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By Brian Butler
Fires in high-rise buildings present serious challenges for first due companies who are often met with dangerous conditions on the fire floor and the floors above as reflex time allows the fire and smoke to grow and spread. There are approximately 50 high-rise fires in the U.S. every day, resulting in 50 fatalities annually. Most high-rises are fire-resistive structures, and almost half of all existing occupied highrise apartments, hotels, and commercial buildings do NOT have a sprinkler system.
What do we consider a high-rise?
INTERNATIONAL BUILDING CODE: A high-rise building is defined by the IBC as a “building with an occupied floor located more than 75 feet above the lowest level of fire department vehicle access.” What's considered a high-rise will also depend on the region, department, jurisdiction, or local building codes. Most departments recognize high-rises as any building over 75 feet and out of the reach of an aeriel ladder. Most MFD's and commercial buildings 4-6 stories high are referred to as mid-rises with the roof accessible by an aerial ladder.
SKYSCRAPERS: Are buildings over 50 stories.
ON APPROACH SIZE-UP: There's a long list of dangers to consider when fighting a high-rise fire. When companies are dispatched to an alarm activation in a high-rise, the company officers will usually focus on getting to the alarm annunciator panel to see what it's indicating, and then investigate what's most likely to be a careless cooking, waterflow, duct/heat detector, or a pull station nuisance alarm. Other incidents may involve natural gas odors, and CO alarms.
But when the call comes in for a confirmed working fire in a high-rise with numerous calls, or smoke visible from the street, a more intense and thorough thought process takes over. In addition to size-up and apparatus placement, initial duties for first due companies will include retrieving knox box keys, locating the FDC, hydrant, checking wind conditions and the alarm panel, confirming the proper operating channel, and making sure the crew is armed with the proper equipment before committing to the building. Many other additional concerns will need to be addressed before you even reach the fire location. In many cases, firemen will already be familiar with the building from prior alarms, EMS calls, elevator removals, surveys, inspections, and preplans. This helps a great deal!
When arriving at a high-rise fire, some considerations for firemen/officers apply:
LOCATION OF THE FIRE: Looking up at the exterior from at least two sides and checking for visible fire, smoke, or flashing lights from alarm strobes will be an indicator. People out on balconies or open windows waving their arms. As you approach the building, are there any escaping occupants or security giving you information as to the fire floor location? Head to the alarm panel and verify the location of any alarm activations, and relay that information to the IC. When arriving at the standpipe, If tenable, recon the fire floor to estimate the stretch, check fire conditions, and select the best attack stairwell, Take the extra few seconds to get it right.
REMEMBER: Not all reported high-rise fires will be inside the building on an upper floor. Fires can start in attached occupancies, laundry facilities, underground storage and parking areas, lobbies, subdivision apartments, penthouse mechanical rooms, roof top air handlers, electrical vaults, loading docks, elevator machine rooms, vertical shafts (trash chutes) and balconies.
OCCUPANCY AND TIME OF DAY: This information is important for any life hazard. An occupied residential high-rise at 2am or a commercial occupancy at 2pm on a weekday will most likely be occupied. The time of day and occupancy play a key role in rescue efforts. Searching and evacuating the fire floor and floors above are still the priority.
WEATHER:This will determine any stack/reverse stack effect and the potential for wind-driven fires. If strong winds are present from the ground, they could be much stronger on the 40th floor. If fire is showing on the windward side of the building, the hose team may have fire blowing out into the public hallway when they open the door to the fire apartment.
FIRE PROTECTION SYSTEMS: Does the building have sprinklers/standpipes? Does the FDC connection supply both? Be familiar with the stairwells where the risers are located. If the building is not protected by sprinklers/standpipes or they are out of service, notify the IC immediately. Does the building have a fire pump? Are there pressure restricting/reducing devices (PRD's) present? Does the public address system work? Are the stairwells enclosed with a 2 hour fire rating, or open? Are there Class 1,2,3 standpipes? These can be determined by preplans or building familiarization from prior calls. Be proactive and take note of these important details.
High-rise smoke control systems are usually located at the command center. Determine which type of smoke removal or ventilation system the building has before using it, as it could be counterproductive to achieving the desired goal.
STAIRWELL TYPES AND LOCATIONS: Knowledge of the stairwell types and their locations are critical. Stairwells may be located at only one end of the building leaving a dead end hallway on the other. Some stairwells are only located in the center of the building while others only service certain floors and may not even have a standpipe riser. Determine the type of stairwell (scissor, straight, open, center well, return, access, enclosed). Scissor stairs can be confusing for new firefighters making a connection below the fire floor. Check and identify stairwells (A, B or 1, 2) when assigning an attack/evacuation/vent stairwell. Determine which stairwell leads to the roof bulkhead door. We try not to evacuate occupants down a stairwell that is being used for attack/ventilation. MORE ON STAIRWELLS CLICK HERE
REFLEX TIME: From the time companies are dispatched until the time water is applied to the fire in a high-rise can average anywhere from 10-30 minutes. With fire doubling in size approximately every minute, consider the time the fire actually started until reaching the fire with a charged hoseline. That 's your reflex time. Watch VIDEO on fire growth during reflex time.
PROPER TOOLS, EQUIPMENT AND MANPOWER: Before heading up to the fire floor, request spare bottles to be shuttled up to the staging area below the fire AHEAD of time. This is suggested only because of the possibility of excessive incident command garble clogging the radios during the first several minutes of these incidents. Prepare for high traffic and use radio discipline. Radio priority in the first several minutes should be reserved for the company officers who are making their way to the fire floor to observe and report conditions and needed resources.
Ensure you have several door chocks, rope/webbing as they can be your most important tool in a high-rise fire. Ladder company tools should be hydraulic ram/force entry tools/irons, rope, flashlight, TIC, water can, bolt cutters. Engine company brings a properly equipped high-rise pack with a smooth bore or 'breakaway' nozzle, TIC, chocks, flashlight, and wire cutters (plenum-wires).
For zero visibility in high-rise apartment building fires, use a TIC in the hallway to locate the fire. The fire compartment will have high heat registering around (top) the door frame.
The breakaway nozzle allows an easy switch from solid to fog. Knock down a fire with a 200 GPM solid tip, and screw on the fog to hydraulically ventilate, clearing out smoke/steam.
Usually, the Truck company members will respond to the fire floor with a water extinguisher. A water can in a small apartment fire (couch, mattress) can be very effective. In a residential high-rise, truck members will force the door to the fire apartment and refuge apartment, then control the door.
Do NOT get in the elevator if the fire helmet is flashing. The shunt trip breaker has tripped and will stop the elevator. A heat detector, sprinkler or smoke condition in the hoistway or machine room will shut down the mainline power prior to a sprinkler activation trapping firemen inside with no control. They will have to force their way out, or rescued by other firemen.
Before supplying the FDC, check for damaged threads, missing gaskets, and clappers. Remove any trash/debris stuffed inside. Some FDC's have signage that may be confusing to new pump operators. Some sprinkler/standpipe combination connections may not actually supply sprinklers. Others may only supply the basement, or certain floors in a mid-rise, high-rise or skyscraper.
NOZZLE TIPS: For high-rise fires use a smooth bore nozzle (or a break-away). In addition to a better stream and less friction loss, it allows the debris and sediment from inside standpipe risers to get flushed out through to tip. This should also be done at the outlet. Make sure before entering the fire area, flake excess hose on the hinge side of inward swinging apartment doors to keep it from catching, or closing behind you.
When advancing a handline down a long hallway with low or zero visibility, try and keep the line taut and stay in contact with that line. If a hostile event occurs or the low air alarm is sounding, following that hoseline will lead right back to the enclosed stairwell for safety. If too much line is flaked into the hallway, it will make following that 'maze' line out much more difficult.
When arriving at the fire apartment, don't just crack the nozzle to bleed the air out. FLOW the line (away from the elevator shaft) for several seconds. This will ensure that you flush out any sediment, ensuring an adequate stream before entering the apartment. Opening the line up only to discover the stream is "pissing" on the fire as it rolls out into the hallway over your head will have you retreating. There could be a problem with water pressure caused by kinks, pinched hose, PRD's, FDC's, fire pumps, or the standpipe.
DANGERS: Firemen face many of the dangers fighting a high-rise fire as they would a basement or multi-family mid-rise fire. These dangers include flashover, ceiling collapse, heat exhaustion, steam burns, difficult stretches and disorientation in dead end hallways. We must also consider the following:
FALLEN GLASS: Windows in high-rises are thick and heavy. Large shards of glass falling down 20-30 stories can kill civilians on the ground AND the pump operator at the FDC. Venting windows in MOST high-rise fires is dangerous and not recommended. Firemen have no control over a window failing on its own from the fire, which is why the IC should immediately assign a safety officer to keep the street/sidewalk area under the fire side of the building clear of onlookers.
There are some situations and conditions where you can vent the windows in a high-rise fire such as the presence of outside balconies, setbacks, or if the sidewalk/street area has been closed off preventing anyone from walking into the hazard area. If the glass is going to land on a nearby buildings roof, it's safe to break a window. Most modern high-rise buildings have impact-resistant glass which is extremely difficult to break. A key or wrench is needed to open them.
TIP: I always make it a habit to look up and check for balconies as I exit the apparatus and approach the building. In addition, I also note wind conditions, and the setback to estimate the maximum floor height that our 100' ladder can reach. I do this at every high-rise building I respond to no matter what the call is.
ELEVATORS: Check the status of the elevators and assign a fireman to the elevator control position. If the elevators are not automatically recalled to the lobby, do so with the key (Phase 1). The elevator keys are usually in the knox box. REMEMBER to use 'Firemen Service' elevators only. If the fire is reported below the 8th floor, take the stairs. Above the 8th floor, take the elevators two floors below the CONFIRMED fire location. Always check the shaft for smoke/water and flashing helmet on the display panel before using an elevator. Identify elevators servicing a blind shaft and elevators that service only the floors ABOVE the fire. Never take elevators directly to the reported fire/alarm floor or a subdivision. If you're not sure of the fire floor, don't become complacent. Be aware of open elevator shafts when crawling down hallways in poor visibility conditions.
Elevator Use During Fire: An 8 year study of 179 major fires in buildings where elevators were present revealed that elevators failed at 59 fires. That's one-third of the major fires. Fire, heat and water caused electrical malfunctions in those elevators.
Click here for our elevator page.
ENTRAPMENT: In residential high-rise fires, firemen have become lost/disoriented in dead end hallways, ceiling collapses, bathrooms, trash chutes, elevator shafts and janitor closets. While crawling around in commercial buildings, especially core construction, it's easy to get tangled up in wires from the plenum space above suspended ceilings, in addition to the many partitions, computer equipment, power strips-cords, desks, and chairs in an office building.
WIND DRIVEN FIRES: The biggest danger of fighting an upper floor high-rise fire is a wind-driven fire pushing the inferno down the public hallway like a blowtorch. Described as "blowtorch" fires by the firemen who have survived these incidents, they are caused by strong winds entering the fire compartment through open (broken) balcony doors or windows, and driving the intensified fire through the open door leading to the public hallway. The hose team will be overwhelmed as the fire blows towards them. See videos below on wind driven fires. (Flow paths)
When it comes to high-rise buildings, the wind will most likely be stronger on the upper floors and along coastlines. Companies arriving on scene at a reported high-rise fire could have slight wind conditions at the ground level, but upon arriving to the 28th floor they are met with strong wind conditions blowing fire out of the open apartment door into the public hallway.
Firemen must be prepared for "blowtorch" fire conditions in high-rise fires on the windward side of the building, especially if the windows in the fire apartment fail due to fire, are left open by fleeing occupants, or prematurely vented by firemen.
Door control is also very important, but if the occupants left the door open, the fire has the potential to enter the hallway continuing a dangerous flow path fire that can reach temperatures of 2,500° F. Taking a fire with that intensity HEAD ON with a 150-180 GPM line will be difficult, if not impossible. Several factors must to be present to create the blowtorch effect, but firemen still need to recognize the warning signs. Reduce the flow path by controlling the doors and coordinating with the vent team. These wind-driven fires can occur with gusts as low as 10-15 MPH.
Many firemen have been killed, or seriously injured during wind driven high-rise fires, disorientation in dead-end hallways, and taking elevators directly to the fire floor.
This video highlights the size-up considerations for fighting wind-driven high-rise fires.
This video explains how to identify a wind-driven high-rise fire
NIST: Excellent video on wind-driven fires in Chicago.
Video on fire growth during reflex time.
Marco Polo High-rise fire in Honolulu Hawaii in July of 2017. Three residents were killed.
Pressure Restricting Device.
Take a look down the hallway and decide if you're only going to need a 50-75' section or the entire 150' to reach the furthest room inside the fire apartment. Don't always assume that there's going to be a long hallway leading to the fire apartment when estimating the stretch.
Imagine deploying the high-rise pack, and connecting to the standpipe only to discover the fire apartment is directly across the hall from the stairwell, or worse, will not reach the fire area. Recon and estimate.
For high-rise fires estimating the stretch isn't that difficult. There's room for excess hose because we are stretching from the stairwells most of the time which gives us a few landings and a few flights of stairs to flake excess hose.
PRESSURE REGULATING DEVICES (pictured above) are pressure-restricting devices, pressure-reducing valves, and pressure control devices that are designed for the purpose of regulating, controlling, or restricting water pressure in order to limit standpipe outlet pressure in flowing conditions. In 1991 after the tragic One Meridian Plaza fire in Philadelphia PA, these regulating devices became an essential part of high-rise operations, and many in the fire service starting recognizing these devices as a serious problem. For more on PRD's, PRC's, PRV's - CLICK BELOW
RECON: It's not always necessary to recon the floor below the fire. If the building occupant is telling the fire department that the fire started in their apartment which is 17B, and the alarm panel has activations from the 17th floor on up, there's a good chance it's apartment 17B. If the hallway conditions are tenable and visibility is clear enough to locate the fire apartment, there's no need to recon the floor below; UNLESS there's a need to check wind direction. Opening the window of an apartment on the floor below, or adjacent to the fire to check wind conditions is beneficial when checking for potential wind-driven fires. But, it's also very time consuming, if you can even access an apartment. The reflex time for high-rise fires is already long enough, so try to obtain wind direction from the IC or when approaching the entrance to the building after arrival. Cracking a hallway or stairwell window on the fire floor (if present) is quick and effective. If there's poor visibility on the fire floor, the officer can take a minute to recon the floor below to determine the location of the apartment, distance, and layout. The rest of the crew should be preparing for the standpipe stretch and "masking up."
In many cities, the Truck Company will recon the fire floor, force the fire door and refuge apartment door if needed for the engine company while they're making their connection and preparing the stretch. When deteriorating conditions and poor visibility exist in the hallway, using a thermal imaging camera can assist finding the fire area. The fire compartment will have high heat registering around (top) the door frame.
TIP: If the stretch from the floor below to the fire apartment is close, but will not reach, and the hallway is clear (fire apartment door is closed) it may be a better strategy to hook up on the fire floor standpipe to reach the apartment. This will depend on various factors the company officer must consider when making this decision (stretching from an enclosed stairwell, tenable conditions, sprinklered hallways, stage of fire, capability of his crew).
MYTH: We always have to hook up on the floor below. Do we hook up to the floor below on first floor or subdivision fires, or top deck parking garage fires? There are buildings where the standpipe outlet starts at the second floor, with no option to hookup below. Although it is best to hook up on the floor below most of the time, there are rare instances and certain circumstances when the fire floor (remote from the fire) is a better option. We're not robots. Apply water faster = everything better.
This fire in was intensified by a fire pump that was turned off in addition to a frozen FDC supplied by the pumper, leaving firemen inside the apartment with heavy fire and no pressure from the standpipe.
A 2 1/2 line was stretched from the street. Always have a plan B...
In parking garages, mid-rises and some high-rises, it's common to stretch 2" and 2 1/2 lines up the open stairwell or exterior (fire escapes) to the floor below (portable standpipe operation) with a gated wye to stretch handlines to the fire area. These can also be used when an FDC is out of service or there's a problem with the standpipe.
These inexpensive pieces of rope are great for securing stairwell doors to the riser (10') when you want the door open just enough for the line to get through without being pinched, and with very limited smoke intrusion. Several pieces can fit in the cargo pockets of bunker gear without taking up space or adding weight.
In 2009, two firemen were killed in a wind-driven fire. Click here for LODD. Less than six minutes after arriving on-scene, the victims became disoriented as high winds pushed the rapidly growing fire through the den and living room areas where interior crews were operating.
There may be circumstances where hooking up on the fire floor is the better option. This wasn't one of them. A flashover in the hallway forced crews to abandon the hoseline and retreat. Unfortunately this is a controversial tactic. An experienced company officer making this decision with a successful outcome should not be criticized.
NEW YORK: Three people jumped to their deaths and four others were killed when flames turned a 35-story Manhattan apartment tower's refuse chute into a giant chimney. Twenty-five others were injured in the blaze, which briefly trapped rescuers who had braved choking black smoke to rouse residents by blowing whistles and pounding on doors.
In addition to convection, conduction and radiation, major fire spread concerns in a high-rise will be void spaces and auto-exposure. Additional possibilities are reflex time, adjacent exposures, wind conditions, stack effect, vertical shafts
HVAC, failure of protective systems, plenum spaces, open areas, stacked plumbing in residential highrises, and exterior Insulation and finish systems.
Air handler malfunctions are rare incidents that have the potential to result in fire and smoke conditions triggering alarm activations. The air handler in an HVAC system has electrical and mechanical components in it that can experience problems from time to time such as clogged filters, faulty wiring, worn belts, fan motors and compressor issues.
HVAC systems in commercial buildings can be beneficial and assist the fire department, but also create problems for them as well. Firemen must have a basic understanding of HVAC systems.
Alarm activations with smoke conditions in numerous locations will send firemen to multiple floors trying to locate the source. Checking the trash chute hopper doors in the hallways on each floor, can determine if the smoke is coming from the compactor room or incinerator area below. If there's an odor of burning garbage, it's possible it's a stuck trash bag between floors. Most compactor rooms have sprinklers directly above them (activated sprinkler is an indicator when reading the alarm panel) but smoke and carbon monoxide can still fill the upper floors. Have a company check out the compactor room.
REMEMBER: Most alarm panels will identify an alarm activation in the compacter-chute room. Some trash chutes have are equipped with sprinklers, while others have been taken out of service, with the hopper doors permanently closed shut.
See how modern trash chutes work.
COMPACTORS: Small compactors and dumpsters with wheels can be rolled out onto a nearby loading dock and extinguished, but others are heavily secured commercial compactors that will need to be extinguished in place. Working around compactor machines can be very dangerous as they can lead to crush injuries. Secure the power AND movement of a compactor and be careful where you place pike poles/hooks arms and hands when attempting to remove a blockage in the compactor/chute.
INCINERATORS: Incinerators are supposed to burn. The problem with incinerators are obstructions in the chimney when improperly used as a trash chute, causing smoke to exit from open hopper doors BELOW the blockage point. To located a blockage, check the lower floors/chutes and work your way up until there's no smoke exiting from the hopper doors. The blockage will be below that location. Try to dislodged with a pole/hook/chain or by other means. Bring the water can.
PARKING GARAGES: Fires in parking garages adjacent to high-rises buildings.
PARKING GARAGES CLICK HERE
The MGM Grand fire occurred on November 21, 1980 at the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino (now Bally's Las Vegas) in Las Vegas, Nevada. The fire killed 85 people, most through smoke inhalation. See video below.
One Meridian Plaza high-rise fire, February 23, 1991. Three firefighters were killed fighting the 12 alarm blaze just south from Philadelphia's City Hall.
Long Beach CA Galaxy Tower fire. One resident from the upper floors jumped to his death.
"During the late evening of May 4, 1988, and the early morning of May 5, 1988, members of the Los Angeles City Fire Department successfully battled what has proven to be the worst, most devastating high-rise fire in the history of Los Angeles. Extinguishing this blaze at the 62-story First Interstate Bank Building, 707 West Wilshire Boulevard, required the combined efforts of 64 fire companies, 10 City rescue ambulances, 17 private ambulances, 4 helicopters, 53 Command Officers and support personnel, a complement of 383 Firefighters and Paramedics, and considerable assistance from other City departments. 2nd Video Click Here
This devastating fire occurred in New Orleans, LA in November 29, 1972. It shows 5 women having to jump from the 15 floor as fire raced through the beauty salon they were in. Warning: Viewer Discretion Advised
When preplanning residential high-rises in district, make the priorities the following:
Locations of the FDC, knox box, annunciator panel, standpipes, stairwells, bulkheads, elevators, nearby hydrants, and utility areas. Is the building sprinklered? Check for the presence of balconies, storage areas, underground/ adjacent parking, laundry facilities, or trash chutes.
If the fire is within reach of the aerial/tower ladder, usually 7th floor or below depending on setback, priority placement must be given. Placement will depend on fire area, configuration, traffic etc... It isn't always possible to take the corners of the building and placement will obviously will be decided on the fly. Truck company officers and drivers must take notice on approach.
Many residential, commercial and retail occupancies attached to high-rises will have underground parking. These fires produce an incredible amount of smoke and heat, which can infiltrate the building setting off alarms. From the street, it may look like a fire inside the building. Preplans are so important for high-rise buildings with attached occupancies and underground parking.
Class I standpipes are for fire department use only and have 2 1/2 hose connections.
Class 2 standpipes were originally intended for the buildings occupants to use during fire. These outlets are only 1 1/2 connections and usually stored in hose cabinets.
Class 3 standpipes have both 1 1/2 and 2 1/2 connections.
Stairwells from the fire floor up to the roof must be searched during, and after the fire. Many people in skyscrapers actually believe that if they can get to the roof they will be rescued by a helicopter, which is highly unlikely. They may be overcome by smoke when they realize the bulkhead door is locked, or that the stairwell they climbed doesn't even lead to the roof. Make this area part of the primary search.
Although rare, fires on the roof of high-rise buildings have some advantages. They are already ventilated, no upper floors exposed, usually no life hazard, and all floors below are usually clear and protected from fire spread. The dangers are firefighters falling off the roof and concerns with elevator machine rooms affecting elevator cars within the building. Standpipes are available on the roof and even some test outlets can be used. Some roof fires may require water application from an adjacent higher building.
The advantages of balconies during high-rise fires can be beneficial to occupants and firefighters. Windows can be ventilated if glass remains on the balcony. Trapped occupants have a shelter area for ladder rescues on lower floors. Those trapped and preparing to jump to their deaths will have a chance of surviving by climbing over to adjacent balconies. Aerials can be used for portable standpipe operations through lower apartments, stretching to upper floors during FDC or standpipe failure.
Fire broke out on the roof of a downtown Denver parking garage causing a big black cloud of smoke to billow over downtown Denver. This fire started in the mechanical room with CHILLERS and chemicals on top of a parking garage in Denver. See VIDEO here.
Are residents better off staying in their heavyweight fire-resistive high-rise apartments, or walking down 20 stories in stairwells full of smoke while firemen are trying to shuttle up equipment and hook up their lines?
During high-rise preplans, observe low-rise buildings in the area from the roof. Locate their roof access and skylights for ventilation. Look for holes, heavy equipment, solar panels, billboards, water buildup, HVAC units etc..
Wind-driven fire experiment conducted on Governors Island by NIST and FDNY to examine wind driven fires.
Parking garages several decks high can have similarities to a high-rise. They may be adjacent, or underneath high-rise buildings.