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What’s Blowing in the Wind?

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If there’s smoke in the public hallway when we open the stairwell door, the door to the fire apartment is probably open. In this case, the company officer must make a decision as to whether to enter the hallway and close the door in an attempt to contain the fire.  Photo courtesy Keith Witt

If there’s smoke in the public hallway when we open the stairwell door, the door to the fire apartment is probably open. In this case, the company officer must make a decision as to whether to enter the hallway and close the door in an attempt to contain the fire. Photo courtesy Keith Witt

When responding to a high-rise fire, the importance of a good fireground size-up cannot be over-emphasized. Upon arrival, as with any fire response, we must position our apparatus according to department standard operating guidelines. Although aerial apparatus have limitations when operating at high-rise buildings, we must still position them with the anticipation of going to work using the aerial ladder.

In this article, I’ll discuss several things to cover in your exterior and interior size-ups.

First Things First

The first thing to look at: the height of the building. Your initial report should give an estimate of the approximate number of floors in the building. Many times I hear companies arrive on the scene and say that they have a “multi-story high-rise building.” The problem with this type of size-up is that it really doesn’t paint a clear picture for the incoming units or the incident commander (IC).

Paragraph 3.3.36.7 of NFPA 101, Life Safety Code, 2012 edition, defines a high-rise building as a building more than 75 feet (23 meters) in height, measured from the lowest level of fire department vehicle access to the floor of the highest occupied (or able to be occupied) story. A height of 75 feet translates into roughly seven stories. In this country, a high-rise building can range from 75 feet up to 1,776 feet. That’s quite a range.

The higher we go, the more problems we’re going to encounter. The higher the building, the more significant the “stack effect.” Fire and smoke movement are different in a seven-story building than in a 40-story building, not to mention the number of occupants we may be dealing with. Providing the approximate number of floors we’re dealing with helps second-due crews paint a clear picture of the scene. Tip: When you enter the lobby, confirm the number of floors by asking the building staff or simply by looking at the elevators to see how many floors they service.

The Exterior Size-Up

After we have determined the approximate size of the building, we want to note the exterior conditions.

  • Do we have fire or smoke showing?
  • If we have fire showing, how is it behaving? Is it venting out of the window, or just visible inside?
  • If the fire is venting out, how is it venting? If it is venting out and up, it’s probably not wind-affected. However, if it’s venting out the bottom of the window and erratically from side to side, pulsating in and out or in a star pattern, this can be indicative of a wind-driven fire. This is a very dangerous condition and must be communicated to all responding companies.

The size-up duty isn’t limited to the first-arriving crew. We know that a 360-degree look at the building is a crucial part of our exterior size-up; however, in many cities it’s almost impossible for the first-arriving units to get a 360-degree look at a high-rise building. Other responding companies may be approaching from different sides of the building. Every company approaching the building should do an exterior size-up of their side of the structure. The first-due company may arrive and report nothing showing, but the second-due company on the opposite side may have fire showing.

Companies approaching the building and seeing something that doesn’t match the initial report must communicate the information to the IC. For example, the first engine arriving may report fire venting out from an upper floor, but the second engine approaching from another side of the building may report fire venting in. This is a very dangerous condition and must be communicated to all arriving units. Remember: We’re trying to identify the main indicators of a wind-driven fire before we enter the building, if possible.

The Interior Size-Up

We must always assume there will be zero visibility on the fire floor, so when reaching the floor below the suspected fire floor we want to check the layout of the public hallway and try to get the lay of the land.

Look at the length and layout of the hallway, as well as the approximate distance from the standpipe to the fire apartment. This will better prepare the attack team for operations on the fire floor under zero-visibility conditions. Questions to consider:

  • Are there any fire doors in the hallway that we may encounter?
  • Where is the fire apartment located? Where is it in proximity to the stairway? Ideally, if we can identify the location of the fire apartment in relation to the stairways, we can determine the fire attack and evacuation stairs that will be used for the incident.
  • Are there any other stairways servicing the fire floor that may offer better hoseline access to the seat of the fire? These stairways may also offer an area of refuge if conditions deteriorate while operating in the hallway.

Once we determine the location of the fire apartment, we can access the apartment directly below it to observe the layout. It may not give us the exact layout of the actual fire apartment, but it’s a good starting point.

While we’re in the apartment below, we can also get a read on the wind conditions before we make our attack. We accomplish this by creating the same condition we will encounter while operating on the fire floor. We want to have the stairwell door into the public hallway open as well as the apartment door. We send a firefighter over to the window in the apartment and open it. Most, if not all residential high-rise buildings have some type of operable window, depending on local building codes. By doing this, we create the same potential flow path we will encounter on the fire floor when we enter the fire apartment. If wind is blowing in from the outside, this will also occur when the fire attack team attempts to enter the fire apartment and the windows are already vented, or if there’s sudden window failure. Wind conditions are dangerous, and must be relayed to the IC and the attack team immediately.

Note: If the building has scissors stairs, our size-up must be done from two floors below the fire floor. Scissors stairs can be confusing to firefighters and once they’re identified, must be communicated to the IC and all companies operating at the incident.

Now that we have a size-up of the floor below, we are ready to move up to the fire floor. If any of the identifying factors of a wind-driven fire exist, we must proceed with extra caution. If there’s smoke in the public hallway when we open the stairwell door, the door to the fire apartment is probably open. In this case, the company officer must make a decision as to whether to enter the hallway and close the door in an attempt to contain the fire. This decision should be based on experience and the conditions in the hallway. How far down from the stairway is the fire apartment? If it’s reasonably close and crews can get back safely if conditions suddenly change, then it may be worth the attempt. If civilian life is at stake, then it may be worth the risk. If it’s a long way back to the safety of the stairs, it’s probably better to wait for a charged hoseline.

When an attempt is made, only a minimum amount of personnel should be allowed into the hallway. All conditions encountered and actions taken by the initial companies must be communicated to the IC.

If we’ve determined a wind-driven fire already exists and has already compromised the public hallway, no attempt should be made to try to advance an attack, as these fires are physically impossible to control using a direct frontal attack. Firefighters attempting to enter the hallway will be seriously injured or burned in the attempt. At this point we must keep all members off the fire floor and in the safety of the stairway, and look to the alternate tactics that we have available, which I’ll discuss in my next article.

Take the Time to Do It Right

A good, thorough size up is imperative for the safety and success of a high-rise operation. All these steps do take a little more time than we are normally used to. However, there have been wind-driven fires that have burned out of control for over three hours, and sent a number of firefighters to the hospital. Spending a little extra time in our size-up at the front end of an incident just may save us a whole lot at the end, including the lives of our firefighters.

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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