High-Rise RIT Saves Trapped Firefighters

By David Pegg

What began as a “routine” fire in a Detroit, Michigan, high-rise soon escalated into a “Saving Our Own” operation. On October 17, 2002, at 0443 hours, Detroit (MI) Fire Department Engine 1 and Ladder 1 were dispatched on a “still” alarm to check for smoke on the 24th floor of the 25-story First National Building. The building encompasses an entire city block and has entrances on all four sides (Bates, Congress, Cadillac Square, and Woodward).

On arrival on the Bates Street side, Engine 1 called for a full assignment, which brought an additional two engines; a squad; and Chief 1, David Hood. Detroit has reduced the number of companies responding to automatic alarms because of the high number of false alarms. Thus, Engine 1 and Ladder 1 found themselves with a working fire on the 24th floor, fully involving a storage area and an office area approximately 30 by 50 feet, with fire already extending down the hallway.

Hood took command on arrival; established a lobby command post; and immediately ordered extra air bottles, pike poles, and hoselines to a 22nd-floor staging area. Squad 2, already en route to the 22nd floor, was assigned as the rapid intervention team (RIT).


(1) The fire occurred on the 24th floor of a 25-story building. (Photos by author.)

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Trouble started with a ruptured attack line on the 24th floor. When this was corrected and water was flowing again, unknown to operating personnel, a basement standpipe seal burst when the second-due engine charged the system. This flooded the basement, shorted out the electrical generator, and cut power to the Bates Street side of the building—including the elevators firefighters had taken control of and entered.1 Unfortunately, the Bates Street elevators used were closest to the fire area above, which could not be seen from the building’s exterior.

FIREFIGHT BECOMES FIREFIGHTER RESCUE

At 0458 hours, Engine 8 Sergeant Louis Grabowski, a 25-year veteran, made a distress call to central dispatch stating that he and his crew were trapped inside express elevator #18. The message was garbled because of the building’s dense structure, but he was able to report heat and smoke conditions and that the car was “dropping.” That was the last radio message heard. Also transmitted but not heard was that Squad 2 was in the elevator as well.

Hearing only the first message, Hood ordered a second alarm, which brought an additional three engines; a ladder; Squad 4; and Chief 5, Russell Arbuckle. Hood also requested an emergency response from the elevator company. Before its arrival, Squad 4 was assigned as the second RIT, since Squad 2 could not be contacted.

Hood briefed arriving companies: The power on the Bates Street side was out; radio communications were difficult, if not impossible; and firefighters were trapped in the east express bank of elevators. Senior Chief Larry Sefton arrived and took command, assigning Arbuckle to fire suppression operations and Hood to organize search and rescue of the trapped firefighters.

We in Squad 4 used another bank of elevators to gain access to the mechanical room on the roof. After locking and tagging out the Bates Street bank of elevators, we began search operations from the 22nd floor down, since we didn’t know the location of the stalled elevator.

At 0525 hours, elevator service personnel reported that the basement was flooded and that they were taking the west bank elevators to the mechanical room on the roof.

At 0545 hours, the fire was under control, and efforts concentrated on locating the trapped firefighters.

Unknown to command, the elevator was drifting, and the firefighters inside were becoming anxious, not knowing what was happening above them. Compounding the situation, hot water, smoke, and heat continued to descend on them from the fire floor. Smoke and steam movement in a high-rise is different from that in other buildings because of differentials in external, floor, and shaft pressures.2

With the power out and in complete darkness, Squad 4 opened the elevator door on the 22nd floor in an attempt to locate the stalled car. Our light beams could penetrate the dark only so far and were further hindered by smoke and steam being forced down the elevator shaft. We proceeded down and at every two floors opened the hoistway and searched the shaft for the elevator car. On the 16th floor we discovered the car had drifted to the 12th-floor level into the express section of the elevator shaft.

We notified command using a personal cell phone, which was the best means of communication. Since the department had just recently issued cell phones to command officers, this became the primary means of communication.

Now in direct voice contact with Grabowski, Squad 4 found the anxiety level of the trapped firefighters rapidly increasing. After almost an hour, hot water continued to pour down on them, along with the now cooling steam and smoke. With impaired radio communications, the trapped personnel were still uncertain as to what was happening above them. When I advised them to stand near the walls of the car, they said they couldn’t because there were too many of them—three members of Engine 8 and four members of the now-found Squad 2.

Working closely with elevator service personnel, we devised a plan to drift the elevator to the 16th floor for access to a hoistway door. This proved out of the question because the weight of the elevator exceeded the weight of the counterweights. Although direct communication had been established, radio communications were still hampered. We were still in complete darkness, the flashlight batteries were starting to run low, and the elevator car had already drifted three times.

Plan B was to create a ladder “A” frame on the 16th floor and perform a rope rescue through the elevator’s top escape hatch. Squad 4 had received extensive training in this technique from the Michigan Urban Search and Rescue (MUSAR) team. The plan was to use a 12-foot extension ladder, ropes, pulleys, webbing, and carabiners to provide an anchor and mechanical advantage so trapped personnel could exit the top hatch and be hoisted using a “hasty harness” made of webbing to the 16th-floor shaft opening.

Because of the high anxiety level of the trapped personnel and the fact that the elevator had drifted three times on its own, time was of the essence. Thus, Plan C emerged: to breach the express elevator shaft. Squad 4 notified command that operations were relocating to the 12th floor and that sledgehammers, a battering ram, bolt cutters, and a torch were needed immediately.


(2) Plan B was to create an “A” frame assembly as an anchor point for a rope rescue through the elevator’s top hatch or

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(3) with the ladder leaning against the wall of the open hoistway.

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Since the building was constructed in 1924, personnel did not know what construction features to expect. The wall turned out to be approximately 12 inches thick, with six inches of concrete block, four inches of fire brick, and wire mesh rock/lath plaster. We did not know this at the time, so we prepared for the worst-case scenario.

At 0640 hours, the equipment arrived by stairway, and we began to breach the wall, creating a three-foot by two-foot hole through which to access the elevator car. First we removed tools, equipment, and SCBA to lighten the car. As we expanded the hole, we explained to trapped personnel that they would be in the space between the car and the opening for only a short time, since the concern was that the car would drift again and pin a firefighter halfway between the car and the opening.


(4) The breached wall, now sealed up, through which the trapped firefighters were rescued.

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As each firefighter emerged from the car into the opening in the wall, two firefighters on each side pulled him through, minimizing the time in transit and avoiding injury. The last firefighter was removed at approximately 0700 hours.

  • A dark night and the location of fire within the complex structure created a situation in which size-up from the street was minimal and thus incomplete. Personnel did not know the fire’s location and extent until companies reached the fire floor.
  • Do not rely on radio communications in large complexes. Luckily, our department had recently issued cellular phones, and they became the main means of communications. Because of radio transmission difficulties, Squad 2, the original RIT, simply disappeared into the operations. Take care when communications become a problem that you don’t assume crews are completing their assignments.
  • Regardless of how routine a call may seem, the possibility exists that it can turn sour in seconds. In this case, a routine fire quickly turned into a rescue operation, changing the incident priorities suddenly from stabilization to life safety.
  • Elevators have been identified as one of the safest modes of transportation, but not in a fire situation. During our incident critique, several truths about elevators emerged.

LESSONS LEARNED

  • A dark night and the location of fire within the complex structure created a situation in which size-up from the street was minimal and thus incomplete. Personnel did not know the fire’s location and extent until companies reached the fire floor.
  • Do not rely on radio communications in large complexes. Luckily, our department had recently issued cellular phones, and they became the main means of communications. Because of radio transmission difficulties, Squad 2, the original RIT, simply disappeared into the operations. Take care when communications become a problem that you don’t assume crews are completing their assignments.
  • Regardless of how routine a call may seem, the possibility exists that it can turn sour in seconds. In this case, a routine fire quickly turned into a rescue operation, changing the incident priorities suddenly from stabilization to life safety.
  • Elevators have been identified as one of the safest modes of transportation, but not in a fire situation. During our incident critique, several truths about elevators emerged.
—Not knowing the fire’s exact location and extent, firefighters used elevators directly under the fire, closest to the entrance. If a building has multiple elevator banks, use one that is remote from the fire overhead. —Firefighters eager to engage in fire operations must not overcrowd the car and possibly exceed the weight limitation, overriding the counterweights. In addition, personnel must have sufficient room inside the car so they can extricate themselves. Although forcible entry (in this case, exit) tools were onboard, personnel needed sufficient room to swing them. —Safety features, such as gripping jaws on the elevator’s governor rope, may not activate the car safeties if the elevator drifts down at a slow rate of speed. They are designed to stop the car in an overspeed descent but not in a slow, although uncontrolled, descent. 3 —Elevators have many safety features, but history and experience have shown that such features can and do fail, resulting in erratic elevator behavior. This increases the anxiety of the trapped occupants. —Elevators have a limited means of ingress and egress and are not meant for continued, long-term occupancy. Even if the occupants are considered physically safe, they may not be safe emotionally and mentally. In this case, the elevator, a routine mode of transportation, became a confined space.

  • Always have a secondary plan. When drifting the elevator car upward was not possible, we had to devise a Plan B and then a Plan C. Keep an open mind for suggestions and alternatives.
  • I cannot overstate the importance of experience. Command officers with years of experience reacted calmly to the situation. They had clearly defined objectives and met them, leading to the safe recovery of personnel.
  • Trapped firefighters, even if they are trained in self-rescue techniques, may not think rationally when faced with unknown conditions resulting primarily from poor communications. Thus, establish a RIT as quickly as possible.
  • You are never too old to learn. Many members of the department seek additional training from educational institutions and urban search and rescue personnel, which added to a successful outcome at this incident.

Thanks to John A. Reardon, lieutenant (ret.), Detroit (MI) Fire Department, and training director for the Southeast Michigan Coalition on Occupational Safety and Health for his help with this article. Thanks also for the training provided by Ron Zawlocki, battalion chief, Pontiac (MI) Fire Department, and Michigan Urban Search and Rescue; Scott Tobey, James Porter, and Richard Shinske, Michigan State University School of Labor and Industrial Relations; and Ronald Winchester, captain, Detroit Fire Department, responsible for introducing the rope rescue techniques used by the department today.

Endnotes

1. Detroit Fire Department standard operating procedures allow the use of elevators for fires above the sixth floor at the incident commander’s discretion.

2. National Fire Protection Association, High-Rise Building Fires and Fire Safety, “Smoke Movement in Buildings,” J.H. McGuire, SFPE, National Research Council (Canada) reprint from Fire Technology, August 1967.

3. Max H. McRae. Fire Department Operations with Modern Elevators. The Robert J. Brady Company, a Prentice-Hall Company, Bowie, Md., 1977.

DAVID PEGG is a captain and 33-year veteran of the Detroit (MI) Fire Department. He currently serves as a board member and treasurer of the Michigan Urban Search and Rescue (MUSAR) team.

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