HIGH RISE: Be Ready to Fight the Battle
STRATEGY AND TACTICS
High-rise structures have been a part of the firefighting environment for the past 20 years. During that time, there have been some strides toward fire prevention and firefighting safety in those buildings. Building and fire codes have increased built-in requirements—mandating of fire department emergency buttons in elevators, for instance. Training in tactics and strategy have enumerated many do’s and don’ts.
Still, the fire service continues to make errors and mistakes. This article emphasizes the key strategies and tactics upon which firefighter safety and survival rely. When at the working high-rise fire, be ready to “fight the battle.”
Pre-incident knowledge will be an important factor in your strategic planning and management of the incident for a specific occupancy. The crucial information relates to life safety: How many occupants are there? What are their ages and conditions? Where are they located?
Pre-incident knowledge of the following is essential:
Communications within the building and the fire department system, and use of the public address system.
Access routes to the building.
Lobby locations (they may not be on the ground floor).
Building security systems. What are they? Where are they? How do you overcome them?
The on-site building engineer— what is his location, his presence? What are his responsibilities, and how dependable is he?
If the fire control room’s located away from the lobby area, assign an officer to coordinate with the lobby commander.
What’s in the lock box location, and which keys are used?
Do you understand the elevators’ operation? What’s your policy on their use? What’s your training level?
Which stairshafts go to the roof and which are smoke towers with vestibules? Are stairshafts pressurized?
What built-in ventilation is available? Where will the smoke and heat go? How do you control it?
Is your water supply adequate? Are there tanks available? Are you familiar with the water system?
Are there two-hour, one-hour, or simple nonrated partitions? Is there center core construction? Are there plenum areas on each floor?
Are the windows openable? What type of glass is used?
Is there an evacuation plan for the building’s occupants?
Can you use helicopters? Where will you take the people transported by the helicopter?
Where will you establish a medical group and route ambulances in and out of the incident?
Use of the incident command system
Most of the command officers throughout the country effectively use the incident command system, or think they do. Some officers use portions of it. Others use some of the ICS mixed with other plans.
During the Monty’s fire in Westwood Village, Los Angeles, a very loose ICS was used. This was one of the first high-rise fires in Los Angeles, and we were just getting our high-rise plan together.
Apparatus was parked directly below the fire, which was on the top floor. The incident commander, frustrated by delays in getting water on the fire, took to the air in a helicopter and commanded the incident from that location.
The Fickett Towers fire, where a fire in condominiums under construction exposed a 12-story senior citizen housing building, was perhaps the best-managed incident in Los Angeles Fire Department history. Fire entered the occupied building at each floor. The lobby was combined with staging operations; part of the staging was exterior to the building. The operations commander placed himself outside and in front of the building. He was responsible for both the fire suppression and the medical aspects of the incident. Stressful and confusing, you bet, but wellmanaged.
Regardless of the ICS you use, be ready to make changes. Be innovative-after all, the ICS is in place for you to better manage the incident. Whatever you do, don’t establish an ICS just because it’s available. Use those elements of ICS that you need to manage the incident.
Command post operations
In setting up your command post, consider the following when operating from a vehicle:
Design a system that’s stored in the trunk and opens up for your command table,or a system that’s stored in the trunk and then set up on the hood. An operational status board is essential for resource status (restat) and situation status (stit-stat).
Be able to use your radio system at the trunk or the hood, remembering the drain on the battery. When the car’s running, use a flexible exhaust system to keep fumes away from the work area.
Consider using two vehicles parked side-by-side or at right angles to each other. This doubles your radio capability. If one vehicle has cellular phone capability, that’s a plus.
If your department’s budget can afford it, a special command vehicle is ideal. These vary from Bronco-type vehicles to Class A motor homes.
The operations commander
In a high-rise fire, the operations commander is the key person in suppressing the fire; in other fire operations, he should be used very selectively. During a working high-rise fire, the incident commander needs an operations control officer—someone who’ll observe the fire’s progress and any problems firsthand.
Upon arrival at the fire scene, the operations commander should meet with the incident commander to get an update on the situation and resources and to review the pre-fire plan. Once inside the building, keep the incident commander informed; consider using a “command” channel direct to him or use the hard wire system built into the building.
Once an adjutant has been chosen, the operations commander should establish a command post (preferably on the floor before the fire). This area and the stairway level can be used to communicate with division and group commanders face-to-face. Use the command post area to track company assignments; an incident status sheet or some other checklist system keeps track of the whos, whats, wheres, whens, and unit designations.
The logistics commander
Success or failure of the highrise fire fight depends directly on logistics supply. Looking at several actual high-rise fires, it’s apparent that logistics supply was neglected most of the time.
The logistics commander is the troubleshooter. After reporting to the incident commander, he should “make the rounds,” checking out the base location, the lobby, the staging area, and talking face-to-face with the operations commander. He (or she) is then available at the command post for any new assignments from the incident commander.
The following tactical considerations are derived from lessons learned at actual high-rise emergencies.
The first company to arrive is like a scouting party. Is there fire showing outside the structure on arrival? Double the assignment? Explore the floors below the fire. Is there a standard floor plan? Is the floor two floors below the fire satisfactory for staging? How much fire? Where’s the fire? What percent of the floor is burning? Tell what you see! Don’t forget to size up the floors above the fire.
After the size-up, the first company should start an initial attack. This may be only a holding position or getting lines into position.
Aggressive ventilation is a priority. Smoke and heat will be your biggest problems. The life safety of occupants depends on rapid ventilation. Assign a ventilation group and a leader with resources early into the incident.
Use large blowers; small electric blowers won’t be effective. Gaspowered blowers are recommended. Don’t suck smoke—blow it out of the building. Remember to use positive ventilation theories.
Open the stairway door to the roof area. Expect smoke in the stair shafts.
Check for fire spread overhead. Do this first when entering a floor.
Break glass when you must. Personnel on the street should expect this to happen.
Don’t use elevators until you know it’s absolutely safe to do so. (This is especially important for the first company.) It’s hard to understand why firefighters rode an elevator during a high-rise fire, planning to stop two floors below the fire. They ended up at the fire floor. If your department’s procedures call for use of elevators and stopping two floors below the fire, change it. DON’T USE ELEVATORS.
Exceptions to this policy on elevators would be a split-bank, lowrise/high-rise system. For example, if there’s a fire on the 20th floor, ride the low-rise to floor 18 and use the stairs to the fire floor.
Once the operations commander is confident that the lobbies are clear above, and/or the system is working properly, then and only then should you start to use elevators.
Expect metal doors on the fire floor from the stairway to be warped from the fire’s heat. Plan your forcible entry. A metal-cutting circular saw is a nice tool for departments to have.
Expect the unusual. A fire in the elevator shaft. A fire in the main electrical panel with connecting explosions and fire at secondary panels at higher floors.
Fire will lap to higher floors. Be ahead of this action.
Be ready for mass evacuation down all stairways on arrival. Get control of stairshafts and designate those for attack and maintain those selected for evacuation.
Access upper floors by using aerial ladders.
Lay your hose from the fire to the hydrant to avoid a pumping operation below the fire. Falling glass will cut hose and ruin your water supply plans.
Poke-through construction (vertical raceways in the building) will allow fire and smoke to travel vertically and water to travel down.
Watch for ceiling windows in heavy smoke. In heavy smoke conditions, a missing window can be undetected by firefighters. If they’re broken out, barricade them with furniture or rope.
Watch for fatigue factors in firefighters. Heat and humidity will take its toll early in the incident.
Be aware of scissor-type stairways; they’ll lead to alternate floor locations at each floor landing.
Wear full protective clothing.
Move extra air cylinders to the staging area. A working high-rise fire may need at least 100 cylinders.
Don’t stack air cylinders on stairway landings; they can be dislodged and roll down stairs. In general, stairway landings shouldn’t be used as equipment pools. Use the staging area.
Lay hoseline up the stairs and back down to the fire door if you can. This will allow for smoother advance of a charged hoseline.
Use short sections of 2½-⅛⅛ hose with gated wye for attachment to standpipe in stairway. It also allows for operation of two handlines from a single standpipe outlet.
If possible, rotate three teams on one nozzle: one fighting fire, one in the stairway, and one getting ready at staging.
Use your PASS system.
Watch open elevator shafts. Barricade or rope them off.
If you use helicopters, have them look at the building, fly away for at least one block, and then wait for instructions.
Remember, the fire department is there for life safety and property loss mitigation. Don’t get too ICSoriented and forget to fight the fire. Learn by reviewing case studies. Be ready to do battle and expect the unusual. Good luck when you respond to that high-rise fire—you’ll need it.