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“We Need Help Up Here!”


Despite the perceived urgency of “need for assistance” calls during high-rise fires, all personnel must remain organized and focused on their assigned responsibilities. Only by establishing a sound foundation at the start of the incident can we expect to have a successful outcome. Photo Bob Graham

One of the biggest challenges for the incident commander (IC) at a high-rise incident is dealing with the abundant calls for assistance upon arrival. There are times when you haven’t even entered the building yet and the dispatch center is calling with a list of people who are in need of assistance.

Some of these calls are from people who are genuinely in distress. Others are occupants who are just panicking because they smell or see smoke but aren’t in immediate danger. Some are from concerned family members who don’t even live/work in the building but heard of the incident on the news or live in the neighborhood, and are concerned for the wellbeing of their loved ones. Whoever they are, you as the IC must deal with them.

Here are some proven tips for organizing the chaos upon arrival and during the incident.

Slow Down
If you’re receiving calls for occupants “in distress” or “in need of assistance” as you arrive on the scene, it’s a pretty good indicator that something is going on. The adrenaline starts to flow a little faster in the anticipation that “this one’s for real.” It’s not just one call, but by the time you enter the lobby with the first-arriving companies, it’s quickly become 10, and the calls are still coming fast and furious. If this is happening, immediately escalate the alarm to get more resources on the scene.

The obvious temptation when you’re bombarded by distress calls is to get your companies to the upper floors and address what may be a true life-threatening situation. STOP. Take a deep breath and remain disciplined. In the fire service, we’re all about addressing life safety issues, but in a high-rise situation there are a number of things that must take place before companies can charge up the stairs to rescue occupants.

Establish the Foundation
No matter the urgency of the situation, our priorities of establishing the Fire Investigation Team (FIT) and building the foundation of the incident with the responding command staff do not change. The Incident Command System (ICS) demands that we adhere to our responsibilities as outlined for the first-arriving fire companies and chief officers. Without a sound foundation, the incident is in danger of falling apart. When this happens, it’s very difficult to recover, accountability is compromised, and precious time is lost.

Remember: Other than obvious victims encountered by the initial companies, those trapped or cut off by fire conditions cannot be addressed without getting that first, crucial hoseline in place. With that being said, the FIT must gather as much information as possible, and ascend quickly but safely to begin their assessment of the situation and relay information as to what they encounter.


As companies are deployed to investigate calls for assistance, record the time that each company is deployed. Upon their arrival to the specified location, they must report the conditions encountered back to the Search and Rescue Supervisor, who will acknowledge the information, and again record the time. Photo courtesy Keith Witt

Control the Calls
It has been my experience in just about all of these situations that the dispatch center is going to continue their attempt to get these distress/wellbeing calls to the IC ASAP, whether you’re ready or not (and more than likely, you’re not). It’s easy to become overwhelmed and frustrated by the incoming calls. Again, SLOW DOWN! Don’t let the incoming distress/wellbeing calls run your incident. You’re the IC … you run the incident.

Set a manageable pace. Get on the radio and tell the dispatcher to stand by; they’re not going to throw the list of callers away. If you have the staffing resources, grab a firefighter to temporarily assist you with recording the distress/wellbeing calls. Again, we cannot address those in need without the information from and actions of the FIT, which includes getting that first hoseline in place on a confirmed fire.

Establish Proper Command
We must also continue to build the foundation of the incident with the responding command officers. As the command officers arrive on the scene, it’s very tempting to re-assign their duties to assist in dealing with all of the distress and wellbeing calls. Avoid that temptation and assign them their normal duties in the order of their arrival, such as Operations Chief and Fire Attack Supervisor.

If one of these initial command officers is re-assigned on the initial alarm, a huge gap is left in the basic foundation of the incident, and a position of great responsibility is left open. This can have grave consequences. Once these initial roles have been filled, the next-arriving chief/command officer can be assigned to be the Search and Rescue Supervisor and take over managing the distress/wellbeing calls.

It may sound like it could take a long time before the calls are addressed, and in many cases it will. But the sheer nature of a high-rise incident means our reflex time is increased. It’s just the nature of the beast! Our primary responsibility is to the safety of our people, and getting our resources in place to handle the situation at hand. Once this is accomplished, we can begin addressing the occupants needing assistance.

Triage Calls
Those charged with recording and managing assistance calls must have a system in place that guides them in triaging the calls, so that occupants in the most danger are addressed first. Some distress/wellbeing calls may be for occupants below the fire floor. Obviously, they are not in immediate danger and can be given a lower priority. Be careful though-get as much information as possible. It most likely is just panic; however, try to determine if a medical problem exists, and address the situation accordingly.

As the calls are triaged and those in the most danger identified, the Search and Rescue Supervisor can request the additional resources necessary to begin the operation of addressing the distress/wellbeing calls through the Operations Section Chief.

Deploy Rescuers
The Operations Chief will communicate rescue needs to the IC, who will provide the necessary resources to handle the operation. Record the time that each company is deployed. Upon their arrival to the specified location, they must report the conditions encountered back to the Search and Rescue Supervisor, who will acknowledge the information, and again record the time.

If for any reason the assigned company cannot complete their task, they must immediately report this information to the Search and Rescue Supervisor so that another company can be deployed, picking up where they left off. The Search and Rescue Supervisor will then relay this information to the Operations Chief. Once the task is completed by the assigned company, it’s a good idea to leave that company in place, if possible, to address any future calls on or near the floor or area where they’re operating. This will save a lot of time and energy. Inevitably there will be redundant or additional calls for a given location.

Use Your Resources
Managing search and rescue/wellbeing calls can be very labor-intensive, and will require a lot of personnel. The key thing to remember: Stick with your plan and how you trained; don’t allow emotion and adrenaline to take over.  Using some of these guidelines can assist in organizing the operation as well as to help maintain the accountability and the safety of the members operating at the incident.

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.