By Janelle Foskett
Published Wednesday, August 1, 2012
As a new officer or firefighter in a small department, a serious fire in a high-rise building can present unique challenges. At FRI today, Captain William Anderson of the Euclid (Ohio) Fire Department presented his session “Initial High-Rise Considerations for Small Departments—Lessons Learned.” I had the opportunity to catch up with Anderson, who has commanded working fires in both residential and commercial high-rises, to discuss key tactical and strategic considerations, construction characteristics of high-rise structures, as well as lessons learned from a case study of a commercial high-rise fire.
FireRescue (FR): Why is a topic like this important for firefighters?
Will Anderson (WA): I work for a small fire department. We have 16 people on duty, but we have dozens and dozens of high-rises throughout the city, mostly residential, some commercial. And coming from a small fire department, I’ve learned that firefighters can be at a disadvantage in these types of buildings for a few reasons.
- The limited initial resources that they have. They 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. So our limited initial resources is first and foremost.
- We could be at a disadvantage if we have a lack of training or preplanning in these buildings.
- Complacency, where we haven’t gone out and done what we needed to do, and we bring a 2½-story, wood-frame, residential mindset to a 20-story building. Bad things are going to happen.
FR: Can you address some of the strategic considerations for company officers and the incident commander at a high-rise fire?
WA: For the first-arriving company officer, their size-up is so important to setting the stage for the other units that are coming in. They need to size up the building, and in a small department, it has been my experience that that person isn’t going to stand outside and set up the command post. Because we’re arriving with a limited number of people, they’re going to take command, but in a fast-attack mode. And they still have to get the KNOX-BOX keys, they still have to recall the elevators, they still have to identify the fire floor. They’re basically multi-tasking. We have three people on our fire apparatus. Well, one of them is staying outside to hook up to the water supply, and the company officer can’t stay outside and set up command and send the guy in by himself. You can’t do that; it doesn’t work that way in a small department. So these are some of the things the first-due company officer has to do.
Then a higher-ranking chief may show up, someone who establishes a formal command. 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. 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. You have to monitor radio channels. Our high-rises are notorious for having communication problems. We have to change the channel where we’re not going off a repeater anymore; we’re going radio to radio, it’s a talk-around channel. And as the incident commander, you have to listen to both radios because some crews are on the outside and some crews are on the inside. It’s also important to silence the alarms, making the environment for the interior crews conducive to getting work done, because it’s hard to talk on the radio when you have a building alarm blaring in the background.
And you have considerations for the search team. You have considerations for the vent team. You have to get the roof hatches open. You have to get the roof doors open, and you need to coordinate this with the attack team, and they can’t open up those stairway doors into the hallways until the roof hatches are open; otherwise that crew’s going to be trapped up above. It is truly teamwork at its finest because it takes coordination and it takes balance in order to really fulfill our mission, which is to protect life and property.
FR: Can you talk a little bit about the construction differences between a residential and a commercial high-rise?
WA: The fire’s going to react differently and behave differently in a commercial high-rise as opposed to a residential, because in a residential, each apartment is like its own little oven. It’s very rare for the fire to extend unless the door is left open out to the hallway or the fire blows out the window and extends to the floor above. The fires in the residential high-rises typically don’t extend unless one of those two things happen. But they’re very hot, and they’re very intense fires because all the heat is confined due to the construction of the building, which is typically concrete and steel.
In a commercial high-rise, conversely, you have dropped ceilings, you have a central HVAC system, which will spread fire and smoke, and typically the floors are larger floor areas; they’re open, which doesn’t confine the fire as it does in a residential high-rise.
So if you go into a commercial high-rise with a residential mindset, you’re setting yourself up for disaster. And if you’re complacent and don’t realize the differences, you’re going to get yourself or your crew into serious trouble.
FR: Can you touch on two or three main tactical differences between approaching a residential and a commercial high-rise structure?
WA: Tactically you’re going to need more people in a commercial high-rise as opposed to a residential high-rise—at least that’s been my personal experience, only because the floor areas are larger; you have greater chances for extension; you have multiple tasks that need to be done at the same time in order to locate, confine and ultimately extinguish the fire.
You probably need larger hose. Instead of 1¾" or even 2" hose, it’s probably a better idea to have a 2½" attack line for the greater gpm, which will hopefully absorb a greater fire load that is being generated by all the combustible materials inside that area. Further, if you have larger hose, it’s obviously heavier so you need more personnel, and you have to get people to the floor above. Typically, if it happens during the daytime, you have a life hazard so searches are required. And by having more people, you obviously then have to expand the Incident Command System to include Operations Chiefs, possibly Logistics and Planning sections. If you have a building that’s full of people, during daytime hours, you have to set up an EMS division with a treatment, a transportation and a triage sector. And a commercial high-rise is just an entirely different beast than a residential high-rise. They can both be bad, but a commercial can be especially bad.
FR: Can you talk a little about the case study from which you discovered some key lessons learned about high-rise structure fires?
WA: The fire that occurred was in a seven-story commercial high-rise, barely a high-rise, but by definition, a high-rise. The fire was on the second floor. Half the building was vacant, half the building was occupied. It occurred at about 3 in the morning. 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. So there was delayed detection and delayed notification, which allowed the fire to grow in intensity to a point where it was auto-exposing up the outside to the third floor—and we showed up with 12 people.
On the way there, our police were on scene, and they confirmed that it was a working fire. I called for mutual aid while I was responding, so we got crews on the way quickly. Our guys did a fantastic job, and we didn’t have any trouble locating it because we could see where it was.
The concerns were extension, making sure the HVAC system was shut down so we weren’t spreading fire elsewhere throughout the building. 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, but geographically, we’re somewhat at a disadvantage because we don’t get help from the north, we don’t get help from the west. So we have to rely on our help from the east and from the south.
FR: What were a couple of the main lessons that your crew learned from that incident?
WA: First, you have to call for help early because we’re a small department. 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. And 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.
And if I’m sending guys in, I’m really big on having a RIT team and making sure rehab is set up. This fire happened at about 3 a.m., so we weren’t too concerned with the life safety inside the building; half of the building was vacant, and the other half had businesses that weren’t in operation at the time of the fire, but the calling early for help is a big thing.
Making sure that you know your buildings is another big thing. I myself 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.” So knowing your buildings is very important.
Training on disentanglement and mayday procedures is very important. The dropped ceiling collapsed on a crew of our 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 that were used to hold up the HVAC system. These guys were able to disentangle themselves. They never had to call a mayday, 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. And without those things, it could have been a lot worse. If you’re not expecting those things, someone’s really going to get in the jackpot. And five guys are here today because of the actions of one individual, and his sense of duty and his obligation to training.
So in sum, you have to know your buildings, call early for help, and you have to train. You have to train together with your crew, know their strengths and weaknesses, and work together because when it’s all said and done, it’s important that we go home to our families at the end of our shifts.
FR: Is there one main message that you’d like to leave people with?
WA: High-rises, whether commercial or residential, can kill and injure firefighters if we’re not prepared. And as leaders within our department, as chief officers, as company officers, we need to continue to be students of the job. I’ve been in the fire service for 17 years. I don’t like the term veteran; I prefer the word student, because I learn something every day that I’m here, whether it’s about myself, the department, a piece of equipment, the city, etc.
So we all need to continue to be students of the job to best protect ourselves, our crews and ultimately our citizens. And that’s the one message I would want them to take away: These buildings can kill and injure you if you’re not prepared, and you need to continue to be a student of the job until the day you retire. You owe it to your people. 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.
FR: Is there anything else that you wanted to add?
WA: I’m just really big on passing on information. There’s no such thing as a perfect fire department, there’s no such thing as a perfect fireground in America and probably in the world. When I started in the fire service, it was taboo to talk about the mistakes you made because then someone else would think, well, this guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about. And I can’t help but think how that mindset may have contributed to firefighter deaths up to this point—by not sharing information, by not getting the word out, by not passing on your experiences and your mistakes. This is my feeble, humble attempt to help change the culture so this next generation of firefighters coming in to the service will learn from us and hopefully pass things on when they’re the senior members to their personnel, to their new guys, which will ultimately make the fire service better—and smarter.
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