Roof Obstructions: Cell Towers

By Jack J. Murphy

Cellular telephone towers have rapidly cropped up across America. They are camouflaged as large trees, overcrowd existing communication towers, are placed on top of water towers, and are present on the rooftops and exterior walls of many buildings. Of particular concern is the low-rise building that is still within the reach of ground ladders and aerial/tower ladders. Cell towers located along the roof edge or parapet can impede truck company roof operations.

(1) Cell towers along a parapet. (Photos by author.)


One of the new challenges for a chauffeur who is thinking about his position based on the anticipated fire progress is to keep in mind the presence of building cell towers and how to best position the truck for rooftop operations. One concern is cell towers that are lined up along the roof edge (see photo 1). They can limit roof access as well as hinder firefighters’ escape routes to ground/aerial ladders or an adjoining rooftop. With heavy smoke issuing from upper-floor levels, the building cell towers will not be visible to the chauffeur.

Cellular phone wire racks installed on the roof level can also hinder ventilation procedures and firefighter safety. This telephone support equipment may be located throughout the building. Wire chases may be run outside the building in an enclosed weather-resistive piping or may run inside the building. The internal run between floor levels must be protected with fire “stopping” materials. The building’s cellular support equipment room may be protected with an individual clean-agent extinguishing system or may be connected to the existing building fire suppression or detection system. There may also be a climate-controlled environment within the room. Performing a building reconnaissance and gathering all this tactical intelligence prior to an incident will greatly assist with fireground safety.

(2) Cell tower and support equipment located in a center roof penthouse.


An ideal setting for a low-rise building cellular phone penthouse is to locate it in the center of the roof (see photo 2). While this type of penthouse adds to the roof load, the setback will not hinder roof access by ladder. As for individual cell towers, the ideal placement—if they must be located along the roof edge—should in a location where they do not hinder ladder operations from the street side or face an open area such as a parking lot. It is vital to responder safety that the local fire department have input with the community zoning board as to where cellular telephone towers are placed.

JACK J. MURPHY is a fire marshal (ret.) and former deputy chief of the Leonia (NJ) Fire Department. He has a master’s degree in education and several undergraduate degrees, including those in industrial technology and fire science. Murphy is an editorial board advisory member of Fire Engineering and the FDIC educational coordinator. He is the vice-chairman of the New York City High-Rise Fire Safety Directors Association and was the charter president of the Bergen County (NJ) Fire Chiefs Association. Murphy is the author of RICS/Rapid Incident Command System (Fire Engineering, 1998) and has written many fire service articles. He also serves on the John Jay College (NYC) Board of Directors for the Fire Safety Foundation and is an honorary FDNY battalion chief.


  • JACK J. MURPHY , MA, is a retired fire marshal and a former deputy chief. He is the chairman of the New York City High-Rise Fire Safety Directors Association, a member of the NFPA High-Rise Building Safety Advisory, and a member of the 1620 Pre-Incident Planning Committees. He has authored RICS: Rapid Incident Command System Field Handbook , wrote the Preincident Planning chapter of Fire Engineering’s Handbook for Firefighter I and II , and coauthored Bridging the Gap: Fire Safety and Green Buildings . He contributes articles to Fire Engineering . He was the recipient of the 2012 Fire Engineering Tom Brennan Lifetime Achievement Award .

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