High-Rise, Low-Rise, Mixed-Rise?

By Tom Brennan

From the people who brought you the Detroit Door Opener; the 10-pound Kelly tool; six-pound axes; the 300-plus-pound 35-foot extension ladder; hosebeds seven feet from the ground; a purple vest for the Distributor of Vests sector at a command post for a fire that will require two handlines and four truck tactics, more than four firefighters on a roof with two supervisors—all at once; and the unforgettable Hollywood-type wind fan mounted on the back of a flatbed truck painted slime yellow with a thousand dollars worth of gold leaf … come the terms “low-rise,” “medium-rise,” and now “mixed rise.” Oh my!

What do you know from sending or receiving messages using these terms over the radio or through the “face-to-face” change of command? Whatever happened to “one or two residence floors over commercial occupancies,” or “five-story multiple dwelling of combustible construction with fire located at the second-floor rear”?

One of the terms to “hit” today is “high-rise.” It seems that folks without them in their district feel bad and term anything to which they cannot place the aerial device their personal high-rise building. There is a problem with the description I just used—you need the building to gain upper-floor access. But, districts without an aerial device or with just a Tele-Squrt or the like have termed four-story multiple dwellings or commercial occupancies “high-rises.”

High-rise is a special building designated with the “nickname” to tell us of the special construction features and will have communication, logistical, and access nightmares that will follow our arrival. It denotes a structure of more than 75 feet (or more than 100 feet), depending on what code your district follows.

It tells you to expect elevators, an ability to use a Firefighter Service control system by key within those elevators, artificial ventilation systems, confusing layouts, high occupancy levels, and probable inaccessibility from outside using ladders of any size—not to mention the difficulty of accessing adequate ventilation.

But even that term high-rise is confusing. Is it an office building (commercial), or a medical facility, or a housing unit for transient occupants (old age or care facility), or an apartment/condominium complex? What is the difference? Lots!

A high-rise office building in which there is a fire will present severe and ongoing problems for a long time. Most of us “professionals” are only able to call it success if we play “catch-up” a shorter time this time or if we “screw up” less and less with each succeeding experience.

A high-rise residence building is another matter. It should be a relative “piece of cake” when compared with the high-rise office building.

As with any fire in these tall buildings, the first problem is to locate the fire. As an ongoing process, determine first the address and then the side of the building, the floor on fire as apparent from the outside, then confirm from the interior, and finally find the exact occupancy label for the room complex with the emergency.

The next problems are water supply and gaining access to the fire occupancy. Gaining access can be relatively easy or terribly difficult, depending on whether the occupancy on fire has its hallway door open or closed.

All of this firefight in a high-rise residence building depends on one critical factor: Can you get to a position to perform horizontal ventilation? If you are lucky, the complex floor is within reach of a properly placed aerial ladder (or portables), and that means up to and including what floor? What floor? How many said the “11th”?

If you cannot use the aerial (for lots of reasons lately), what is your alternative? Get to a spot directly above the fire occupancy—either the floor above the fire or when near the roof (two or three stories below it). It may be easier to “get the windows” from there. With the old 25 to 30 feet of rope in your pocket under the gloves and pliers and old batteries and glass and plaster from the last fire you had, tie your halligan tool and ensure that you remove the window membranes all the way to the inside of the occupancy (a problem with today’s double- and triple-pane enclosures).

So how do you get there? Using the elevator, for sure—only if the location of the fire (see how it all fits in?) is above the fifth floor. Otherwise, the elevators are a time factor, and it is easy to get into trouble with the fire floor.

You are all in the lobby, handline handlers and truck function people and a gang of officers. The elevator gets to the lobby floor. Who gets on? And what do they have in their hands? And what rank are they?

OK, let’s attack this discipline problem. First, you need water if you get there. So three firefighters will have a rolled or folded length of hose each. You have an access problem with the fire door and a search and location and removal and rescue problem when you find it. So the next two are truck function people with some door-forcing equipment—manual or hydraulic or through-the-lock sets and a water extinguisher.

So who else? One officer. One officer. Let the other one take the next elevator with the floor-above horizontal entry team and the vertical ventilation (secondary here) people. Why? One officer is enough at this time. And, more importantly, you need the tactics explained all at once and together. Hoseline AND a search and entry function. Remember, an elevator is overloaded if it contains more than six protected and equipped firefighters. It may not leave the lobby (embarrassing), or it is bound to screw up the controls at the floor levels above (disastrous)!

TOM BRENNAN has more than 35 years of fire service experience. His career spans more than 20 years with the Fire Department of New York as well as four years as chief of the Waterbury (CT) Fire Department. He was the editor of Fire Engineering for eight years and currently is a technical editor. He is co-editor of The Fire Chief’s Handbook, Fifth Edition (Fire Engineering Books, 1995). He was the recipient of the 1998 Fire Engineering Lifetime Achievement Award. Brennan is featured in the video Brennan and Bruno Unplugged (Fire Engineering/FDIC, 1999). He is a regular contributor to Firenuggets.com.

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