HIGH-RISE RESIDENTIAL FIRE, TAMPA, FLORIDA
EMILIO F. SALABARRIA
LESLIE P. ENNIS
On December 26, 1998, at 1158 hours, the Tampa Fire Rescue Signal Division dispatched a high-rise response to a reported structure fire at 215 Grand Central Boulevard. Building security personnel had received an alarm from the building`s fire alarm system and notified the Tampa Fire Department via 911.
The structure is a 13-story apartment building, constructed in 1973, that houses the elderly. The building has pressurized stairwells, smoke detectors, and fire alarm pull stations on each floor. Unfortunately, no automatic fire sprinkler system had been installed. The building has concrete floors supported by steel bar joists with a built-up asphalt and gravel roof. Interior walls are gypsum board supported by metal studs.
Units dispatched included three engines, two aerials, a rescue, a ventilation truck, a district chief, and a rescue supervisor. While all units were responding, the rescue reported heavy black smoke showing from the building from more than two miles away. Based on this report, the Tampa Fire Rescue Signal Division dispatched a second alarm–bringing an additional three engines, two ladders, two rescues, and Acting Division Chief 1 Gary Parsons, who would assume the operations section.
Observations from incoming personnel indicated that one apartment was fully involved, with flames blowing out of every window of the apartment. The first engine on the scene confirmed the report of heavy black smoke, indicating that it was coming from the ninth floor. It was later discovered that the fire was actually on the 10th floor.
While en route, the first-alarm district chief called for a third alarm, bringing two additional engines to the scene, and then took command of the incident. He special-called additional transport units, bringing two Tampa rescue units as well as two Hillsborough County Fire Rescue transport units and two private ambulances.
Engines 1 and 3 combined to advance equipment up through the building. Engine 17 was assigned to supply the standpipe system with water through the fire department connection. Initially, the first-arriving ladder company (Aerial 1, a 95-foot ladder tower) was to be positioned at the northeast corner of the building; however, personnel encountered an electric gate and opted to move to the southeast corner and set up. (After a brief look at the fire location, it was decided not to attack the fire from the aerial`s bucket because it would not reach.)
Residents were standing and sitting inside the east stairwell as they have done time and again during their many fire drills, making it difficult for firefighters to pass with their equipment. The residents were frightened and asked for assistance, which we could not stop to provide. They were told that more help was on its way and that they were safe inside the stairwell. Further complicating matters, some residents were disabled and used walkers and canes. Some residents even carried their oxygen bottles with them.
At the fire floor, Engines 1 and 3 stretched a 2 1/2-inch hose to attack the fire. From inside the stairwell, the fire could be seen all around the doorjamb, so it was known that fire was in the hallway. There were eight firefighters on the attack crew, and all of them were needed to maneuver the hose around corners and through doorways. With such a large hose, they accomplished knockdown rather quickly, which enabled the attack crews to see the knee-high walls all around the apartment where the windows had melted. A firefighter was assigned to guard against someone falling over and out of the apartment.
The driver of the ventilation truck was asked to assist in the pressurization of the east stairwell (the bulkhead door was in the closed position), using the 80,000-cfm fan mounted on the truck, which helped clear the building of smoke during the fire attack (not initial stage).
Aerial 1 went to the floor above the fire (11th) to check for extension and perform search and rescue. In the apartment above the fire (Apartment 1101), the windows were broken out as a result of the intense heat generated from the autoexposing fire from below. The contents of this apartment sustained heavy heat and smoke damage. There was no fire extension from the 10th to the 11th floor through pipe chases or other vertical openings.
Aerial 1 also began to search the rooms and remove occupants in immediate danger on the eastern end of the building and then went down to the 10th floor to assist Engines 9 and 14 in occupant removal. Firefighters found an unconscious woman who was not breathing. They carried her down the west stairwell for medical attention. She later died from her fire injuries.
In all, the incident took approximately 35 minutes for fire extinguishment and immediate occupant removal. The following 3 1/2 hours were spent removing less-endangered occupants and checking for water damage and building safety. The fire was later determined to be accidental in nature.
LESSONS LEARNED AND REINFORCED
As with almost all fires of this magnitude, communications are at the forefront of the problems responders must deal with; this fire was no exception. Radio communications were broken up, and responders were all attempting to use their radios simultaneously as reports from the fire floor were being transmitted. All radio traffic was on one frequency, even though Tampa Fire Rescue has five radio frequencies. One solution that may have helped with the radio problems was to relocate all incoming companies to another radio frequency, allowing the operations sector a clear channel to coordinate the assault on the fire.
Evacuating residents while attack crews were ascending slowed the operation. At every few stair landings, the crews had to stop to explain what was going on and what residents should do. It is imperative that separate attack and evacuation stairwells be designated to avoid these problems and to minimize danger to the occupants whenever possible. In this case residents already had self-evacuated on fire department arrival, making such a stairwell designation impossible.
The use of a high-volume fan (80,000-cfm) at this incident necessitated the confirmation that the stairwell door on the fire floor was closed while the fan was in operation. This requires a significant amount of coordination.
Initially the emergency medical demand was overwhelming for the first-arriving rescue unit to handle. A large number of occupants were evacuating the rooms and stopping in the stairwell, making it difficult for EMS personnel to reach them. Personnel had to go up to physically remove the occupants. In all, eight residents were transported to a local hospital. In a fire involving a high-rise residential building populated with up to 275 elderly people, the need for sufficient transport units is realized quickly. It is important to call for extra units early in the incident and maintain enough for as long as the need dictates. The setup of a medical sector with triage would be of great use in an incident of this magnitude.
A public address system in a high-rise structure provides the opportunity for the incident commander to direct the actions of the building occupants. Utilization of such a system at this incident could have minimized the amount of self-evacuation that took place.
Note that the fire attack utilized a 2 1/2-inch line advanced by two engine companies. Only the 2 1/2-inch line provides the volume of water necessary to knock down a fire of this magnitude. Regardless of your company`s staffing, you must assign the proper number of personnel to get the job done. Additionally, the use of 2 1/2-inch hose and smooth-bore nozzles can compensate for low-pressure conditions found in some standpipe systems.
At the time of the fire, one elevator was inoperable, leaving only one elevator to transport equipment and refreshments to personnel in the rehabilitation sector on the sixth floor after knockdown. The fire attack was mounted using the stairwells exclusively. This caused a bottleneck in the lobby.
The elevator was captured and maintained by a firefighter, who operated it for the remainder of the incident. The elevators did not have firemen`s service capabilities.
If first-arriving companies would have used the elevators, the attack would have been delayed because one elevator was broken and completely out of service. This point reinforces the importance of a physical fitness program to maintain firefighters` operational readiness to combat a fire of this nature.
Use whatever means are available–fireline tape, police officers, or whatever you can come up with–to control the scene and prevent victims` family members from entering the building to effect a rescue. At this incident, family members entering the building to save their loved ones confused the scene and made accountability of occupants difficult.
Training must be provided to occupants of high-rise buildings, especially the elderly. They must be informed as to how to react when a fire occurs–for example, to stay in their apartments unless directed to evacuate and to keep their doors closed.
Automatic sprinkler systems provide the highest level of fire safety available today. Had a system been installed in this building, the outcome obviously would have been much different.
An erroneous report from a first-arriving company could have proved disastrous at this incident. Incident commanders must verify the fire`s location before mounting an attack.
On arrival, firefighters found heavy fire conditions in this 10th floor apartment. Such conditions dictate the use of large-caliber handlines, specifically the 2 1/2-inch line. Note fire beginning to envelop the building`s exterior skin, autoexposing the upper floors. (Photo © 1998 Candace C. Mundy/The Tampa Tribune.)
Building occupants are often unprepared for a fire in their building. The use of a public address system allows the incident commander to give directions and reassurance to frightened fire victims. (Photo © 1998 Candace C. Mundy/The Tampa Tribune.)
An interior view of the public hallway looking toward the fire apartment. Note the heavy damage sustained by the corridor walls. Also note the debris hanging from the ceiling with the potential to entangle firefighters below. (Photo by Cathy Kunde.)
The fire apartment. Typical residential fuel loads are more than enough to produce significant fires that compromise exterior windows, resulting in autoexposure. (Photos by Cathy Kunde.)
The effects of autoexposure. Note the broken windows on the floors above the fire floor. Firefighters must be assigned to the floors above the fire floor to perform several tasks, including searching for trapped occupants as well as for fire extension.
EMILIO F. SALABARRIA is a 14-year veteran of Tampa (FL) Fire Rescue and a driver engineer assigned to Aerial Company 1, A Platoon. He has two associate of science degrees, one in emergency medical services and the other in fire science technology. He is also a contract instructor with Hillsborough Community College and the Hillsborough County Schools/Leary Technical Center.
LESLIE P. ENNIS is a 22-year veteran of the fire service and has been a firefighter with Tampa (FL) Fire Rescue for 10 years, assigned to Aerial Company 1, B Platoon. He is also a contract instructor with Hillsborough County Schools/Leary Technical Center and the National Fire Academy.