HIGH-RISE OPERATIONS: SURVIVING ABOVE THE FIRE
In my 30 years in the fire service, the One Meridian Plaza fire, which occurred in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on February 23-24, 1991 (see “One Meridian Plaza Fire,” Fire Engineering, August 1991), was the most physically demanding and emotionally draining fireground I have ever been on.
Think about this: Three hundred and sixteen firefighters were operating on this battleground at one time. For 19 hours, we fought a continuous battle. Philly firefighters are no strangers to fires in tall buildings. Six months earlier we had battled a highrise fire for 69 hours. But Meridian is king. Notable were the losses of a captain and two firefighters.
By this time, all of us in the fire service know of the monster Meridian. It has become a fire service classic. But have we learned its most valuable lesson, about the dangers of operating above the fire floor during a high-rise battle?
Many tales can be told by those who were at the Meridian fire. But the tale 1 want to tell hopefully will help ensure that we do not lose more firefighters while operating above the fire floor during high-rise battles.
Many fundamental characteristics common to these tall structures must be considered with regard to survival when the boss sends you above the fire floor: auxiliary appliances, extinguishers, first-aid lines, floor layout plans, fire towers, the red tower, pressure-reducing valves—I could go on and on, but you. the company officer, have just been ordered to ventilate the fire tower by opening the door to the roof.
You are the team leader. Your members are counting on you. After all, you’re the one who’s been in the books for years. They expect you to be mentally prepared. You’d better have your thinking cap on! What are you going to encounter? Long hallways. Compartmentation. Maze-like configurations in office buildings. Open stairways. Oh, yes! Two floors interconnected by an open stairwell for the convenience of the tenant. They are good for business and bad for us. Oxygen-depleted atmosphere, locked doors. Do you have appropriate tools? Where are the alternate stairs, towers, location of standpipes, first-aid hoselines? The list goes on and on.
Who is the safety officer? Have you told him you’re going up? Is he monitoring you, your location, and your time? You’d better make sure he is. Talk to him frequently, as if he were your long-lost brother. He may determine whether you are found if you become disoriented. He may determine whether you come out alive or in a body bag.
Do you remember the basic rule we learned about fighting fires in regular occupancies, particularly those with large open areas? Do not get too far ahead of the tip!line. It is your guide line out. Use the roof rope or your personal ropes or hoseline or anything handy to provide a way out for you and your personnel. They are counting on you.
There is a saying among real estate professionals: “location, location, location.” When operating above the fire, our saying should be “communication, communication, communication.” Do not wait until you’re about to run out of air before you communicate. It probably will be too late, just as it was at One Meridian.
Let’s summarize by bringing the experience and book knowledge together and list what we should be about when we take the high ground.
- A portable radio: This is a must for frequent progress reports and staying in contact.
- Safety officer: What channel is he/
- she on? Request that he/she monitor your activity.
- Chalk: Mark your path in the fire tower. Rescue/search teams will have some clues.
- Internal communications telephone: It will put you in contact with the IC at the fire control center/ command post.
- How far do you have to travel?
- Can you take an extra tank?
- Use the buddy breathing system.
- Is one-hour SCBA available to you?
- Is it activated?
- Test it!
To my knowledge, it hasn’t been officially determined whether the lost firefighters had their devices activated. It is my opinion that they did not. We would have heard them and subsequently have rescued them.
- Have you been oriented?
- Usually, one is located on each floor by the elevator.
- It can be used as a guide line when you enter floors from the tower.
- Personal ropes can be coupled together.
Red to wer
- In which tower is the door to the roof located? If you’re not in it, you may have to cross the entire length of the building at the top floor to get to it.
- What if it is locked? Rabbit tool? If your objective is just to vent the tower via the roof door, maybe the IC should dispatch a helicopter crew to the roof.
- Identify the roof tower by marking it with a red “R.”
Tactical command post
- Location: What is available there for you?
- Medical help.
- Air bottles: Can they be brought to you?
- What radio channel is it on?
- Do you have adequate hand lights?
- Fire extinguisher: Break out a window and discharge it to the exterior. It will announce your location.
- First-aid line: 150 feet of hose can be used as a guide line and usually can be found on every floor.
- Hanging the line out a window announces your location.
- Notify the IC to notify observers on all sides of the building.
General George Patton said, “Pursue the enemy with audacity.” We firefighters do it all the time. Patton, however, had two things going for him: knowledge and experience, and he used them. Do you? More important, will you? You had better! It could be a matter of life or death.
High-rise fires are labor-intensive. They can stretch your resources to the maximum. Operating above the fire is a dangerous assignment. However, it must be done—by us—to save life and property. It is the only way to stop a fire that has complete control of one or more floors. Be prepared.