A fireground commander must obtain, manage, and process information transmitted over radios during a fire. Information is the key to successful high-rise firefighting. Critical information should flow from fire officers and sectors to the officer in command; however, it often does not. So a fire chief sometimes has to get information at a fire himself. To do this, you must listen and ask questions–lots of listening to messages transmitted over portable radios and lots of asking questions of sector officers, building managers, and the officer in command at the scene on arrival. At some high-rise buildings, floor plans and video display terminals can provide information about stairways, elevators, floor layouts, standpipe systems, and unusual hazards. The officer in command must obtain so much information that a checklist sometimes is used to record the data. After the information is obtained, the chief writes it down on the checklist; or, the chief uses the checklist as a step-by-step guide to obtain the information.

An officer in command of a high-rise fire must get the following critical information as quickly as possible to effectively command and control the operating forces:

Where`s the fire? What floor is the fire on? At a high-rise building fire, you often do not see the fire from the street and can`t count stories even if you do see flame; there are too many of them. The most important piece of information for the fireground commander is the floor of the fire. This information greatly affects strategy. If the fire is on a lower floor, it is good news. For example, if the fire is below the 10th floor, ladder rescues might be made and strategy can be changed if the interior hoseline attack fails. An exterior attack using outside aerial master streams can be used. A fire above the reach of the aerial ladders is bad news: There can be no aerial rescues, people may have to choose between fire and jumping, and the fireground commander does not have the option of changing strategy–there can be no outside attack if the interior hoseline attack fails.

What is the size of the fire? Can the initial attack hoseline being stretched from the standpipe extinguish the fire? The fireground commander quickly must obtain estimates of the fire size and the ability of the attack hose to extinguish the fire. If the attack hoseline can extinguish the fire, that`s good news. Just wait a few minutes, and the fire operation may be successful. If reports indicate the firefighters cannot extinguish the fire, start evacuating the fire floor and floor above the fire, and consider calling additional resources. That`s bad news.

Is an attack hoseline discharging water on the fire? At a serious high-rise fire, when the life hazard is severe and there is confusion or there are problems with the standpipe, water volume, or pressure, stretching, charging, and directing the initial attack hoseline somehow get overlooked or forgotten. So, the officer in charge must determine if the attack hose team actually is discharging water on the fire. If it is not, the officer must immediately assign additional firefighters to assist with this important task and inform everybody that it is critical to the overall mission. Veteran fire officers know that the single most important life-saving action at a high-rise fire is to extinguish the fire with the attack hoseline. If you extinguish the fire, flames and some of the smoke generation will stop; and all firefighters can then concentrate on search, rescue, evacuation, and other life-saving actions. It is a fact that 95 percent of all high-rise fires are extinguished by the first attack hose team–and, most importantly, 95 percent of lives are saved by the first attack hose team`s putting out the fire.

What stairway is being used for attack? Stairs in a high-rise fire must be quickly divided into attack stairs (those from which hose streams are being operated) and evacuation stairs (those being used to evacuate people from the upper floors). All stairways in a high-rise building usually are identified with a letter–for example, if there are two stairways, one should be labeled “A” and the other “B.” The identification letter should be posted somewhere in the stairway enclosure at each floor. The reason a fireground commander must find out which stairway is being used to attack the fire is that this stairway will fill up with smoke. People should be warned not to use it. After the fireground commander knows the identity of the attack stairway, he should ask the building manager to announce the identity of the other stairway to be used for evacuation. People above the fire should be informed over the public address system that they should not use the attack stairway. They should be told to use the evacuation stairway and which stairway that is.

What is the status of the building systems? Four building systems can make or break the firefighting operations in a high-rise building–elevator, air-conditioning, standpipe, and sprinkler.

–Elevator system. The fireground commander must find out if the system is working properly. At many high-rise fires, elevators malfunction and trap occupants and firefighters in elevator cars. The fire chief should request an elevator maintenance person to be at the command post for assistance. Firefighters should search all elevators for trapped victims. If firefighters are trapped in an elevator and the car is below the fire and there is no danger, additional firefighters are not sent to the rescue; they are needed to fight the fire. If the elevator car in which firefighters are trapped is above the fire, a rescue team immediately should be sent to attempt extrication.

–Central air system. If the building has a central air-conditioning system that serves the fire floor, it must be shut off. If left on during a fire, the air ducts can spread flame and smoke throughout several floors. Air-conditioning ducts penetrate walls, floors, and partitions of high-rise buildings.

–Standpipe system. The fireground commander will know if the standpipe system is not working properly because the firefighters will quickly notify him of this fact. The initial attack hose team members will be calling over the radio for more water pressure. When this happens, a building engineer should be summoned to the command post and ordered to the pump room to increase pressure. Also, another hoseline should be ordered into the standpipe siamese and pumper pressures should be increased. Recognize that problems with pressure-regulating valves may be difficult to overcome; increasing the engine pressure through the siamese or building fire pump will not compensate for a misadjusted pressure-regulating valve.

–Sprinkler system. Sometimes a sprinkler system is overlooked during the initial stage of a high-rise fire. The standpipe system may be supplied, but the sprinkler system siamese may be forgotten in the heat of the battle. The fireground commander must determine if there is a sprinkler system and if it covers the fire floor. If the answer is yes, he should order that the sprinkler system be supplied as well as the standpipe system. Establish if the sprinkler system has been activated and is working properly. If a high-rise building has both sprinkler and standpipe systems, on arrival one line should supply the standpipe to protect the firefighters; the second hoseline should supply the sprinkler siamese. The third line goes to the standpipe, and the fourth line to the sprinkler siamese. The pump pressure to the standpipe siamese, assuming a 212-inch handline, should be 150 psi plus five psi for each floor above ground level up to the fire. So, a fire on the 10th floor would require 200 psi pump pressure. The pump pressure to the sprinkler siamese should be 100 to 150 psi maximum (plus additional pressure for elevation head).

Are the key fire command sectors in operation? Over the past 100 years of high-rise firefighting in New York City, the following four critical areas, sometimes called sectors, have been identified. These critical areas or sectors require a chief to control and supervise firefighters. These key sectors are established at almost every serious high-rise fire. The fireground commander must ensure these four areas have chiefs or sector officers in charge during a high-rise fire. If these sectors are not established when the fireground commander arrives on the scene, he must order them into position to effectively command and control the high-rise fire. For example, FDNY sends four battalion chiefs on the initial alarm of a high-rise fire. They operate as follows:

–Lobby command sector. The first chief officer to arrive at the high-rise fire establishes the command post in the lobby near the building manager`s desk. The building manager will be at this position. Size-up information about the fire, the building, and the building`s systems will be passed along to the chief from the building employee in charge at this location. All incoming units respond to the lobby command post chief for orders.

–Operations sector. The second-arriving battalion chief is the operations sector. He receives a quick size-up briefing from the lobby command post chief and quickly proceeds up to the floor below the fire and commands and controls the firefighting and rescue actions taking place on the fire floor.

–Search and evacuation sector. The third-arriving chief reports to the lobby command post chief and is assigned as a search and evacuation sector officer or as a personnel and equipment staging sector officer. Which assignment the third-arriving battalion chief receives depends on the conditions. As an example: If the fire is during the day and thousands of people are fleeing the fire, the chief will be assigned as search and evacuation chief. He then would go to the floors above the fire and operate with the third and fourth ladder companies, commanding and controlling the evacuation of occupants trapped above the fire.

–Manpower and equipment sector. If the high-rise fire occurs at night and it appears to be beyond the control of the first-arriving high-rise assignment, a staging sector must be established. In this case, the third-arriving chief will be manpower and equipment staging officer. The fourth chief will be search and evacuation. Located two or more floors below the operations sector is the staging sector, where reserve firefighters, masks, and hose are temporarily held until requested by the operations sector.

Are there open stairways? High-rise buildings constructed within the past 20 years have unprotected open stairways between floors. These open stairs, sometimes called “access stairs,” are designed to allow employees of a company that occupies several floors of a high-rise building to quickly go from floor to floor without using the public elevator or stairways. These open stairs, located inside the office area, allow quick access from floor to floor; however, they are fire protection nightmares. Open stairs in high-rise buildings allow fire to rapidly spread from floor to floor. Instead of having 20,000 square feet of floor area involved in flame and smoke, 40,000 square feet may be burning when you arrive. The fireground commander in a high-rise fire must be notified immediately of the presence of an open unprotected stairway. Once notified, he must have a hoseline positioned to the open stairway. The line may be positioned above the stairs to prevent the fire`s spreading up the stairway opening from a fire below, or a hoseline may be positioned below and advanced up an open stairway, when safety permits, to extinguish a fire.


A misconception in the fire service is that information flows from the fireground commander down the chain of command to the sector officers and firefighting companies. This is not true. At well-run fires, information flows up the chain of command from fire companies and sector commands to the command post. This upward flow of information assists the fireground commander in making strategic and tactical decisions.

n VINCENT DUNN, a 38-year veteran of the City of New York (NY) Fire Department, is a deputy chief and previously served as division commander for midtown Manhattan. He developed the National Fire Academy “Command and Control of Fire Department Major Operation” course and wrote the collapse rescue procedure used by New York City fire rescue companies. He is a lecturer; is the author of the text and video series Collapse of Burning Buildings and the text Safety and Survival on the Fireground, published by Fire Engineering Books and Videos; and has had numerous articles related to firefighter safety published in fire service magazines. He has a master`s degree in urban studies, a bachelor`s degree in sociology, and an associate`s degree in fire administration from Queens College, City University of New York. He is a member of the New York City Fire Chiefs Association, the NFPA, and the IAFF. He can be reached at (800) 231-3388.

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