to have performed them under pressure. By listening to firefighters who have performed them, we can avoid their mistakes and emulate their successes. And when the time comes for us to roll up on a high-rise building showing heavy fire and smoke, we’ll be a little bit more confident, having learned from those who faced the fire before us.

Endnotes

1. Vincent Dunn is the author of Safety and Survival on the Fireground (Fire Engineering, 1992) and Strategy of Firefighting (Fire Engineering, 2007).

2. John Norman is the author of the Fire Officer’s Handbook of Tactics, Third Edition (Fire Engineering, 2005). He served as search and rescue manager at the World Trade Center operations on 9/11.

JEFF CROW is a 25-year veteran of the Houston (TX) Fire Department, where he is a district chief responsible for the downtown high-rise fire district. He is a Texas state-certified fire training instructor.

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