Operations at Fire-Resistive Multistory Buildings

MORE AND MORE MULTISTORY buildings are being built nationwide, challenging firefighters as never before. Multistory building occupancies include residential, commercial businesses, health-care facilities, assisted-living centers, and hotels/motels.

Below are some general engine company tactics your department should consider employing when confronting a fire in this type of building. This discussion does not cover traditional brick-and-joist residential buildings but focuses on new types of multistory construction.

Departments with multistory buildings in their jurisdictions should include them in their preplanning. Fire-resistive multistory buildings usually feature framed construction; the main structural components are steel and concrete. Fires in these buildings will generally be more localized and compartmented. These buildings will possibly be of mixed occupancy, which your department preplan should reflect.

Multiple stairways are the means of access and egress for occupants and firefighters. Large numbers of people will be in these buildings during business hours, which presents a great challenge. Health-care facilities have many nonambulatory people on the premises who are incapable of egress. Fire spread usually is not a major problem. Sometimes, autoexposure is an issue; curtain-wall construction can allow fire to spread to the floor above the fire. The big problem for responding firefighters is smoke spread through HVAC systems, stairways, shafts, and utility closets.


Many of these buildings have sprinkler and standpipe systems throughout the building or only in certain areas. Departments must be intimately familiar with these systems to mount a successful hoseline attack. Engine company strategies may include the following.

Frontal attack. This is a> direct, head-on frontal attack performed using an attack hoseline stretched down the hallway; firefighters move and direct the stream into the fire area or room.

Flanking attack. A hoseline team advances a second hoseline toward the fire area at a right angle or from the opposite side of the fire.

Defensive attack. Used when the frontal or flanking attack is unsuccessful, firefighters maintain a position at the fire-resistive stairway enclosure to protect the remaining building occupants. This position is maintained until the flames consume most of the combustible material in the fire area. When conditions permit, after heat and flames subside, firefighters can then advance to extinguish the remaining fire.

Outside attack. An aerial device master stream is used to extinguish the fire, depending on the height of the building and position of the apparatus. Caution: An outside attack will have a major impact on interior conditions. No such aerial action should be taken without close coordination with interior forces. Communication is the key!

Accurately determining the fire location is the most critical assessment at these fires, since all firefighting activities depend on it. Although building personnel may provide fire information as department units arrive, fire personnel must verify it. Once the fire location has been determined, decide how to approach to it. Generally, in the Fire Department of New York, if the fire is in a building of seven stories or less (or on the lower seven floors of a taller building), all operations conducted should use stairways. If the fire is on the eighth floor or above, an elevator equipped with firefighter’s service can be used. If using an elevator, assign a firefighter as the elevator operator. Obviously, don’t take the elevator to the fire floor-follow proper elevator firefighter’s service safety protocols.

On arrival at the fire floor, determine which stairway will be the attack stairway for hoseline operations. Also, designate an evacuation stairway for building occupants. Often, the layout of the floor below the fire will be similar to that of the fire floor, which may assist initial firefighters in getting a sense of the fire floor’s layout. Firefighters should be aware of access stairs within office occupancies. These open stairways can be very dangerous-acting as a chimney to allow fire, smoke, heat, and gases to extend vertically.

It is critical that you have sufficient personnel for the initial hoseline attack. A four-firefighter crew will have a very difficult time trying to advance a 2 1/2-inch hoseline. Even if it can, the team will need relief eventually. A second crew should be assigned to assist and stay with the first crew. Conserving air becomes a factor if relief is necessary. As a general rule, all hoselines should have at least two crews assigned to get them into operation.


You should be familiar with the different types of standpipe systems. The wet-type system has water in the riser at all times; the water may be supplied by a city main, a gravity tank, a pressure tank, or a fire pump. Dry systems may be equipped with an automatic supply source. However, many contain no water; manual dry systems are supplied by fire department pumpers. Combination systems consist of sprinklers interconnected with a standpipe system. Most of these are wet type and of special concern, because the water flow demands of both sprinkler heads and the hoselines attached to the standpipe system require fire department pumpers to augment the supply.

In buildings equipped with both a sprinkler and a standpipe system, fire department connections (siameses) may be combined (most common) or separate. Preplan the building to know what each fire department connection supplies and how much to pressurize to supply the system. If the siamese is defective or inoperative, the system can be supplied through the floor outlets, which can also be used to augment the system when only one siamese is available. Most firefighting texts recommend supplying the standpipe with at least a 2 1/2-inch hose. If more than one standpipe siamese is present, it is recommended to supply at least two siameses using two separate pumpers. When using a floor outlet to supply the standpipe system, be aware that certain fittings may be needed to connect your hoseline to the system. You will not be able to supply the system through a pressure-reducing hose valve. This is why it is so important for you to preplan standpipe system-equipped buildings in your response district.

If a building has a standpipe and a sprinkler system, the first supply line must go to the standpipe system, for your protection. The incident commander must ensure that additional pumpers are aware that they need to supply and augment both systems.

Generally, for standpipe pressures, you want approximately 70 to 80 psi of pressure at the floor outlet with water flowing. Solid-bore, straight-stream nozzles are preferred. One hundred-psi fog nozzles require too high a nozzle pressure to produce an effective stream. The only way to know if these numbers will work is to go out and conduct drills in your district. Line and department training officers must make it a point to conduct drills on these types of buildings. You should use only 2 1/2-inch hose when operating from a standpipe, to provide the necessary volume and pressure needed to extinguish fires in these buildings. Case studies have shown that smaller-diameter hose is inadequate, sometimes resulting in disaster.

Following are some basic rules to use as part of the initial standpipe operation:

  • Stretch from the floor below the fire.
  • Never use a standpipe outlet on the fire floor.
  • Make all connections on the floor below in a hallway outside the stairs in fresh air.
  • Make sure that the lengths are connected properly and that no length is connected back to itself.
  • Remove any pressure-restricting devices. They are sometimes attached to outlets to restrict excess pressure if a layperson attempts to operate the attached house line.
  • Maintain radio communication between the nozzle team and the firefighter at the standpipe to ensure that there is adequate pressure at the nozzle.

Having sufficient personnel is a serious consideration in getting additional lines into operation. All initial efforts must focus on getting the first attack line in operation. Backup crews should make sure that lines are not kinked and that kinks in the initial attack line are removed.

Many multistory buildings have sprinkler systems in addition to standpipe systems. When preplanning, make sure that your firefighters know the locations of sprinkler connections as well as the standpipe connection.

Here are some basic rules to follow when dealing with sprinkler systems.

  • Supply the sprinkler system as soon as operationally possible.
  • Use at least a 2 1/2-inch hoseline.
  • Supply the system with 150 psi to start.

. . .

Fire-resistive buildings present many new challenges. There are different types of occupancies with different variables and complexities. The only way to ensure success is to spend time before a fire and preplan. Fires in these buildings will use a maximum of resources and pose great dangers to firefighting forces. You must be prepared even though you may encounter fires in these buildings less frequently than in residential structures.

Take the time to look at multistory fire-resistive buildings in your district, and have a game plan beforehand. When responding to what might come in as a “routine” automatic alarm, you might find fire blowing out of several windows when you pull in. Be ready!

TOM DONNELLY is a member of the Fire Department of New York, where he is a lieutenant in Rescue Company 1. He previously was a firefighter with Ladder Company 176 and Rescue 2. He is an instructor in the FDNY Technical Rescue School and has been an instructor with the Suffolk County (NY) Fire Academy for 15 years. He has been a volunteer firefighter with the Deer Park (NY) Volunteer Fire Department for 23 years. He has a bachelor’s degree in human resources management from St. Joseph’s College in Brooklyn, New York, and has been an FDIC instructor for several years.

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