On May 4, 1988, a huge fire ignited in the 62-story downtown Los Angeles headquarters of First Interstate Bank, destroying floors 12 through 16. There were no firefighter fatalities, but one civilian did perish in the fire. At the time, the First Interstate Bank building was the tallest high-rise building west of Chicago. Today—the 25th anniversary of this massive blaze—we look back at the incident with a focus on what we can learn about battling high-rise fires.
The Incident Play-by-Play
On the night of May 4, the Los Angeles City Fire Department (LAFD) responded to a fire involving five floors of the First Interstate Bank Building, a 62-story structural steel office building with glass curtain walls. A fire sprinkler system was being installed in the building and was approximately 90% completed at the time of the fire.
The estimated timeline for the fire development and fighting is as follows:
22:22 – Two fire pumps were shut down by sprinkler contractor and the combination standpipe system was drained down to the 58th-floor level to facilitate connecting the new sprinkler system to the standpipe at that level.
22:25 – Glass failing was heard and light smoke was seen at the ceiling level by the sprinkler contractor. An alarm on the 5th floor was pulled and after sounding for 2 seconds went dead.
22:30 – A smoke detector on the 12th floor was activated but reset by security personnel.
22:32 – 3 smoke detectors on the 12th floor were activated and again reset by security personnel.
22:34 – 4 smoke detectors on the 12th floor were activated and reset.
22:36 – Multiple smoke detector alarms from the 12th to 30th floors activated. A maintenance worker took the service elevator to the 12th floor to investigate the source of the alarms. The worker died when the lift door opened onto a burning lobby on the 12th floor.
22:37 – Fire department was contacted by persons outside the tower, reporting a fire on the upper floors.
22:40 – Fire department arrived and found the entire east side and there-fourths of the south side of the 12th floor fully involved with fire.
22:41 – First report of the fire from inside the building.
22:49 – Fire had spread upwards to the 13th and 14th floors.
23:10 – Fire department began the fire attack.
01:30 – The 15th floor was fully engulfed in fire and the north end of the 16th floor started to burn.
02:19 – The fire was officially declared under control.
A total of 383 LAFD members fought the fire for nearly four hours, flowing a half-million gallons of water, mounting an offensive attack via four stairways.
FireRescue Editor-in-Chief Timothy Sendelbach offers the following lessons learned:
At the time, the First Interstate Bank Fire was said to be, “the high-rise fire that you can’t put out.” Twenty-five years later, the largest high-rise fire in LAFD history continues to provide valuable lessons to urban and suburban firefighters throughout the country. While many of the lessons from this incident have been applied—in engineering, building construction, fire prevention and fire suppression—many more have since resurfaced with deadly consequences: pressure-reducing valves, overtaxed communications, air operations, out-of-service sprinkler systems, command and control issues, etc.
To the credit of the LAFD, the First Interstate Bank fire was brought under control in less than four hours with only one fatality and minimal injuries. In reading the post-incident report and the numerous links related to this incident, few will argue that this incident should be (if it isn’t already) one of the most formidable tools in training today’s firefighters in the challenges and complexities of high-rise operations including:
- the effective use and implementation of the incident management system (IMS)
- command and control: command structuring to ensure the proper supervisor-to-worker ratio
- use and implementation of lobby control, base stations, staging and crew rotations
- fire protection system usage and control
- use of systems engineers, facility experts and prevention staff members
- multi-point fire attacks: use of the IMS system to ensure the safety of firefighters was not jeopardized by conflicting streams or counteractive tactics
Considering the lessons learned from the First Interstate Bank fire, one must ask, if this fire was to happen today (in any large urban setting), what would be the results and what roll would some of our more recent challenges play in controlling this incident? What role would the wind play? Would this be considered a wind-driven fire and would we need to apply some of our new-found tactics and techniques for fighting wind-driven fires? Would air management be an issue? Taking into consideration recent brownouts, station closings and staff reductions, would we have the necessary resources available? How would we structure our command system? Would we or do we have the ability to call in specialized incident management teams from our immediate area?
The lessons are many, the opportunities are many more. Don’t let the opportunity to learn from the past pass you by–take the time to read, discuss and apply the lessons learned from this historic event.
In addition, see the links for the LAFD official report and the USFA report.
High-rise fires are some of the most challenging incidents a department will ever face, presenting issues of water supply, large numbers of personnel needed, mutual aid, multiple rescues and the need to constantly monitor crewmembers for exhaustion and heat stress, among many others. The First Interstate Bank Fire in 1988 presented all of these challenges and more, but the LAFD responded admirably, mounting an aggressive interior attack that eventually controlled the fire, with one civilian casualty and no firefighter LODDs.
USFA Report on the Interstate Bank Building Fire
U.S. Fire Administration/Technical Report Series Special Report: Operational Considerations for Highrise Firefighting
• LAFD Historical Archives
• University of Manchester Structural Fire Engineering Case Studies