The fire does not wait for the elevator to get loaded
Captain Mike Gagliano, Seattle Fire Department
Any firefighter who has experienced fire in buildings of multiple stories understands the challenges of getting equipment to upper floors. Fire departments devote significant time and resources to developing strategies that can answer the daunting challenges posed by buildings with floors beyond the reach of ladders, and with variables that make time an even greater enemy than it already is at typical fires.
At every fire, one thing remains the same: firefighters need air and water to affect a successful outcome. Many other tools are important, but these two are essential. All the truckies in the world, with chainsaws revving and Halligan swinging, will simply turn the building into a parking lot if water is not quickly and efficiently brought into the firefight. All the water in the world will be no more than a surround and drown if firefighters are not supplied with the necessary air to engage an interior attack and sustain that effort until the fire is extinguished. We can argue about a lot of things in our profession, but this is not open for debate: We need air and water.
Getting these two critical elements to upper floors, along with the rest of the stuff we need, has always been a challenge. The problem of water delivery was solved through water standpipes, fire pumps and sprinkler systems. These are in place in most buildings where upper floor access is difficult, and should be mandated in all of them.
Until recently, fast, reliable, safe air delivery remained a more difficult problem to solve. The development of firefighter air replenishment systems (FARS) provides a solid answer. FARS has even become a part of the 2015 ICC International Fire Code with the addition of Appendix L. These systems should also be mandated in every building that presents challenging access issues, whether due to height or overall size of the structure. These include mid- and high-rise buildings, large “big box” style structures and tunnels. The reality is that firefighters are going to go into these structures when they catch fire and fulfill their calling to the citizens. That is not an item that is open to serious debate among professional firefighters. In return, we should expect that those putting these huge structures into our communities provide the necessary systems for us to handle the inevitable emergencies that will occur. FARS is the obvious answer to the problem of delivering air when and where we need it.
Elevator Going Up?
The two primary avenues for getting air to upper floors have historically been via stairwells and elevators. Since everyone recognizes the dreadful slog it is to haul air bottles up stairwells, it is used as the last option. Knowing this, I’ll focus on the more accepted practice of sending equipment up with elevators. Many departments hesitate to use elevators for personnel if there is any chance that it may service a floor that is on fire, but most would allow their use for equipment. And this is a reasonable option. Instead of hauling your air up the stairs, with all the physical and logistical challenges that presents, you load up an elevator car and send it up.
Let’s be clear, though: elevators are the option we are settling for only because the choice was between the elevator and the stairwell. The availability of FARS provides a better option that ensures air will be available when and where firefighters need it, from the outset of the fire. There are many reasons this is preferable, but over the course of the next few articles we’ll look at three of them that are critical to our success: time, manpower and system malfunction. When these three elements are considered, FARS becomes the obvious choice for ensuring firefighters have the air they need.
Time Keeps on Ticking, Ticking, Ticking…
From the moment the alarm sounds sending you to the fire, you are behind. The fire has already started and is typically gaining ground as you are bunking up, driving in and starting the firefight. Unless you have decided on a defensive strategy to attack the fire, time is typically not your friend.
The single biggest problem with elevators as a solution to getting air to upper floors is that it takes time and a lot of it. Even bigger departments, with resources available quickly, struggle with the pinch point of getting air from the rigs, into the building, onto the elevator and then out again to the staging floor. It is not an evolution that is easy to practice and, no matter how much you plan for it, it remains a difficult thing to do as the fire continues to burn. And all the while, firefighters attacking the fire are diminishing their air supplies and needing to make decisions on what to do when they get low or run out. The fire does not wait for the elevator to get loaded with bottles or for the staging floor to get them on to the backs of firefighters in need.
We have all seen the articles or video clips of air bottles being thrown on carts or hand trucks in an effort to get resupply to upper floors. And this is being done amidst the reality of an intensive firefighting effort that includes multiple apparatus, hose everywhere, challenging access issues, significant life safety concerns, and multiple priorities wanting the elevator car for their uses. Many other types of equipment are needed to battle these fires and will challenge for space in the elevator.
The predictable delays in the firefight may lead to degradation of the structural integrity of the building. Smoke and fire gases will continue to make their way throughout the structure, increasing the dangers to everyone in the building. The problems get worse as the delays get longer. Getting air via an elevator is a later stage process that will only get going as sufficient manpower arrives, a system is put into place to make it happen, and that system starts to operate. Should air really be relegated to a later stage priority?
This later stage mentality is exactly what most departments are settling for when elevators (or the stairwell) are the primary source of air supply. On paper, it appears to be just another aspect of the ICS flowchart that needs to be filled out. In reality, the time needed is not supportable when an alternative exists that meets our needs immediately.
Determine for yourself what you would like for your next adventure at a fire on an upper floor:
You’ve managed to get up the stairs to floor 10, two floors below the fire, and are connecting up to the standpipe. All the crew is breathing heavily due to the exertion of getting up so many flights of stairs but you go on air and begin the firefight on floor 12. Due to the exertion needed to get to floor 12, your cylinders don’t last as long as they might at a house fire and your crews start to get low on air. How long will it take your department to get resupply via an elevator? Do you keep fighting the fire with no air re-supply? Do you go back down to the staging floor, which will not be set up adequately for a long time? What is your plan?
For firefighters whose city requires FARS, that answer becomes very simple. Approximately every 2-4 floors are panels with transfill hoses connected to the air standpipe. In two minutes or less, your bottles are transfilled on your back under full respiration without even having to remove the bottle. There is no waiting for someone to decide air needs to be loaded into an elevator. There is no reliance on getting air to the staging floor as it already exists in the building’s air supply system. There is negligible delay in the firefight.
For later stage operations the rupture containment air fill stations can be used, similar to what most cascade systems provide just to refill bottles. A small team can utilize this part of the system to keep staging full of fresh cylinders for firefighters returning from rehab.
Time is not on our side
Just as the challenges of getting a smooth operation running at high-rise fires takes some time, so too does changing how we think about approaching these fires. Our minds get locked into certain ways of doing things and it can be tough to turn that thinking around. Many aspects of dealing with air and air management seem to fall into this category.
A simple review of all the strategic/tactical/logistical challenges that will be a reality at your next significant mid- or high-rise fire should reveal the potential flaws in current emergency plans. As it pertains to time, we need air and water as quickly as possible. It is an early stage priority. There is nothing quick about elevator re-supply even in the best of conditions. And that’s assuming they work!
We’ll look at that aspect of elevators in Part 2 of this series.
Mike Gagliano has 30 years of fire/crash/rescue experience with the Seattle Fire Department and the United States Air Force. He is the Captain of Ladder 5 and a member of the Seattle Fire Department’s Strategic Planning Leadership Group. Captain Gagliano has written numerous fire service articles, is co-author of the bestselling book Air Management for the Fire Service and the SCBA chapter of the Handbook for Firefighter 1 & 2 from PennWell. He is a member of the Fire Engineering/FDIC Advisory Board, a Director for the Firesmoke Coalition (firesmoke.org), on the advisory board of the UL-Firefighter Safety and Research Institute and teaches across the country on Air Management, Fireground Tactics, Leadership and Company Officer Development. Mike co-hosts the popular Fire Engineering radio webcast “The Mikey G and Mikey D Show” and partners with his wife Anne (firelife.com) to teach on strategies for developing and maintaining a strong marriage/family.