High-Rise Problems Move to Small Towns
Standpipes, elevators, large occupancies require changes in fire fighting methods
The spread of high-rise buildings is putting an entirely different type of fire fighting problem on the doorsteps of suburban and small-town fire departments.
Now when we speak of high-rise buildings, we are not concerned about an Empire State building. We are talking about the eight to 20-story structures that have popped up in areas that had nothing higher than four to five stories.
In addition to different physical and mechanical problems, these tall buildings create a psychological hazard for men who are not used to working at high levels. Somehow, a given amount of fire on the 10th or 12th floor seems to be greater than if it were on the first floor.
Chiefs, aided by their officers, must make plans for handling fires in these buildings. Standard procedures for high-rise operations should be developed, considering each building, or group of buildings, separately.
Accessibility of building
One of the problems that must be considered is accessibility. We mean not only going up in the building, but very often getting up to the building. In looking at a new high-rise structure in our area, the first thing of course is the height. What is the total height? How many floors in the building? How is this going to affect our present operational procedures and evolutions?
Is the ground around the building flat? Is it paved? Is there much grass area? Are there severe drop-offs at the side or rear that stop us from placing apparatus or men there?
Is there a parking problem? Are cars parked right up against the building? If there are parking lots, must the apparatus wend its way through them to get to the building? If this is the case, are the lanes and their intersections wide enough? Then there are the drives and roadways up to the building. Are they adequate for apparatus to pass parked cars? If not, then the parking should be restricted. If they already have parking restrictions, how well are they enforced?
The exterior building design is giving us problems. We find, for instance, buildings with big aluminum sun shades and grills that interfere with normal outside evolutions.
We find a popular style of structure is a tower type with wide lower levels, sort of resembling an inverted “T.” This design disrupts almost every one of our normal evolutions for getting men, equipment and hose up inside a building. How is the area adjacent to the building used? Are there swimming pools, terraces, walks, recreation areas—anything of the sort that could keep us from part of the structure? If so, how can we locate to overcome this problem?
Underground vaulf hazards
In high-rise structures in old areas, we generally find we might have overhead wires but in new building complexes we often find these are underground. This is not without its problems, for with underground electrical systems come underground transformer and equipment vaults which are covered with a grill for ventilation. These grills generally are not strong enough to hold an auto, much less fire apparatus. And they are often where we would like to get apparatus.
Now when we consider the height, ground use, overall parking problems, underground pits and vaults, we must consider what this does to aerial ladder or aerial platform use. For instance, we find that in a building shaped like an inverted “T,” the wide bottom generally keeps an aerial ladder from reaching lower levels and an aerial platform from reaching higher levels.
These are some of the things we need to study to determine the most advantageous positions for units arriving at this building.
Consider hydrant use
Are there hydrants in the area? If not, are they at least at the entrance to the area? Or are they in their original positions, 200 or 300 feet from the entrance? If this is the case, we must work out an efficient method of getting hose lines in service quickly. Shall we let our first unit take care of it with a long lay; or shall we have it start laying a line from the entrance and let a second unit pick up the line, go to the hydrant and pump to the first unit in front of the fire building?
And how about the hydrant pressure and flow? If there are hydrants in a new complex, are they worth anything to us? Are they on circulating mains, or are they merely tacked to a dead-end main extended to supply the new buildings with their normal daily requirements? Another consideration here is whether we have constant flow and pressure all year. Will we have the same pressure and flow in a late afternoon in August as we will in a late afternoon in December?
If the building has standpipes, are they wet or dry? If they are dry, we have to have an efficient way to lay hose and immediately get water to the standpipes.
If the standpipes are wet, are they supplied by gravity tanks, pressure tanks, or by what seems to be the popular trend now, directly from water mains? If they are supplied from mains, is the water flow constant all year?
Is the flow good enough for our first-arriving units to go directly to the building and work off the standpipes and let later units hook up and pump or stand by hydrants?
Keep intakes visible
Are the standpipe intakes located sensibly? If not, perhaps we need to take some steps to see that they are located properly in future construction. Are they readily seen? Or, must our men know which bush to jump behind and make a hookup? If this is the case, we need to get rid of the bush, or at least get a sign up indicating exactly where that standpipe intake is.
Now, the building itself. Is it an office or apartment building? Or, as we have several in Silver Spring, a research building? What will be the problem in this building at 2 a.m. as opposed to 2 p.m.?
Is the construction fire resistant or ordinary? If it is fire resistant, does it have norma] wall or window areas? Or is it one of these modern architect’s prizes, the large windowless tomb, or the pile of glass that looks something like a vertical ice cube tray.
If it is a windowless structure, we should know if we can count on the air conditioning, heating or other venting systems to safely remove smoke from the building. We should also take steps to have access panels at each floor level so we can get through these windowless walls from the outside.
If it is the glass-pile type of structure, we should find out if there are windows in it at all, or if it is strictly glass panels. If there are windows, how will they affect our attempts to ventilate from the inside, or gain access from the outside? We should be aware that in these glass structures, records show that many fires have spread from floor to floor on the outside through the glass paneling While being easily contained on the inside.
As for stairways, how many are there? Are they closed or open and where are they located? Is there a set of stairs least likely to be used by the occupants? Maybe we could use these to get up inside the building while the people are leaving smoothly.
Learn about elevators
Are the elevators closed or open? Can the department take over an elevator immediately on arrival, or must the firemen wait until one happens to come to the lobby floor? And once we have this elevator, do we have full control? Or will operation of wall switches stop us at every floor as we are trying to get up to do our job?
At Silver Spring recently, we had a serious fire in a 14-story apartment building which held about a thousand persons, and firemen were assigned to escort people who wanted to get out. We talked many into staying in their apartments. They were 200 feet from the fire. However, those who wanted to get out were assigned elevators with firemen. It was a lucky thing we did this. As the elevators came to the fire floor, each one stopped, the doors opened and that was it. They wouldn’t move. The doors wouldn’t close. Nothing!
Investigation showed that condensation and moisture from fire fighting operations shorted the control switches for the elevators on the fire floor and locked them in at that point.
In this case, the firemen assigned to these elevators guided the people through the smoke and heat on the fire floor to the fire stairs. The nearest stairs happened to be close to the fire, so they had to go a little farther. We had some nice letters to the editor of the paper about the firemen leading the people off these elevators.
Perhaps there is a freight or service elevator which the people will not tend to use. If this is the case, we may be able to use this elevator to get ourselves up in the building and go to work.
Shafts are important
We should certainly be familiar with the shafts in the building that carry the heating, air-conditioning, utility and plumbing equipment. Many of these do not penetrate the roof and there is no way to locate them unless we establish some way to mark the roof.
You will recall the Jacksonville hotel fire that took 21 lives. The fire department held the fire to the first floor, but smoke and heat traveled upward through a dozen or more shafts which did not penetrate the roof. Firemen on the roof had no way of knowing where these shafts were, and the deaths occurred because smoke backed up in the shafts and down through the access panels, which happened to be in the rooms.
In reviewing these problems, we need to consider our fire department equipment. First of all, our hose—1 1/2 and 2 1/2 inch—can be made into loads, packs or bags for immediate use off the standpipes.
We should consider using aerials to haul up supply lines, smoke ejectors or other equipment.
Some basic equipment—the hose roller and life lines or utility lines— doesn’t do us much good sitting in compartments many floors below us. We should get it in. Our engine companies should go in with the standpipe hose, life line and hose roller.
Needless to say, masks are an absolute necessity. These units should be the self-contained type. When it is apparent that the fire will not be quickly subdued, cylinders or canisters should be sent to your operating point in the building.
Smoke ejectors are especially important in fire-resistive structures. Built to contain heat, they do just that, and they give firemen a hard time. We can use ejectors to clear the smoke from the area in which these men are working. If the area is within reach, a smoke ejector can be hung from the end of an aerial, right up against a window.
Since many of our high-rise buildings are apartment buildings, let’s talk a little about people. In these high-rise apartments, we have many people in a small area. We should realize that the people will fail to help each other.
We should not be surprised by panic or near-panic. Reasoning is sometimes out of the question, but we can direct the group by assuming leadership, getting our men to strategic points and telling people what to do— not what not to do. In this way, we can gain control of the situation.
When we arrived at this apartment building where the elevators shorted out, we had people hanging over balcony railings, beating the glass out with their fists. One thing that pleased us particularly was that our firemen as a group did not get shook up. They went right about their work and talked to the people and, as I said, gave positive directions.
There were people in hallways, and when a fireman—just one man—appeared in his gear and mask, they immediately calmed down. We found agitated people on balconies and as soon as a man stepped off a ladder to a balcony, they felt easier.
A second alarm was sounded right away, and the engine companies responding were instructed by radio not to lay any line but to get into the building with their masks. As they came in, they were assigned to floors and we took control of the situation. The truck companies were assigned to floors where there were people at the windows and on balconies.
We didn’t try reasoning with anybody. Our action was to assume leadership of the persons wanting to go somewhere.
If you can get them to stay in their apartments and keep the doors shut, everyone is better off. We had to evacuate occupants between 200 and 300 feet from the burning apartments.
We should always be ready for what we had here—mass removal of occupants, large-scale operations and heavy use of ambulances. It was necessary to transport 17 persons to hospitals.
We should review the alarm assignmeats, for we may have high-rise buildings pop up where alarm assignments have been comparatively light. If we haven’t enough manpower, then our neighbors should roll with us. The alarm assignments on these apartment complexes should include ambulances and rescue squads.
Continued from page 39
Continued on pane 55
One important thing that has a direct effect on the residents is the fire department operation. How the men conduct themselves will certainly have an effect on the people. We can easily be observed from the many floors, and our men should go about their duties in a calm, orderly, businesslike manner. If the firemen don’t look like they know what they are doing, what are the people supposed to do?
Trucks are reassuring
We should attempt to get equipment on all sides of the structure as it arrives so we can be seen and the people will know we are there.
The person who sees us from his window will tell the people across the corridor that the fire department is out there. Following this same line of thought, at night we should immediately set up generator-operated lights.
Where we cannot spot apparatus, we should think of running cable and lights just to let the people know we are there. The use of loudspeakers and electric megaphones should not be overlooked.
At the Hartford hospital fire, much was made of the fact that the aerials could not reach the entire building. However, the department there assigned men to the tops of the ladders with electric megaphones to talk to the people on the floors overhead. They told them what to do, and you may recall that none of those persons was harmed.
Streams protect lives
Balconies present unique problems because people trapped on them above the reach of ladders are in pretty sad shape and we should be ready at all times to get streams around them, over them if necessary, or even on them from adjoining balconies or nearby windows. In these cases, we will find it necessary to work from above and lower men to the balcony with lines and other equipment.
Of course, the fastest protection here is going to be extinguishment of the fire.
These are just some of the things I believe we should consider regarding high-rise structures. What it boils down to is giving our men standard procedures to follow and prefire plans that can be implemented.