High-rise buildings present a number of unique challenges to fire departments. Now before you stop reading because you think your response area doesn’t include these types of structures, remember that a high-rise doesn’t have to be a gigantic, multi-level tower in the middle of a metropolis; it can be any building higher than three stories.
Although many departments regularly respond to high-rise incidents, some respond only occasionally-or even very rarely-to structures of this size, particularly if only a few high-rises are located in their response district. In my department’s first-due area, none of the buildings are higher than three stories, however the neighboring town, to which we provide automatic aid, includes a number of buildings in the 4-8-story range.
Because high-rise incidents pose distinct, sometimes significant challenges that require massive amounts of mutual aid, firefighters from different locations-from small towns to big, bustling cities-must know how to handle them. In this article, I’ll provide useful information on how to combat a fire in a multi-level structure, as well as how to properly use standpipes and standpipe hose packs.
When the first-arriving engine company and the incident commander arrive at the scene of a high-rise fire, they must first consider the fire’s location. Whether it’s an office building, apartment building or other occupancy, the ground floors and below-ground floors will likely feature larger, more open areas than the floors above. Occupancies on these floors usually include stores, restaurants, lobbies, mechanical spaces or parking garages filled with valuable goods and/or flammable products. Therefore, if fire is located on these lower floors, firefighters must use a hoseline at least 1 ? inches in diameter, preferably larger.
Depending on the building’s footprint, you might be able to reach ground-floor or below-ground-floor fires with a preconnected handline from the apparatus. Unless the building is quite small or you’re sure the fire is quite small, it might well be worth the effort to stretch a minimum 2″ or 2 Â«” handline for fires on these floors. Important: Don’t even try to use a 150′ blitz line unless the fire location is obvious and easily reachable from the street, as you are likely to run out of hose before completely reaching the seat of the fire. Remember, the hoseline must stretch around all sorts of obstacles, such as doorways, on your way in.
If you happen to pull a line long enough, you might luck out and reach a fire located on the floor above ground level with a preconnected line off the apparatus. Reaching any floor higher than that will require you to extend the preconnect using additional hose or rely on the standpipe system.
The Standpipe System
Making the commitment to use a building’s standpipe system requires some advanced preparation. Current high-rise building codes typically require a standpipe outlet to be located 150 feet from the building so that firefighters with 150 feet of hose, or even 100 feet of hose and a 50′ stream reach, can attack a fire anywhere in an unsprinklered building. If the building is sprinklered, the distance may be extended to 200 feet, because it’s assumed the sprinkler system will hold the fire in check until firefighters reach the fire and complete extinguishment. Note: Buildings built under older codes may not meet this requirement.
In the past, standpipe connections were located in stair towers on the landings near the doors to each floor. The belief was that firefighters could connect to the outlet, open the doors and advance the line directly into the fire. However, if a fire was on the opposite side of those doors, the nozzleman had little protection from heat and flame once the doors swung open. So firefighters began to connect to the outlet on the floor below the fire and advance the line up and into the fire floor.
Over time, firefighters found it easier still to flake the hoseline up past the fire floor to the landing above, so when they entered the fire floor, the hoseline easily slid down the stairs into the fire floor as the hose team advanced. Nowadays, in many cases, buildings come with standpipe outlets on intermediate landings in the stair towers to better facilitate hoseline advancement. In other cases, standpipe outlets are located in hallways and other unprotected areas throughout the building to achieve the 150′ or 200′ distance requirement. In these situations, firefighters must know ahead of time where the outlets are located, and they must be able to choose the right one so they remain far enough away from any intense heat and flame, yet close enough so their fire attack runs smoothly. This is easier said than done, so firefighters must prepare to reach fires in buildings with standpipes by using hose packs of the appropriate length and diameter.
The Standpipe Hose Pack
Selecting standpipe hose packs requires compromise. You can carry 250 feet of 2″ or 2.5″ hose in your hose pack, but you’ll need several people to carry it up several flights of stairs, and unless they’re in really good shape, they’ll need rehab immediately after reaching the floor below the fire, which pretty much defeats the purpose of having the hose there.
Hose used in standpipe packs should measure at least 1 ?” inches in diameter, but firefighters may want to consider using larger-diameter hose, such as 2″ or 2 Â«”, particularly if buildings in their coverage area are of moderate or large size, have heavy fire loading, are unsprinklered or feature combustible construction. One or two firefighters can likely carry a hose pack consisting of 150 feet of 1 ?” or 2″ hoseline, particularly if they’re using a lighter-weight hose.
When purchasing a hose pack, carefully research the type of hose you plan to carry. Pick a hose that’s lightweight, has a service pressure rating of 300 psi (the normal pressure rating for attack hose) or more and minimizes friction loss at the flows you need to achieve. Note: Keep in mind that when it comes to purchasing standpipe pack hose, you must make tradeoffs regarding weights and flows.
Even if you don’t have a high-rise in or around your coverage area, you’ll find a standpipe pack or extension hose pack to be a useful tool. Getting a hoseline into the third story or the attic of a larger home or office building can be quite a challenge. Generally, firefighters use preconnected hoselines on the engine to battle these types of fires, but as an alternative, many departments use a 150-200′ preconnected 2 Â«” or 3″ hoseline with a gated wye or breakaway smooth-bore nozzle at the tip. This allows firefighters to connect an extension hose pack to the tip so they can extend the line significantly longer distances.
Besides the diameter of the hoseline, the type of nozzle used in a standpipe pack is also a topic of lively discussion among firefighters. A smooth-bore tip fights an awful lot of fire, and most likely works better with lower pressures, if pressure becomes a problem. For many years, standpipe system design was intended to supply 50 psi at the nozzle, the traditional specified pressure for handline smooth-bore nozzles. But all that changed after the 1991 Meridian Plaza Fire in Philadelphia, when pressure-reducing valves on the building’s standpipe system restricted the available pressure to the standpipe outlets. Firefighters who attempted to connect their hoselines using fog nozzles, which required 100 psi to operate properly, wound up with inadequate fire streams. But there are probably hundreds, if not thousands of existing high-rises out there still designed to that specification.
The downside of the smooth-bore nozzle: its inability to effectively hydraulically ventilate. Thus many departments use some type of combination nozzle or a breakaway nozzle with a fog tip that can be removed to allow a good, solid stream. Tip: One nozzle that makes a great heavy attack when used on a standpipe pack and creates minimal back-pressure is the Vindicator nozzle. It’s not the best for hydraulic ventilation, but it allows firefighters to apply large amounts of water to fire, even at lower pressures, with minimal manpower.
Just like the hose for your pack, when purchasing nozzles, take time to research the different types, and check their weights and flows so you can achieve maximum flow while minimizing the weight you must carry up flights of stairs. And make sure you match the desired nozzle flow with the type of hose you plan to carry.
No matter what type of hose or nozzle you use, you must consider how to get a back-up line in service at high-rise fires. Will the back-up line come off the same standpipe connection? If so, you must place a gated wye on the connection. If the back-up line must come from a different connection, you must first train on proper back-up line procedures.
Other Tools & Where to Keep Them
To facilitate standpipe operations, there are a number of tools besides the hose pack and nozzle that firefighters might find useful, such as:
- Fittings, such as a 2 Â«” x 1 Â«” adapter, if you choose not to carry a wye in your standpipe pack;
- A pipe wrench and/or spare standpipe valve handle so you can remove the connection cap and open the valve if the handle is missing from the outlet;
- A spanner wrench to tighten/loosen connections as needed;
- Small forcible-entry tools;
- Door handle search tags to mark rooms “search-in-progress” or “search completed”; and
- A spare nozzle, if you choose to carry both fog and smooth-bore nozzles, or an extra overhaul tip for a smooth-bore nozzle.
Once you’ve got your hose and other high-rise pack appurtenances together, you must figure out how to carry it all. Many firefighters carry a separate high-rise bag along with a spare 50′ section of hose that they can use to extend the hoseline in the standpipe pack or replace a burst length of hose. But there are many different ways to transport all your gear. When deciding which way suits you best, ask yourself a couple questions: Will you have multiple lengths of hose connected and carried by a single firefighter or two firefighters? Or will you have single lengths of larger hose carried up by single firefighters that will be connected once you reach the floor below the fire?
Flaking hose over your shoulder and using straps works OK, but it can be challenging when wearing SCBA. Actually, just getting a high-rise pack onto a firefighter’s shoulder can be a challenge. But if the hose is placed in a bag with straps at both ends, two firefighters can carry the pack, which eases the load. Some departments believe in the “mule” concept, where one firefighter carries the hose pack up to the floor below the fire, then exits immediately for rehab, leaving other, “fresh” firefighters to press the attack.
All the additional items listed above-spanners, wrenches, forcible-entry tools-may need to be carried in a different bag, but some departments put all their equipment together and mount it on a hand truck, which transports the equipment to the desired floor.
No matter what hose or hose packs you use, high-rise firefighting isn’t easy and it won’t go smoothly unless you’ve trained on it and practiced stretching lines from standpipe connections. Why? Because high-rise fires require extra manpower to simply transport the needed equipment to the fire area, as well as to properly search, evacuate and ventilate the building. So remember to call for extra help early and often and to place additional assistance in a staging area until you’re ready to use it. Identify staging areas in advance, and keep them clear of any triage areas/EMS transportation areas. And before entering the fire floor, walk the floor below the fire to get a general idea of the fire floor’s layout/configuration and to locate any standpipe connections.
Finally, when dealing with a high-rise fire, departments must not only train on the basics, they must also be ready to handle the unexpected. For example, some folks like to tamper with standpipe systems, which causes them to malfunction or not turn on when needed. Well-prepared fire departments plan for just such situations. Is your department prepared?