BY ANTHONY AVILLO
High-rise fires can be SOME of the most hostile organizational forums within which to conduct operations (photo 1). The number of personnel needed to control the fire, along with the critical need for command officers to support the strategy developed at the command post, can overwhelm even the best-staffed departments. In addition, you must coordinate mutual aid and ensure that control point positions are staffed early and adequately. These control point positions include at least an Operations Division, a Resource Division, a Rehab Division, and usually a Search and Evacuation Division. Other control point areas may be added based on the needs of the incident or specific department preferences. In addition, mutual aid probably would be necessary, since these incidents often escalate into multiple alarms.
Interagency standard operating procedures (SOPs) are especially critical in a high-rise fire. Once you are operating with agencies from outside your department (read “comfort zone” here), your ability to control the crews is directly proportional not only to how well you have trained your companies but also how well you have shared with others. All departments responding or who may respond should be on the same page or at least in the same book. (Beware of those who say that once the fire goes out the window, the book is right behind it.)
Command officers charged with staffing control point positions in this vertical fire operation must establish a level playing field on which all parties know what Command requires to be effective and what their operational responsibilities are. A command vacuum can also exist in a department when acting officers are charged with filling in positions they would not normally staff on a day-to-day basis. Because of vacations, sick leave, unstaffed positions, and other conditions, these poor souls are often forced into positions of higher authority in a quickly escalating, personnel-intensive fire operation.
(1) High-rise firefighting has caused its share of nightmares for Command. If all the players are not on the same page, don’t even bother to open the book. (Photo by Bob Scollan.)
A rapidly escalating situation can cause brain scramble, a condition difficult to describe but easy to identify. The degree to which the brain can be scrambled is directly proportional to how quickly the situation escalates and how far removed that officer is from his comfort zone. This is especially true of acting chief officers, who normally are assigned company-level functions and may not be prepared to deal with a hands-off position that requires an expanded level of keeping your head together. Company officers who are more comfortable with a halligan tool in their hands than a command vest on their backs can be overwhelmed. To this end, the department has the responsibility to devise a way to make directing and controlling a high-rise fire more success-oriented or at least less frightening.
Personnel assigned control point area supervision deserve a chance to be successful, to keep assigned personnel safe, and to make the incident com-mander (IC) look good, all at the same time. High-rise SOPs, because of their magnitude and complexity of scope, can be quite lengthy. Many officers are usually most familiar with the duties in their normal assignment; when assigned to a higher rank in an acting capacity, brain scramble and—worse yet—the dreaded brain freeze can occur.
What’s needed is a support mechanism or tickler file, a thumbnail rundown, if you will, of the operational control point position duties needed to safely and successfully conclude the incident.
North Hudson (NJ) Regional Fire and Rescue uses a High-Rise Command Kit to assist officers staffing command positions in executing their assigned duties. Using the tools in the kit allows anyone who can read to function as a tool for Command and to develop an effective organizational plan (photo 2).
The Kit is based on the simple concept of information recall and consists of several laminated clipboards on which the duties of the IC, Operations Division supervisor, Resource Division supervisor, Search and Evacuation Division supervisor, and Rehab Division supervisor have been attached. In addition, the battalion and deputy car cell phone numbers are on the bottom of each sheet. Since radio communication in high-rises is generally hit or miss, cell phones are standard equipment. In accordance with our department’s high-rise SOP, each chief officer carries a cell phone into the building as a communications alternative. (Control point supervisors are also directed by SOP to “liberate” an area, such as an apartment or office, where a landline to the command post and/or Dispatch can be established.)
The kit also contains a laminated high-rise quick reference guide (based on the SOP), dry-erase markers, permanent markers, grease pencils, and pads for making notes. The dry erase markers and grease pencils are used to check off the duties outlined on the clipboards; the permanent markers can be used to set up crude upper-floor accountability systems in the areas of operation. All you need is a wall and a marker. The walls have to be painted anyway, and the palest ink is better than the sharpest memory (photo 3).
(2) The High-Rise Command Kit consists of clipboards, markers, and pads. This simple system helps officers take the guesswork out of organizing and managing operations and helps to instill confidence. (Photos by author.)
The High-Rise Command Kit is carried in the vehicle of the highest-ranking officer responding. In our department, it is kept in the division chief’s car. In almost all cases, a battalion chief arrives before the deputy (division) chief and either establishes command or assumes command if a company officer has already established the same. Once the deputy arrives on-scene, the kit is carried to the command post in the building’s lobby or some other designated command station.
After a briefing and proper transfer of command, the battalion chief is given the Operations Division clipboard and sent to establish the Operations Division one to two floors below the fire, depending on conditions. Having the clipboard permits the chief to review his duties in the elevator on the way up. As mentioned earlier and confirmed during department hands-on training evolutions in borrowed high-rise buildings, the clipboard covering the routine supervisory duties of each control point position has proven its value. It allows the member assigned a particular position to focus on critical problems while having a mechanism in hand to address and control those problems.
The next clipboard, the Resource Division (Figure 1), is handed to the next-arriving battalion chief, while the other clipboards—those for the Search and Evacuation and Rehab Divisions—are handed to battalion chiefs arriving on additional alarms who are given these assignments. As with any properly functioning incident management system, any member using the clipboard should be able to perform effectively. It is even possible to hand off the Rehab Division clipboard to an EMS representative, who would be able to operate as an effective member of the team by following the established guidelines. Departments that have many high-rises and high-rise incidents have the opportunity to hone their skills and drive home their operational procedures. Few departments have the luxury of making high-rise firefighting their bread and butter. For departments or mutual-aid groups that do not experience high-rise fires frequently, it is even more critical to have in place a system that aids in properly executing duties to avoid making costly organizational mistakes. Having an information-recall system such as a Command Kit at your fingertips will assist in guiding fireground managers in constructing and maintaining an effective command organization.
Successful (read “safe” here) high-rise operations are based on command and control. It is easiest to gain this control through effective organization prior to the incident. This is accomplished through proper prefire planning, effective information recall, equally effective SOPs, comprehensive training, and—above all—sound leadership and firefighter discipline. Discipline is the most important of these control elements. Plans not followed or enforced are not worth the paper on which they are printed.
ANTHONY AVILLO, an 18-year veteran of the fire service, is a deputy chief in North Hudson Regional (NJ) Fire & Rescue, assigned as platoon commander of the 1st Division. He is a New Jersey-certified Level II Fire Instructor and a certified arson investigator and is an instructor at the Bergen County (NJ) Fire Academy. Avillo is a partner in Study Group, Inc., a firm that assists promotional and entry-level fire service candidates. He has instructed at FDIC and FDIC West and is the author of the Fire Engineering books Fireground Strategies (2002) and Fireground Strategies Workbook (2003).