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The Myth of Air

Climbing with spare cylinders was next to impossible

 

Then-firefighter Michael Dugan being interviewed by a reporter during the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. (ABC7NY/YouTube)

 

By Michael M. Dugan

Imagine you are responding to a fire in a high-rise building in your jurisdiction. Upon arrival, you have a working fire on the upper floor. The incident commander orders your unit to the floor below the fire to hook up a hose line and fight the fire. Then the IC tells you that you are only going to be using the water that you brought with you to fight this fire. You are fighting it off the tank. You would think that person is crazy and are trying to get us hurt or killed.

When we prepare to fight a fire in a high-rise building it is critical to ensure we have sufficient water in the standpipe and the personnel to fight the fire. There is a myth in the fire service that the air will be taken care of by later arriving firefighters. In some jurisdictions units on the second or even third alarm are tasked with bringing spare bottles and getting a cache of self-contained breathing apparatus bottles to a staging area. This can be a very serious oversight. Members entering the building, depending on the temperature differential between the interior and exterior environments, can face a negative stack affect that brings smoke down to the lower levels. There have been instances recently where the fire department has lost control of the building due to the migration of smoke and heat into the lobby. If you look at high-rise fire reports and the line of duty reports from high-rise fires or large area low-rise buildings, you will find that air supply can be a major issue.

A few times in my career I have walked the stairs at high-rise building fires of more than 30 floors. These were challenging fires but, fortunately, I was younger and in my prime as they were very difficult operations. The first time was at the Schaumburg Plaza fire with heavy fire on the 34th and 35th floors. As is typical at these types of events, the elevators were not an option, so our only option was the long haul up the stairs. During that fire one of our senior men was climbing up the stairs to get to the fire, when an older woman exiting the building fire via the same staircase looked at him and said, “honey you too old to be doing this.” You can imagine how much fun the younger guys had with this! We walked 30 floors, had a fire that was wind driven and required two 2 ½ inch hose lines to make the fire attack. As if the number of stairs we had to climb wasn’t enough, we encountered smoke on the 12th floor and now were faced with having to go on air or breathe deadly smoke. A lot of firefighters took a major beating at this fire due to running out of air. And we continue to see the effects of fires like these in cancer wards across the country. The reality of toxic smoke exposure is a nightmare for firefighters and their families.

During the bombing of the World Trade Center on February 26, 1993 we climbed 50 stories to rescue people in the elevators. This was extremely difficult on many members making that climb. One of the members I worked with in ladder 43 was one of our senior men at the time and he made the climb. It took him over an hour and he joked with us that he left a piece of gear on the even floors and coughed up a piece of Harlem on the odd floors. Numerous members had chest pains and difficulty breathing and had to be taken out of the building due to this climb. Climbing with spare cylinders was next to impossible and spare cylinders were found in the stairways throughout the building. To fight these fires, we need personnel, water, and air. Why is it that we have a standpipe, fire pumps, fire department connections, hose outlets, and everything we need to get water in the building but nothing to support air resupply? Strategic and tactical plans make getting large numbers of personnel to fire a priority or we wait for them to arrive before we begin our fire attack. Why don’t we treat our air resources in the same manner?

Air is one of the vital resources needed to fight a fire in a high-rise building. Why are we not demanding that our local jurisdictions require an air standpipe system to allow us to refill air bottles within the building? We are seeing some residential buildings in New York that are 98 stories high. How are we going to manage searches above the fire floor if we have 30 or 40 floors above the fire floor that need to be searched? The complexity of these buildings continues to increase every year. Confusing and limited access, high occupancy loads and reliance on elevators that have a history of failure at fires are just a few of the challenges that firefighters and occupants face. Are we setting ourselves up to fail by not providing a basic necessary resource to fight a fire?

Firefighter Air Replenishment Systems (FARS) offers the best solution to air refill challenges and has been around for over 20 years. These systems operate in similar fashion to water standpipes in that they bring the air from a supply in the street, through piping in building and deliver it to where firefighters need it most. Imagine making that climb, on air and arriving at floor 30. Instead of having to retreat because the air in your bottle is gone or choosing to breathe smoke so you can get some work done, you just refill your pack in the stairwell. And this is done without having to remove your SCBA or facepiece. The arduous task of hauling bulky air cylinders up all the stairs or in an unreliable elevator is eliminated, at least for the initial companies fighting the fire, and the firefight can continue without significant delays looking for air (or retreating entirely because there is none).

As I stated earlier in this article, we need three things to effectively fight these large building fires: Air, water and personnel. A great deal of energy and effort has been put forth to ensure we have the needed water and personnel at these fires. It’s time for the same thing to happen with air.

FARS is the answer. Fire service leadership needs to step up and make it happen.  Fire Departments have the avenue now through the adoption of International Fire Code FARS Appendix L, the Uniform Plumbing Code FBARS Appendix F or the upcoming NFPA1 FBARS Annex to make it happen.

 

Michael M. Dugan was a 27-year veteran of the FDNY and served as the Captain of Ladder Company 123, in Crown Heights Brooklyn, before retiring. As a Lieutenant, Dugan served in Ladder Company 42 in the South Bronx. While assigned as a firefighter in Ladder Company 43, in Spanish Harlem, Firefighter Dugan received the James Gordon Bennett medal in 1992 and the Harry M. Archer Medal in 1993, the FDNY’s highest award for bravery. He is also a former volunteer firefighter, in the Halesite FD, in N.Y. He has been involved with the Fire Service for over 40 years. He is an instructor at the “FDIC.”  He is a contributing editor to Fire Engineering magazine. He is also on the FDIC and Fire Engineering Executive advisory boards. Captain Dugan has been a featured lecturer around the country and at “FDIC” on topics dealing with Truck Company Operations, building construction, size up and today’s fire service. He is a current instructor at the NY Fire Safety Institute and works with International Fire and Life Safety Experts. Mike does lectures in New York City and around the country on building and staff preparedness for fires and emergencies. He also consults a FARS on firefighter building support systems.

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