The process of developing standard operational procedures is dynamic. Writing the initial procedure is one matter, but changes in technology, experience gained in actual incidents, and other factors force all departments to constantly review and revise their procedures.

As a result of several serious high-rise fires that occurred in its city, including the Penn Mutual fire in 1989 and the deadly One Meridian Plaza fire in 1991, the Philadelphia (PA) Fire Department has revised its operational procedures for handling high-rise fires. The revisions include early reinforcement of key positions needed at a high-rise fire and the incorporation of the department`s incident command system procedures into the high-rise operational procedure (OP).


Today, in Philadelphia, the initial dispatch for a high-rise fire includes four engine companies, three ladder companies, and two battalion chiefs. The third ladder company is new and is responsible for the following functions:

lobby control;

personnel accountability;

status and control of elevators;

setting up a command post; and

generally taking control of the lobby to establish a department presence for incoming responders, outside agencies, and civilian tenants.

MIRA. The most important revision to the operational procedure is based on the initial report of the first-in company. If it reports that fire or smoke is showing, the first alarm assignment is automatically upgraded to a MIRA (major incident response assignment). The MIRA dispatch includes a deputy chief; two medic units; the emergency medical control officer; the air unit; heavy rescue; and an additional engine company, ladder company, and battalion chief.

The MIRA is designed to provide additional support personnel early in a high-rise incident. Some of the companies on the MIRA have designated assignments such as acting as the safety company. Other units can be assigned as the incident commander deems appropriate. The purpose of the MIRA is to get support personnel moving into place to assist the first-alarm companies so these companies can concentrate on the primary suppression duties common to all fires.


How does a fire department go about testing these revisions? In Philadelphia, when the department makes major revisions in critical procedures such as incident command, hazardous materials, and high-rise firefighting, it prefers to run full-scale simulations of these emergencies. As Philip J. McLaughlin, deputy commissioner for operations, explains, “Tabletop and small-scale exercises are fine, but we think that full-scale simulations under realistic conditions are a truer test of how our procedures will function in actual emergencies.”

“Full scale” includes multiple-alarm assignments with apparatus responding at emergency levels, cover-up assignments to vacated fire stations by other units throughout the city, simulated fire conditions including machine-generated smoke, trapped victims, injured firefighters, and “unexpected” problems such as stalled elevators or burst lengths of hoseline introduced to add realism.

The University of Pennsylvania (PENN) provided the facilities for the simulation training. The sprawling urban campus in the heart of West Philadelphia includes classrooms, research laboratories, and dormitories. Its 12-building, 730-bed Medical Center complex anchors the southern end of the campus. The university has allowed the department to stage several full-scale incidents at various campus sites over the past 10 years.

James M. Miller, PENN`s director of fire and occupational safety, has encouraged these exercises as a means of testing his procedures and emergency response personnel. “These exercises are mutually beneficial,” says Miller. “They not only give our personnel exposure to responding outside agencies, such as the fire department, but also allow us to test our own procedures and responses to simulated emergency situations. These exercises also ensure that University safety personnel and department personnel will be more familiar with each other. They promote closer cooperation with the department and give our safety team a perspective of what they may be called on to provide in an emergency,” he explains.

PENN officials agreed to host two full-scale exercises in cooperation with the Philadelphia Fire Department in 1993 to test the department`s revised high-rise procedures as well as its emergency response plans.


The first exercise was held in May 1993 and tested the revised Operational Procedure #33, High Rise Firefighting. The site for the exercise was the Harnwell Building, a 25-story unsprinklered residential dormitory in the center of the campus. Harnwell is one of four identical towers that contain 10 two-bedroom apartment units on each floor and house close to 500 students.

The initial fire call was for a fire on the upper floors with possible trapped or injured victims. First-arriving units in both simulations encountered visible smoke conditions from the upper floors of the buildings, requiring an automatic upgrade of the incident from a high-rise first alarm to a MIRA. First-arriving units encountered visible smoke conditions from the upper floors of the buildings, requiring an automatic upgrade of the incident from a high-rise first alarm to a MIRA.

The fire was on the 20th floor. There was some minor extension to the 21st floor.


Held in October 1993, this simulation involved the Maloney Building, a 10-story, sprinklered research and laboratory building within the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center complex. The building has many lab facilities scattered on all floors, several of which use radiological materials in their research. This simulation tested the revised high-rise operational procedures in conjunction with those for hazardous materials/site control and radiological incidents.

The initital report presented the same scenario as Exercise 1: a fire on the upper floors with possible trapped or injured victims. As in Exercise 1, first-arriving units encountered visible smoke conditions from the upper floors of the buildings, requiring an automatic upgrade of the incident from a high-rise first alarm to a MIRA.

A minor explosion and subsequent fire occurred in a research lab on the ninth floor. This room contained small quantities of various chemicals along with radioactive material.

All the hazardous substances used, including the radioactive materials, normally are found in the medical center`s research labs. The university`s radiation safety team (RAD) prepared sealed sources of TC99, a radioactive material with a short half-life. These sources were placed on the victims and throughout the lab prior to the exercise. This enabled the RAD team and the department`s Hazardous Materials Task Force to use their monitoring equipment to locate potential radioactive contaminants.

In addition to the Philadelphia Fire Department and other city agencies that would normally respond to actual emergencies, many university personnel also participated. Members of the university police, resident life staff, maintenance staff, and hospital safety personnel all had roles in the exercise. This simulation was a key exercise for the university`s radiation safety team, which played an active role in the simulation.

“One of our goals when we instruct hospital personnel in emergency response training,” says George Hettenbach, facilities safety manager for the Medical Center, “is to reinforce to them that what the fire department will want from them is information about the building, its systems, and its contents. We constantly emphasize the need to be ready with that information when the alarm sounds. Using a radiological incident as an exercise allowed our personnel, particularly the RAD team members, to become actively involved and to see firsthand the information that will be needed by the department.”


Similar objectives, based on the revised operational procedure for high-rise fires, were established for each exercise. Participants were to do the following:

Establish an incident command post in the lobby.

Establish an operations command post one or two floors below the fire floor, where tactical decisions could be coordinated.

Establish an interior staging area near the operations command post to provide logistical and medical support.

Establish an exterior staging area or base location for incoming units.

Designate an effective lobby control area from which to assist the incident commander in managing activities in the lobby areas.

Designate a liaison officer to ensure that adequate interagency coordination will be maintained.

The second exercise, because of the haz-mat scenario, required that participants achieve the following additional goals:

Establish hot, warm, and cold zones in the high-rise building.

Interface with university RAD team personnel for technical support.

Identify the materials involved, potential contamination problems, and proper decontamination procedures.


Designated monitors–department members from staff and field units and University of Pennsylvania safety officials–observed both exercises.

Prior to each exercise, a meeting of all monitors was held at their respective sites. The complete scenario, safety factors, and the method of aborting the exercise were discussed. At the conclusion of the meeting, individual observer posts were assigned. The incident command post, the operations command post, interior staging, lobby control, stairwells, the fire floor, the floors above the fire, the exterior, and overall safety conditions were observed.


Because the exercises were full-scale simulations, more than 30 responding apparatus with more than 100 personnel were likely to respond. The events, therefore, had to be scheduled at the times when they would have the least negative impact on the university`s students and hospital employees and their work. The first exercise was held in the evening, the second on a Saturday morning. However, even with careful planning, things don`t always work out. As it turned out, the Saturday in October scheduled for the second exercise also happened to be Parents` Day. An Ivy League home football game was played only blocks away, and there were many out-of-town visitors on campus. Numerous parents touring the area of the campus designated as the exercise site were slightly inconvenienced when streets were shut down to all vehicular and pedestrian traffic for the approximate two and a half hours it took to conduct the exercise. Surprisingly, however, instead of complaining, the parents praised the exercise participants. They were impressed by the fact that the university and the fire department engaged in a training exercise of this magnitude and looked on the exercise as an example of PENN`s concern for their children`s safety.


Informal critiques were held immediately after the conclusion of each simulation. Major issues and the overall exercise were covered briefly. Formal critiques were held three weeks later at the Fire Administration Building. Participants, monitors, and university safety personnel attended. Monitors` reports were reviewed. The good points, areas of concern, and suggestions for improvement were reported to the fire department and the university.

The monitors` overall comments were positive. The areas of concern noted by the monitors were problems all fire departments experience in connection with high-rise incidents. They included the following:

personnel safety and accountability;

interior and exterior safety concerns, which put a tremendous load on the units assigned to the safety company function;

the need for additional support and the assigning of companies to reinforce these positions;

the myriad of duties that can overwhelm the lobby control team; and

the need for additional personnel for important tasks such as setting up the command post, initiating a firefighter accountability system, monitoring elevator status and use, and assisting the incident commander in maintaining control of the lobby area.

Communications was identified as another problem area. Two-way radio traffic can overpower the available frequencies and prevent companies from passing along vital information or orders. One way to alleviate some of the radio logjam is to use cellular communications between major functions. In both exercises, the operations command post eventually set up a cellular phone link with the incident command post, cutting down on much of the radio traffic and ensuring clear communications between the two vital positions.

Both exercises clearly showed the importance of having knowledgeable personnel from the facility on the scene to assist the incident commander. The quick response of PENN`s RAD team at the second exercise was crucial. Its early assessment that TC99 was in liquid form and its accurate information presented the responders with a very clear idea of how to handle the incident.

Reaction to the full-scale simulations was typified by one monitor`s comment after the first exercise: “When operational on any high-rise fire,” said Deputy Fire Chief Robert Dobson [now the chief of the Hartford (CT) Fire Department], “the units involved in actually extinguishing the fire are really the only true eyewitnesses of the actual conditions. The personnel remaining on the fireground have only the radio reports to give them an idea of what the units are up against. In the areas of the operations command post, based on the radio communications from the sector commanders to operations, it was as close to the `real thing` as possible. There was a definite aura of a major fire incident in this high-rise dormitory, and in our observations every unit operated as if there was in fact a true emergency.”

As Deputy Fire Commissioner McLaughlin (who has since retired) concluded, “Both exercises provided fireground conditions in a safe environment and illustrated firsthand that our procedures work well. We also demonstrated to our members and university personnel the importance of full-scale simulations under real-world conditions as a valuable training tool.” n

In incidents involving hazardous materials, fire command must consult with experts and other agencies involved in the response. Among the issues discussed by the operations chief and the University`s Radiation Safety Team in the Maloney Research Building simulation were establishing hot, warm, and cold zones in the high-rise building and procedures for handling radioactive materials. [Photos courtesy of the Philadelphia (PA) Fire Department.]

Successfully mitigating an incident in a facility such as the Maloney Research Building on the University of Pennsylvania (PA) campus heavily depends on the preparedness of responders. The Philadelphia Fire Department`s preplanned response to this facility included targeting such hazards as the building`s 10-story height and the various hazardous and radiological materials pres ent in its many research laboratories. The emergency response plans developed provided for the fire department`s interfacing with the University`s Radiation Safety Team, which would provide technical support in identifying the materials involved, assessing potential contamination problems, and establishing proper decontamination procedures.

BERNARD D. DYER, CFPS, a 23-year veteran of the Philadelphia (PA) Fire Department, is a battalion chief currently serving as acting deputy chief. He has a master`s degree in public safety from St. Joseph`s University in Philadelphia and is a graduate of the National Fire Academy`s Executive Fire Officer Program.

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