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High-Rise Fires: What Owners Should Know About Fire Department Operations

High-rise emergencies are very complicated, demanding a synchronous reaction by tenants, staff and firefighters alike. Failure to plan and practice for a major emergency will surely result in a poor performance when a disaster unfolds, increasing the potential for life and property loss.

After two relatively recent high-rise fires that resulted in multiple fatalities, it is evident that high-rise property owners, managers and occupants must further understand the dynamics of how fires are fought in their buildings in order to properly prepare for one. Six people died in a 2003 blaze that trapped workers in the stairways of the Cook County Building in Chicago. In 1998, four people died in the stairwells of an apartment building when a fire broke out in two New York apartments occupied by the family of actor Macaulay Culkin.

How to Formulate a Plan

In the general real estate community, there seems to be a pervasive belief that as long as codes are met and an evacuation or life-safety plan is on file with the city that all of a building owner's bases are covered. This is untrue. It is important not to overlook the necessity of providing key building data such as systems capability, riser diagrams and floor plans to first responders on a fire. This data should be geared to how rescue workers operate, and should be kept in a stand-alone binder that is completely separate from the life-safety plan.

This type of plan costs an average of 4.5 cents to 6.5 cents per sq. ft. and takes between six to eight months to create. It involves at least one thorough walk-through — which is not a code inspection — of the building to verify crucial information. The staff and local fire department must also be trained on the use of the plan.

The pre-plan reduces the liability exposure of the owner or manager, enhances the marketability of the building to existing and potential tenants, and provides the emergency responders with all the building's vital data, allowing for a rapid, effective reaction to an unfolding disaster.

It is important to note that every building should have one plan for the safety and welfare of the tenants and another plan for the fire department incident commander, complemented by two extra sets of floor plans for firefighting crews as well as search and rescue crews.

Understanding The Basics

In a multi-story fire where there are two exit stairs in the core (building services area), one will be designated by the fire chief as the “attack” stair and the other as the “evacuation/search and rescue” stair once he or she arrives on the scene and establishes a command post. Let's examine the basics of high-rise operations.

  • Identify the Attack Stair — This is the stairwell where firefighters advance their hose onto the fire floor. The door must be propped open to protect the hose line (which is stretched from the floor below), thus compromising the stair shaft as it rapidly fills with smoke and fire gases. As a result, this stairwell cannot be used to evacuate building tenants due to smoke conditions. Tenants descending from the building's upper floors suddenly will find themselves in a potentially life-threatening situation, if they remain in this stairwell.

    In a major fire, smoke will migrate for at least several floors. It will rise until it cools, stratifies and levels off, or it may rise to the top of the shaft by way of the building's natural vertical draft.

    The most common gases in any fire are carbon dioxide (CO2) and carbon monoxide (CO). CO is the gas that causes most fatalities in fires. It is colorless, odorless, tasteless, flammable, toxic and also is lighter than air. There are numerous other toxic gases given off by burning plastics and foams that are even more deadly, but CO is the most common killer.

    It is interesting to note that all the people who perished in the previously mentioned fires died of CO poisoning. They also died several floors above the fire in the fire-attack stairwell.

    In addition to smoke impeding the evacuation of building tenants, there also is a significant amount of congestion at the stair landing where the fire is being attacked. Firefighters, their tools and long hoses make that area nearly impassible. Tenants must be re-routed to the opposite stair for safe evacuation or relocation.

  • Establish an Evacuation/Search and Rescue Stair — This is the stairwell to which tenants should be directed via a public-address system or bullhorn. The door on the fire floor should be kept closed, maintaining the integrity of that shaft. This also is the stair where firefighters coordinate searches.

    It must be noted that as firefighters ascend, 50% of the egress capacity of that stairwell will be lost. If traffic is diverted from the fire-attack stair to the evacuation stair, the total building's egress capacity is reduced to 25% in areas where firefighters are present. This is almost never addressed in fire-warden training, yet it is very important. Functional floor plans for both stairwell fire department support teams are invaluable.

  • Beware of Locked Stairwell Doors — Tenants should know whether their building's exit stairs are locked within the shaft at all times, whether there are re-entry floors or lobby level egress only and whether stair unlocking devices exist that may activate during an alarm.

    Before a fire occurs, plans should be made regarding how to deal with trapped tenants in stairwells that are locked. Exit stairs are generally viewed as a safe area of refuge, but can be deadly chimneys during a high-rise fire, especially if tenants are coming down the attack stair. All too frequently, safety is overridden by security concerns. A compromise must be reached addressing both safety and security.

  • Designate a Staging Floor — In attacking a high-rise fire, the fire department typically designates two floors below the fire as a “staging floor,” where equipment and manpower can be drawn from during the assault on the fire above. This also is a firefighter rehabilitation area. The floor must be cleared of all tenants.

  • Know the Stack Effect's Role on Smoke Movement — During a fire, the building's natural draft will play a major role in how smoke travels through the building, affecting the building's occupants.

Winter updrafts and summer downdrafts must be considered during a fire, especially as firefighters and fleeing tenants open and close lobby and revolving doors. The building's natural draft plays a significant role in where smoke is drawn and what floors and stairwells will be contaminated.

Lessons Learned

Historically, all high-rise fires have one thing in common — data on the building and its systems was not made available to the fire department. Major high-rise fires, such as the blazes that occurred at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, the Meridian Plaza in Philadelphia and One New York Plaza and Bankers Trust in New York all presented emergency responders with tactical issues that forced them to make key decisions with inadequate information at hand.

Disaster/pre-fire planning exceeds most local fire codes and is an invaluable resource document for emergency personnel in minimizing losses during any type of incident — including terrorism.

Terrorism is here to stay. Threats of bombings, aerial assaults and nuclear, biological or chemical attacks must be taken into account. For building owners, being proactive — rather than reactive — can pay huge dividends. Training, drilling and pre-planning are vital components of preparation.

Possessing a life-safety plan is useless unless it is reinforced by hands-on training. Remember that the fire prevention inspectors who visit a building regularly are not the same people who will be fighting a fire.

Get to know your first responders and how they operate during fires. Make your building “firefighter friendly” through proper labeling of important items, especially stairwells. Put signage on interior stair walls, not doors, which can move. Ensure the staff is trained properly in emergency procedures. Establish primary and secondary internal and external evacuation areas for tenants.

Even a moderately sized fire can shut your building down for days or even weeks — so plan accordingly. Unprepared buildings always fare worse than they should. Prepare for the worst and hope for the best.

Curtis Massey is a former firefighter and president and CEO of Massey Enterprises Inc. in Virginia Beach, Va. The company develops building disaster plans for commercial real estate owners nationwide.

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