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Setting the Table for High-Rise Events

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A key task of the fire investigation team: gather as much information as possible before ascending above grade. Contrary to what you might want to do, especially if fire is showing, you must first SLOW DOWN and pinpoint the exact location of the fire. Photo courtesy Keith Witt

The key to any successful fireground operation is building a foundation with the initial first-alarm resources. This is especially true when responding to incidents in high-rise buildings due to the complexity of these structures. Whether the response is for a fire, hazardous material or other unforeseen or out-of-the-ordinary event, the approach should be the same: size-up and information gathering.

One of the key components of the foundation is the fire investigation team (FIT). Even if we arrive on the scene with fire showing, we still have to gather as much information as possible before ascending above grade. Though this must be accomplished ASAP, we must SLOW DOWN and gather as much pertinent information as possible, so that the FIT can ascend SAFELY above the lobby level to make the initial investigation, verify the initial information and pinpoint the exact location of the fire. This is a crucial task; the operation cannot move forward until this is accomplished.

Staffing the FIT

Not all fire departments have the ability to provide the minimum personnel in accordance with the standards and guidelines for initial response to a high-rise incident as outlined in NFPA 1710: Standard for the Organization and Deployment of Fire Suppression Operations. When this is the case, first-arriving units will be limited on what they can accomplish. Departments that are faced with this challenge must not hesitate to upgrade the alarm immediately to get additional resources to the scene if there is any indication that the incident may be bona fide.

The FIT should ideally be composed of the first-arriving engine company and the first-arriving truck company. Some jurisdictions do not have truck companies responding initially, or the truck maybe responding from another jurisdiction on an automatic-aid or mutual-aid response, and therefore its arrival may be delayed. In this case, the FIT may be composed of the first two arriving engine companies; however, one of these companies must be ready (including carrying the proper tools) to assume the duties of a truck company on the initial investigation.

Best Practices

The following are some basic guidelines the FIT should consider to begin “setting the table” for a successful high-rise incident.

Position for readiness

Upon arrival at the scene, the apparatus should be properly positioned to immediately go to work, whether smoke is showing or not. As a matter of fact, any response, fire, EMS, etc, should dictate proper apparatus positioning each and every time. If we practice this every time, it will become second nature and we will always be ready to go to work when we have a confirmed incident.

Start gathering information

When we enter the building, one the first things we must do is access the fire alarm panel, which is required in most, if not all, new high-rise buildings. The fire alarm panel can provide us with a wealth of information that can help us verify the location of the fire as well as monitor smoke spread throughout the structure. Information obtained from the panel is not an absolute, but can be coupled with information given from dispatch, building staff and occupants to begin the size up and put the pieces of the puzzle together.

Some older high-rises don’t have fire alarm panels, which makes the FIT’s job much more difficult. In this case we have to rely on dispatch information and that of the building occupants. This information is not always reliable, but it may be all we have to go on, so proceed cautiously.

Other information we will need before ascending:

  • Stairwell and elevator locations
  • Evacuation plans
  • Renovation work that may be going on in the building
  • Status of the HVAC system

Crucial building information can be provided by a building engineer or maintenance personnel. Locating these individuals and keeping them at the command post can be a great asset as the incident begins to unfold.

Secure elevators

Elevators must be immediately recalled, including the freight elevator, even if the FIT isn’t going to use them. They must be taken away from the building occupants for their own safety. If the decision is made by the FIT to use the elevators, caution must be used and strict adherence to department SOGs must be followed. If possible, avoid the temptation to use the freight elevator to make the initial investigation. Not all freight elevator shafts are protected. This should be verified by the FIT before use during operations.

Designate the stairwells

Before moving up the stairs, we need some basic information about the stairwells, including:

  • Where they start and where they terminate
  • Are they smokeproof towers, return stairs or scissors stairs?
  • Which stairwells contain the standpipe system?

Knowing this information will assist the FIT in designating the proper fire attack and evacuation stairwells once they have verified the location of the fire. Stairwell designation is one of the most important tasks to be accomplished by the FIT. Slow down, check and check again to make sure that the stairwells chosen for attack and evacuation are the most advantageous to accomplish the task at hand. You may only get one good shot at an effective hose lead out.

Once the designation of the fire attack stairwell has been accomplished, all firefighting operations must initially commence from this stairwell. This information must also be communicated to the command post, and then to all responding companies via the dispatch frequency.

No Short Cuts

The FIT must be disciplined. There may be the temptation to deviate from our normal operations due to extreme circumstances. We must resist this temptation and concentrate on building the foundation of the incident first. The priorities that each incident presents can only be addressed if the foundation has been set and department SOGs are strictly adhered to.

High-rise operations are high-risk, low-frequency events. We must TRAIN, PREPLAN and TRAIN some more to ensure a safe and successful operation.

Authored By: BFC Keith Witt

Keith Witt is a 32-year veteran of the Chicago Fire Department (CFD) and currently holds the rank of battalion chief, assigned to the 18th Battalion in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood. He holds a bachelor’s degree in fire protection and safety engineering technology from Oklahoma State University and a master’s degree in public safety management from Lewis University. Witt is also a lead instructor in the CFD’s Officer Training Program, a Field Staff Instructor for the University of Illinois Fire Service Institute, and the National Fire Academy. Firefighter safety and survival has become one of his top priorities and motivations.

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