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A Small Department Approach to High-Rise Fires

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The Euclid (Ohio) Fire Department and its mutual aid partners learned valuable lessons after responding to a fire in this seven-story commercial high-rise. On arrival, the fire had blown out five plate glass windows on the right side of the building, and covered 2,500–3,000 square feet of floor space. Photo courtesy Euclid (Ohio) Fire Department

To an officer or firefighter in a small department, a serious fire in a high-rise building can present unique challenges. Captain Will Anderson of the Euclid (Ohio) Fire Department has commanded working fires in both residential and commercial high-rises and understands how difficult these high-risk, low-frequency calls can be for small departments.

Anderson recently taught the seminar “Initial High-Rise Considerations for Small Departments—Lessons Learned” at Fire-Rescue International in Denver. I had the opportunity to catch up with him before the show to discuss key tactical and strategic considerations of high-rise firefighting. Following are some highlights from our conversation.

At a Disadvantage
It would be nice if we could relegate high-rise firefighting to the realm of the big city, but Anderson points out that many smaller towns have dozens of high-rise buildings—mostly residential, some commercial. Sure, these aren’t the grandiose high-rises of New York City or Las Vegas, but they still require an adjustment in tactics.

And Anderson believes smaller departments are at an inherent disadvantage in making those adjustments. He points to the following reasons:

  • Limited initial resources. “We don’t have 30 people showing up like a big city would have, yet we still have the same jobs that need to get done as the big-city fire departments.”
  • Lack of training or preplanning in these buildings.
  • Complacency: “If we bring a 2½-story, wood-frame, residential mindset to a 20-story building, bad things are going to happen.”

Establishing Command
Commanding a high-rise incident is also more challenging for smaller departments. The first-in company officer must size-up the building. “It has been my experience that that person isn’t going to stand outside and set up the command post,” Anderson notes. Instead, on a three-person engine response like Euclid’s, one firefighter stays outside the building to set up water supply, while the company officer and remaining firefighter must go into the building.

“Because we’re arriving with a limited number of people, they’re going to take command, but in a fast-attack mode,” Anderson says. “And they still have to get the KNOX-BOX keys, they still have to recall he elevators, they still have to identify the fire floor.”

When a higher-ranking chief arrives, formal command can be established. Anderson stresses the location of the command post can be critical. “Where they set up their formal command is going to dictate whether or not they’re able to focus and have good situational awareness as to what’s going on,” he says. “If they set up inside the lobby, you could have 100 people in there, and it’s going to be counter-productive to what you’re trying to do. You have to stay in your vehicle with these types of buildings.”

A Case Study
Part of Anderson’s FRI seminar described a high-rise fire his department responded to, how the incident unfolded and what the department learned.

“The fire was in a seven-story commercial high-rise—barely a high-rise, but by definition, a high-rise,” Anderson says. “The fire was on the second floor. Half the building was vacant, half the building was occupied. It occurred at about 3 a.m. The fire had blown out five plate glass windows on the right side (or Delta side) of the building, and it was a very, very large fire; it was probably covering 2,500–3,000 square feet of floor space on arrival. And the floor was about 8,000 square feet in size.”

At one point in the incident, the dropped ceiling collapsed on a crew of Euclid firefighters, and five of them became entangled in the dropped ceiling and the thin wire rods that were used to hold up the duct work of the HVAC system. Photo courtesy Euclid (Ohio) Fire Department

Complicated by delayed detection and delayed notification, the fire grew in intensity to a point where it was auto-exposing up the outside to the third floor. “And we showed up with 12 people,” Anderson says. “I called for mutual aid while I was responding, so we got crews on the way quickly. We ended up having about 45 firefighters on scene from about six different communities.”

The fire was put out successfully. “There were no injuries, there was a rehab set up, there was a RIT team set up for all the members,” Anderson says.

Lessons Learned
The fact that nothing went wrong at this incident hasn’t stopped Anderson and the rest of the Euclid Fire Department from studying it and identifying lessons that should be shared with other small departments. They include:

  • Call for help early. “If we would have been complacent, waiting until we got there to see what was going on and then called for help, it’s putting everyone’s arrival off by a few minutes, and at an incident like that, you don’t need people in a few minutes—you need them now,” Anderson says. “We had a full crew, a whole box alarm there within five minutes probably after the MABAS (Mutual Aid Box Alert System) request was sent out, which allowed us to really get things going in a short period of time, which ultimately led to a successful outcome.”
  • Establish RIT and rehab. If members are performing interior ops, setting up a rapid intervention team (RIT) is critical, and because high-rise operations are extremely taxing on firefighters and the incidents can last a long time, a formal rehab system is needed as well.
  • Weigh risk vs. reward. “This fire happened at about 3 a.m., so we weren’t too concerned with the life safety inside the building,” Anderson says. “Half of the building was vacant, and the other half had businesses that weren’t in operation at the time of the fire.”
  • Know your buildings. “I was there on a company inspection about six months prior, and I thought to myself at the time, ‘Wow, if we have something in here, it could be really, really bad,’” Anderson says. “So knowing your buildings is very important.”
  • Train on disentanglement and mayday procedures. At one point in the incident, the dropped ceiling collapsed on a crew of Euclid firefighters, and five of them became entangled in the dropped ceiling and the thin wire rods that were used to hold up the duct work of the HVAC system. “These guys were able to disentangle themselves,” Anderson says. “They kept their calm and were cool under pressure. One guy cut himself out along with four other guys with the equipment he carries for such an event.”

A Final Word
Anderson’s overarching message: “High-rises, whether commercial or residential, can kill and injure firefighters if we’re not prepared.”

Thus, company and chief officers must ensure that they and their firefighters are prepared. “We all need to continue to be students of the job to best protect ourselves, our crews and ultimately our citizens,” Anderson says. “You owe it to your people and you owe it to their families. If you’re going to raise your right hand and accept responsibility as an officer, you have to do that.”

Authored By: Janelle Foskett

Janelle Foskett is the managing editor of FireRescue magazine.

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