Most veteran firefighters will tell you it’s the basics that make or break a fireground operation-the correct size of line, a well-coordinated stretch, quick forcible entry, adequate ventilation, and so on. All are crucial to a successful fire suppression effort. The importance of the use of stairways was brought home to me several years ago. I responded to a report of smoke coming from the roof of an abandoned high-rise building. The rescue company with which I was riding that day was assigned to check the basement; an engine company was sent to the roof in search of the elusive smoke.

Firefighters must be aware of the advantages and disadvantages of various types of stairwells if they are to operate effectively. [Photo by Cory Irelan, Pattonville (MO) Fire Protection District.]
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As the rescue was completing its check of the basement, a “Mayday” message was received: A firefighter had fallen from the 19th floor, and urgent assistance was needed.

Racing from the basement back to street level, we learned that the firefighter had actually fallen from the 19th to the 18th floor inside the building. The rescue company quickly climbed an aerial ladder to the eighth floor and began an arduous climb to the 18th floor to assist the injured firefighter. Arriving at the 18th floor and looking up, it became apparent that the firefighter had been ascending the stairs when he fell through a hole where the stair landing had once been. Indeed, every stair landing from the 19th through the 22nd floor had been removed. The firefighter was removed to the street with minor injuries, but this incident served to remind me of how fundamentally important stairways are to firefighters.


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Following are several of the most commonly found types of stairways.

  • Wing stairs (also known as isolated stairs). This type is usually found in three- to five-story multiple dwellings that were constructed in the early part of the 19th century. These buildings, when viewed from above, take a “C,” an “H,” or an “E” shape. Each wing is served by its own staircase, and there is no way to cross over into another wing without exiting the building. Engine company officers responding to fires in buildings with isolated stairs must be absolutely certain of the fire’s location before ordering a hoseline stretched, lest it be taken into the wrong wing and cut the company off from any access to the fire.
  • Scissor stairs. This type consists of two stairs that crisscross inside the same stair enclosure. The stairs are separated only by a partition. If the integrity of this partition is violated in any way, one stairway will be contaminated and will result in the contamination of the other. Another feature of this type of stairs is that the exit doors into the stairways may be in close proximity to each other, violating the principle of remote exits.

The isolated stairwells in this building could lead to disaster if the line is stretched up the wrong stair. Engine company firefighters must stand fast until the fire’s exact location is identified. (Photos by author unless otherwise noted.)
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Alternatively, some scissor stairs open on alternate floors: One stair in the enclosure serves the even floors, the other only the odd floors. Or the stairs may exit on opposite sides of the building core.

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Exit doors should be color coded so that similar floor layouts have the same color doors. Firefighters ascending the stairs can orient themselves to the fire floor by stopping at a similar colored door and making a quick size-up. If the fire apartment location is known, count the number of doors back to the stairwell from the same apartment on a lower floor-for example, if the fire apartment is 6E, stop on 4E (if the door color is the same), and count the number of apartment doors on the same side of the hall back to the stairway.

Access or convenience stairs are unenclosed and connect two floors within an occupancy, eliminating the need for employees to enter the public hall to take an elevator to the second level of their business.
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To complicate matters even further, standpipe outlets are present in a particular stairway only on every other floor. Engine companies responding to buildings equipped with scissor stairs must be sure to bring at least four sections of 21/2-inch hose to make sure they can reach the fire area. Instead of hooking up one floor below the fire, you may be forced to connect to the standpipe two floors below the fire or to wrap completely around the core to reach the fire. Preplan scissor stairs!

  • Access stairs.This type of stair generally is found in high-rise office buildings where one company rents more than one floor. To prevent the need for employees to go out into the public hall and up an elevator or enclosed stairwell, frequently employers-such as law firms, insurance companies, or other large businesses-will provide an unenclosed stairway that connects the two floors. The problem with these stairways is that the first detector to actually sense the fire may in fact be one floor above the fire’s actual location. If firefighters checking the alarm panel identify the 20th floor as the location of the alarm and take the elevator to the 19th floor, they may actually be stopping on the fire floor, potentially with fatal results! Hence, the rule is that elevators be taken no closer than two floors below the suspected fire floor.
  • Fire towers.This type of stair requires that the occupant exit by first passing through an open-air balcony or an interior vestibule equipped with a smoke vent shaft. Although smokeproof stairs are ideal for evacuating occupants from above a fire without contaminating the stairwells, they should not be used as the attack stairway if at all possible. During a fire on the 51st floor of the Empire State Building, two Fire Department of New York firefighters were severely burned when fire roared down the public hall and up the smoke shaft of the interior fire tower they were using as an attack stair.1
  • Enclosed stairs.This type of stair is enclosed by a two-hour fire resistive wall and a self-closing one-hour door. Some of these stairwells may be pressurized to prevent smoke from entering when the enclosure door is opened. Hopefully, the air intake is located so that smoke from the fire will not enter. If an enclosed stairwell is used as the attack stair, chock the door open. Consequently, smoke will enter the stairwell. It is imperative that occupants descending from above the fire be removed from the stairwell before the attack begin TACTICAL TIPS

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    Following are some basic safety recommendations for operating in structures that have stairs.

    • Enclosed stairwells are frequently locked to prevent reentry onto the floor. It is imperative that the ladder company forcible entry team arrive quickly to ensure that the engine can gain access to the fire floor. Once entry is gained, use a door strap, if necessary, to prevent relocking.
    • Stairs that wind around elevator shafts will require more than the standard one length of hose per floor. Preplan these buildings to determine how much hose is required.
    • Designate stairwells with a letter and floor number on both the door’s inside and outside. The marking should also indicate whether the stairs provide access to the roof. The first floor should be marked as the “1st floor,” not “ground floor.”
    • Just because a standpipe is located in a particular stairwell does not necessarily mean that that stairwell should be designated as the attack stair. It may be much easier to connect the standpipe, stretch the line to another stairwell, and use this stair to attack the fire, depending on the fire’s location and wind conditions.
    • Designate stairways as “attack,” “evacuation,” or “ventilation” early in the firefight.
    • When responding to buildings equipped with scissor stairs, engine companies should report with at least four lengths of 21/2-inch hose.
    • When stretching line up stairs in a building that does not have a standpipe, position a firefighter at each landing to assist the advance. Don’t allow firefighters to migrate toward the nozzle. Somebody has to do the grunt work.
    • If the well hole is wide enough, stretch the line up through it; one length of hose will cover five stories instead of the standard one floor.
    • Don’t descend an unenclosed stairwell into a basement without a charged hoseline if there is any indication of a fire. If the fire takes off, it will head for the stairs, cutting off your exit.
    • When responding to buildings equipped with isolated stairs, engine companies should stand fast until the officer has positively identified which stairs to use.

    • Never attempt to stretch more than two lines up the same stairwell. Failure to adhere to this rule will result in a knot of hose that will not allow anyone to advance the line. Use a rope stretch, a fire escape, or another stairway instead.
    • When ascending or descending stairs, walk on the wall side, and don’t look up if you hear breaking glass. Instead, try to get out of the stairway. The firefighter assigned to the roof may be preparing to “take” the skylight.


    1. Dunn, Vincent, WNYF, 2nd ed., 1998, 7-11.

    LANCE C. PEEPLES has been a firefighter in St. Louis County, Missouri, for 12 years and has served as a shift supervisor for the City of St. Louis (MO) Department of EMS. He has a bachelor’s degree in public administration and an associate’s degree in fire protection and paramedic technology. He is a state-certified Fire Officer I and Instructor II and has taught fire protection technology at East Central College.

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    Stairs at construction sites may lack the stability of permanent stairs. Exercise extreme caution. Do not overload these stairs; they may collapse.

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    Fire towers are best used as evacuation stairs. The open balcony prevents smoke from contaminating the enclosed stairwell in the tower.

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