High-Rise Help: Sharing the Lessons


Although managing operational change can be difficult, it can be a very positive approach to a better emergency service delivery. The fire service faces many new duties, responsibilities, challenges, and opportunities. Code enforcement, scene operational rules, safety considerations, training concepts, staffing levels, equipment selection, and apparatus positioning can all hinge on the effectiveness of the preincident planning and postincident review. Obtaining feedback will spur upgrades in company-level inspections and the development of “workable” standard operating guidelines (SOGs).


Do not view a timely reconstruction and discussion of an emergency response as a negative. The purpose of preincident planning and postincident review is to identify human or equipment oversights and make necessary corrections. At times, mistakes in judgment at the command post affect personnel safety at the division/group level. Meaningful inspections and critiques will identify issues to address that can enhance safety and performance.

(1) Identify fire stairs for fire attack, ventilation, and evacuation assignments. Designate a “community room” in the high-rise for tenant accountability to assist in possibly locating other occupants. Training building management and first responders is critical. (Photos by author.)

A second and possibly more important reason for a formal operational review is spotting and reinforcing good work habits. Company-level inspections of buildings under construction or demolition can provide unique insight into hazards and risk. SOGs can be developed or enhanced by dissecting fireground actions and decisions. They will provide a solid foundation for organizing the initial alarm or calling for an additional one. An objective preincident or postincident review will fully examine problems that have been or might be encountered, desirable actions, critical assignments made, and all resources that can be used. The main focus for any inspection or critique is to improve the responders’ capabilities based on identifying predictable or recurring on-scene problems. Obtaining insight into operational issues is the building block for personnel proficiency at the strategic, tactical, and task levels.


High-rise incidents, from stalled elevators to loss of electrical power, have troubled fire departments for decades. In reality, rarely is the high-rise emergency easy to handle. High-rises are not just another target hazard; the dangers and complexities are absolutely unique. Often the shape, dimensions, occupancy, security barriers, fixed protection systems, limited points of access, and fire loads are critical variables.

(2) Removing fire debris is a major challenge in high-rise buildings. Use a freight elevator to help expedite salvage.

After experiencing several high-rise fires in residential and commercial properties, the Philadelphia (PA) Fire Department rewrote its High-Rise Procedure to reflect many of the lessons learned or reinforced by the actual emergency events. High-rise apartment fires in Johnson City, Tennessee (1989); North Bergen, New Jersey (1998); St. Louis, Missouri (1998); and Baltimore, Maryland (1999) have resulted in senior citizen fatalities. On December 18, 1998, fire companies in New York City responded to a predawn fire in a 10-story apartment building for the elderly; three members died.

High-rise office buildings are just as deadly. On August 18, 2007, an upper-floor fire in the former Deutsche Bank Building resulted in the death of two Fire Department of New York firefighters. Regular inspections and standard operating procedures for contaminated skyscrapers are the focus of internal investigations.

Recently, the Houston (TX) Fire Department performed a quality assurance review after a major commercial district fire occurred in a six-story structure; it resulted in civilian deaths and firefighter injuries. Department policies were ignored. As a result, lessons on self-dispatching, handling a distress call, and freelancing on the fireground needed reinforcement.

(3) Signage is important for locating standpipe connections. Delays in pressurizing the standpipe affect suppression activities.

On May 4, 1988, at the Interstate Bank Building in Los Angeles, California, a maintenance worker was killed, and problems with the water supply related to pressure reducing valves (PRVs) on the standpipe system caused operational obstacles.

On February 23, 1991, a fire occurred at the One Meridian Plaza Bank Building in Philadelphia. Tragically, three firefighters lost their lives battling the fire. Five-inch large-diameter hose had to be stretched up the stair tower to obtain a reliable and adequate water supply when it was discovered that the PRVs had been improperly set. A complete failure of the electrical and fire protection systems resulted in the building’s suffering heavy fire damage above the 22nd floor. Eventually, the 38-story building was demolished. After a thorough National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) review of the Interstate Bank and Meridian Plaza fires, NFPA 13, Standard for the Installation of Sprinkler Systems, and NFPA 14, Standard for the Installation of Standpipes and Hose Systems, were changed. All the after-action reports from residential and commercial incidents have helped many fire service leaders establish a tangible link between postincident reviews, preincident policies, and the emergency response. The postincident critique is the platform for creating effective fire department policies.


On December 28, 2006, between Christmas and New Year’s Day, an apartment fire occurred in the early morning hours in a 22-story apartment building in Philadelphia’s Wynnefield Heights neighborhood. As with any major incident, the departmental training, policies, and procedures were tested during the response and recovery phases.

At the River Park Condo and Apartments incident, life-safety priority was based on the number, age, and mobility of occupants who were located above the fire and immediately impacted. Stabilization depended on functioning fire protection equipment and monitoring surveillance cameras mounted in the interior hallway. The large-scale evacuation of many elderly occupants to a community room outside of the immediately dangerous to life or health (IDLH) area drew approval from families, building management, and elected officials. The readiness of first responders was rooted in a recent training initiative, a written document, and endless “kitchen table” discussions on solid firefighting principles.

High-rise incident duties were reviewed in an eight-hour training session for chief officers and aides on “Communication, Accountability, and Incident Command” in November 2006. A written operational procedure with predefined command and support positions is available to every member, and frequent mandatory training is held on the topic. Departmental leaders encourage a culture of pondering “job-related” scenarios. All are essential elements of organizational preparedness.

(4) Flames are likely to lap up the front of the building. Command must have Fire Attack and Search groups check for fire spread around the curtain wall.

It was a little before 3 a.m. when a security guard at the River Park Condo and Apartments noticed smoke on a surveillance camera. The problem seemed to originate from the 14th floor of the luxury apartment building. Most residents at 3600 Conshohocken Avenue were asleep as the fire grew. Soon the fire department would be notified and residents would be seeking assistance. When the alarm activated, the fire had already heavily involved Apartment 1408.

As first-alarm companies began to arrive, flames were lapping up the face of the building. The fire was extending into a 15th-floor apartment. During the first few minutes, little time could be wasted as companies began to arrive and deploy. Crews were needed on the fire floor. Fire attack and search activities could not wait. The upper floors were a direct exposure, and water lines were needed to cut off the fire spread. Ventilation was vital to reducing the heavy smoke in the center hallways above the fire. Coordination was required as the tenants were moved down the fire towers. Command and control were necessary to avoid any duplication of work assignments. Miscommunication or miscues could be fatal.

When a Mayday message was transmitted by portable radio, the rapid intervention team (RIT) was immediately deployed. One responder was found in the fire tower and successfully removed to the Medical Unit. The injured member received on-scene treatment and was transported to a hospital.

Responding as the on-duty deputy chief, I considered the possibility of a total system failure. I recalled the learning points from that One Meridian Plaza critique: control the lobby, monitor accountability at points of entry, set up a staging area below the fire floor, assign personnel with command experience to rapidly ascend to supervise crew placement, ventilate stair towers with roof hatches, attack with rotating crews, and establish an on-site communication link between the nozzle teams and the Operation Section chief. It was mandatory that past mistakes were not repeated.

On my arrival, the second alarm was struck. After I was briefed, the list of duties and challenges seemed to multiply. A list of handicapped tenants was needed. Phone calls from occupants seeking help had to be tracked. A base had to be created on the exterior to avoid apparatus parking congestion. Inside the small lobby, a ladder company was setting up the initial components of the Logistics Section; yet elevators had to be recalled to the lobby and placed in the Firefighter Emergency Service mode. Control of the fleeing occupants had to be quickly addressed, and a designated “safe haven” inside the building had to be found. Tenant accountability was important. All the information had to be recorded. Charting and easy-to-read diagrams were vital. Progressive reports had life and death implications. Operational and logistical resources were needed. A third and fourth alarm were struck. In all, more than 150 responders would be looking for guidance.

According to the SOG, the Operation Section chief would work from an upper floor. The center tower at the 12th floor was chosen as a practical place from which to direct the tactics. Attack lines were stretched from the standpipe system in the Center Tower. Automatic nozzles with fog streams pushed the smoke toward the east side. Because it had a roof hatch, the east staircase was designated as the Ventilation Tower. Tenant evacuation had to cease above the fire floor because of smoke contamination. Certainly, the lessons of the deadly 2001 Chicago (IL) Cook County Administrative Building “loop fire” taught responders to clear ventilation stairways to prevent people from becoming trapped or disoriented above a fire floor. River Park occupants had to be diverted to the West Tower for safe passage. Supervisors were assigned to the 14th and 15th floors and designated as geographical areas of the 16th to 22nd floors.

In a little more than an hour, the fire was under control in a building with 354 living units. At least 300 residences were evacuated; many received medical care from paramedics. Chief Lloyd Ayers commended responders for their ability to keep occupants “out of harm’s way.”

(5) Preplan proper apparatus placement for locations where front driveways offer limited access.

High-rise apartment fires will always be dangerous. In the early evening of January 3, 2008, the Fire Department of New York fought an intense fire in a 25-story apartment building. Flames and smoke filled the 14th floor; occupants and firefighters were injured. Lieutenant John Martinson was killed. Although the investigation into this line-of-duty death is just beginning, this incident shares many of the same core characteristics of the fire in the 22-story River Park building.

Both of the fires

  • occurred in the center of the building and required first responders to perform immediate life-saving actions;
  • reinforced the need to call for additional assistance at the first hint of smoke or fire showing; presented operational and logistical challenges, such as tracking residents and firefighters, which takes time, staffing, and a systematic approach;
  • emphasized the significant risk that crews and companies will encounter during the first few minutes in navigating stairs and hallways; and
  • reinforced the need to practice for that Mayday situation. Firefighters can perform the necessary actions quickly and consistently only by maintaining up-to-date standard operating procedures and regularly reviewing multialarm incidents.

Together, we can build a fitting tribute to all responders and especially to Martinson; we can make a commitment to sharing all our fireground lessons.

In the future, firefighters will face greater difficulties. All incidents start with the initial response that can have a cascading effect if trained teams are not ready. First responders have only one opportunity to make a positive difference. By maintaining up-to-date protocols, departments can make a smooth transition from a full first alarm to the multialarm assignment. A contemporary disaster plan must be realistic and attainable by early responders. Supervisors must be occasionally reminded of their defined duties. Firefighters and paramedics must understand their assignments and practice the necessary skills. Agency policies must be written to reflect the best practices at the local level. Incident commanders need guidelines for decision making. The incident command system must be expanded to meet the needs of the incident. Now is the time to make a commitment to personal and organizational development. A lesson identified is not a lesson learned until it is effectively addressed. The preincident planning and postincident review with subsequent improvements is the proven approach for providing safe and effective operations whenever there is a call for “high-rise help.”

WILLIAM SHOULDIS is a deputy chief (retired) with the Philadelphia (PA) Fire Department, where he had served for 35 years. He is an adjunct instructor for the National Fire Academy’s resident and field programs, teaching courses in fireground operations, health and safety, and prevention. Shouldis has a bachelor’s degree in fire science administration and a master’s degree in public safety. He is a member of the Fire Engineering editorial advisory board and a frequent FDIC speaker.

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