Improper Staging Can Set a High-Rise Operation Up for Failure

FDNY firefighter at abandoned apartment building in NYC watching fire and smoke blow out a window
An abandoned apartment building on Governor's Island, New York, provided a real-life laboratory for fire researchers studying wind-driven fires and tactics to combat them. Photo courtesy of NIST.

Photo above courtesy of NIST

A high-rise assignment is dispatched for “smell of smoke” at 0400 hours at an old, non-sprinklered condominium building. Like many of these buildings, it is occupied, predominately, by elderly residents; many relying on walkers and wheelchairs for mobility; some are bed ridden. A resident in a unit on the 14th floor left food on the stove, catching fire to the kitchen cabinets. In his haste to flee, he left the door to the public hallway open and failed to pull the fire alarm; consequently, fire alarm activation is delayed until smoke reaches detectors in the elevator lobby.

The first-arriving suppression apparatus—an engine, a medic-rescue, and battalion chief—roll into the scene while the rest of the companies stage “level 1” on the street. This is the proper staging procedure for low- and mid-rise buildings, but not for a high-rise assignment. The battalion chief assumes command and orders the engine and medic-rescue to investigate. Those companies enter the building’s lobby, check the annunciator panel, recall the elevators in “phase 1” firefighter service, and take an elevator on “phase 2” to two floors below the reported fire floor. Once at the reported fire floor, they open the stairwell door and are met with heavy smoke from floor to ceiling.


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One of the many fire and life safety issues with old condominiums is that some have no self-closers on unit doors. Consequently, at this fire, the fire floor hallway is “dirty.” To make matters worse, once the fire alarm is ringing, some residents panic and leave the refuge of their units, which are completely clear of smoke, and venture into the smoke-filled hallway. Residents can be heard choking on smoke and calling for help in the elevator lobby where they are desperately pressing buttons for an elevator that was never coming. This delays getting water on the fire since the engine and medic-rescue crews must carry occupants down the stairs to the floor blow the fire. Additionally, this consumes a large quantity of their SCBA air supply. After performing the rescues, the engine and medic-rescue stretch a hoseline from a standpipe outlet on the floor below the fire, charge their line, and flow it in the stairwell to read the in-line gauge and check the quality of their stream. The charged hoseline is advanced to the fire compartment and is just beginning to get water on the fire when the firefighters run low on air and must retreat to the floor below the fire. Unfortunately, the companies desperately needed to relieve them have not yet reached the fire floor because they were parked on the street. The excessive reflex time at this fire results in conditions worsening as the fire intensifies and the hoseline, holding open the stairwell door, allows smoke to fill the stairwell above the fire floor and, due to reverse stack effect, to lower floors as well.

The purpose of this bulletin is to clarify some terminology and procedures regarding high-rise operations. Staging is defined as that location where personnel and equipment are pooled for immediate deployment in an incident. When it comes to high rise assignments, personnel sitting in the cab of apparatus on the street are not ready for immediate deployment. There are two levels of staging: Level 1 units stage in their direction of travel, uncommitted, approximately one block from the scene or stage outside commercial or residential complexes. Units to Level 2 staging will report to a designated staging area, specified by the incident commander.

It must be understood that for high-rise assignments, the designated staging area for Level 2 staging will be two floors below the fire floor unless otherwise specified by the incident commander.  Staging companies two floors below the reported fire floor is necessary to prevent excessive reflex times, which is defined as the time it takes a company to begin operations on the fire floor after arrival on scene. Reflex time is also a critical factor for later-arriving companies that are given assignments in support of the initial operation.

Company Assignments

Say, for example, a fire department’s high-rise procedures require the first three arriving companies on a high-rise assignment to go to the fire floor (it should be understood that if the fire floor hallway or office suite is “dirty,” initial actions such as connecting, stretching and charging a hoseline will take place on the floor below); a fourth company to lobby control; fifth to floor above fire; sixth is medical group, two floors below fire; seventh is staging group; and all remaining companies without an assignment go to  STAGING, TWO FLOORS BELOW THE FIRE. A department’s high-rise procedures must allow for some flexibility in assigning the first four arriving companies, in the sense that three companies must go to the fire floor and one must establish lobby control, but not necessarily in that order. For example, companies 1 and 2 may go to the fire floor, company 3 establishes Lobby Control, and company 4 joins 1 and 2 at the fire floor.

This assignment sequence assumes that first-arriving companies are not greeted in the lobby by people needing medical care from smoke inhalation, burns, panic, etc. In this case, the need for medical would move up in the sequence. It may also delay getting companies to the floor above and the establishment of a staging group. Any unforeseen yet urgent issues would also alter the assignment sequence.

All first-alarm companies on a high-rise assignment either has an assignment, such as the fire floor or lobby, or they report to staging—again, that’s two floors below the reported floor. Since all units on a high-rise assignment have an assignment or destination there is no “Level 1” staging for units dispatched on a high-rise assignment. Drivers of fire suppression apparatus will assist in supplying fire department connections and then begin gathering air bottles and PPV fans from apparatus to marshal them in or just outside the lobby.

‘Level 2’ Staging vs. Base: There Is a Difference

It is important for the officer requesting second and greater alarms at a high-rise to specify the location of base on the street or parking lot. This begs the question: Why we don’t we just call base “Level 2” staging? The answer is there is a difference.  The definition of “base” makes the distinction between staging and base: “As differentiated from staging, resources in base are not ready for immediate deployment.”  On high-rise assignments, second-alarm units should report to base initially when arriving and before being assigned by command. Base is what we usually call staging on at most of our incidents, but not on high-rise assignments.

Remember, companies sitting in the cab of their vehicle are not ready for immediate deployment at a high-rise assignment.

 is a 45-year veteran of the fire service and a captain with the Miami-Dade (FL) Fire/Rescue Department. He began his fire service career in the Chicago area and is a lead instructor in his department’s Officer Development Program. He teaches tactics and company officer training programs throughout North America. He is an advisory board member of FDIC International and a technical editor of Fire Engineering.

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