High-Rise Building Fires: What’s the Challenge?

Let’s begin with the receipt of an alarm



By Gerald Tracy | FDIC.com

What’s the chance you will encounter a serious fire in a high-rise office building? According to the National Fire Protection Association report on high-rise fire incidents issued in November 2016, the chances are slim. 1 The supposition made is that these types buildings have fire protection systems (FPS) that repress fires. So, what is the incentive for fire departments to expend time to train for these types of fires and to understand how they are approached and managed?

I would assert that the “disciplines of approach” to fires in high-rises prepare a firefighter, line officer, or chief who will supervise activities or command operations for fires in any type of structure large or small. When I say, “disciplines of approach,” I am referring to adhering to and honing the masteries of this craft by maintaining a sense of purpose so we do not neglect the details of an assignment entrusted to an individual or a team.

Many fire departments have promulgated standard operating procedures (SOPs) for the response to fires in different types of construction and occupancies. For the most part, they are straightforward and provide the sequential order of business. However, for many departments, high-rise SOPs create a perspective of complexity with an emphasis on establishing and maintaining the sole position and function of command over the concept of “quick water on the fire.” The reasoning for this is that the system of command and control will deteriorate as units arrive and proceed to operate in an uninformed and uncoordinated manner. How does that happen? That can happen only if your department and all of its members do not accept and respect the disciplines needed to accomplish the objective to serve and protect the public from the ravages of fire and provide life safety from all hazards and emergencies.

The Alarm

Let’s begin with the receipt of an alarm and the information provided. I will not quote the 13 points of size-up, but I will begin with what information and resources are necessary to coordinate and command fires in high-rises.

The alarm information provides in most cases the location and address, which should provide an idea of the type of building to which you are responding. Your mental analyses would consider the construction type, expected fuel load, and life safety issues. That analysis would also anticipate or consider prior knowledge of the street access, the primary water supply available, and awareness of the number and type of other units assigned on the alarm.

On arrival, every unit/member will perform a visual size-up of the structure and what is being presented. It would include the building’s construction type and size and establish the ventilation profile.

Ventilation profile is more than reading smoke or or the fire. Every type of structure denotes a ventilation profile according to its expected natural internal air flows. Hot air rises, and cooler air descends. That principle is applicable in any type of structure, private dwelling, strip mall, and factory buildings as well as in high-rises. The physics of the ventilation profile of high-rise buildings is no different from those in small buildings, although high-rises have more vertical paths of travel and spaces of influence. Warm air expanded and light in density will rise, and cool air with increased density will descend. This internal air movement in high-rises has been referred to the “stack or chimney effect.” These air currents seek paths of travel (flow paths) that will migrate horizontally to all vertical voids and shafts such as elevators, stairs, utility shafts, and the duct work of the heat, ventilation, air-conditioning (HVAC) system.

Nothing Showing

In your initial size-up, there is no smoke or fire visible from the structure—”nothing showing.” Understand that this is NOT an indication that a fire is not aflame within the structure. These buildings are energy efficient and designed to maintain the internal environment exclusive of the exterior temperatures, pressures, and weather. The building, itself, will have pressure differentials, whereas the warm air will have high pressure and cool air a lower pressure. Fires in any type of structure create high pressures from the hot expanded fire gases (smoke) and will migrate (flow paths) to areas of lower pressure, in effect seeking equilibrium.

Firefighters of all ranks should understand this phenomenon of smoke and fire travel in which the fire can extend beyond it space of origin. The fire extension can be caused by a simple opening the door leading to the room or space. Be aware that opening a door to a fire might give it the breath (oxygen) it needs to reinvigorate back from a stage of decay. Long before the current science research on ventilation, we were taught that controlling the oxygen (ventilation) will control a fire. The first superintendent of the London Fire Brigade James Braidwood in essence stated in his book Fire Prevention and Fire Extinction (1866) (2) that you should close the door to the fire while awaiting a hoseline to deprive the fire of oxygen.

Establishing Command

Our arrival at the scene establishes a command presence and provides a situation report to all units responding as soon as possible, as in any fire response. High-rise office building fires are not the bread-and-butter operations of the typical response such as a private dwelling. They could be analogous to having many private dwellings on one floor and then stacked high in the sky. That is a huge fire problem!

That first observation of “nothing showing” now, of course, needs further investigation of the cause and reason for the alarm. The most common alarms are for the activation of an automatic alarm, which could be a smoke, heat, UV detector, or water flow alarm. Take nothing for granted: that automatic alarm could be a sprinkler head activation. To be complacent because you may have responded to numerous “electronic false alarms” or “smells and bells” signifies a lack of discipline. Again our “disciplines of approach” should be the same as for any type of response to a fire or an emergency. In today’s world, our preparedness and delivery of services should encompass response to “all hazard emergencies,” which increases the challenges.

This unit and team should proceed to gain more information through a verbal exchange with a responsible person who can explain the reason for the alarm and building intelligence (BI) on this building. The prevention codes for many high-rises and authorities having jurisdiction necessitate a building (quick) information card that will provide much of that BI.3 The NFPA report mentioned above states that the major reason risks are lower in high-rise office buildings is that FPS are present. That may be true, but the NFPA is missing the point–that is, if the fire service was unfamiliar with these systems and assets to assist in fire operations, the frequency and statistics of significant fires in high-rise office buildings would be much greater.

“Know Before You Go”

My friend and mentor Jack Murphy introduced the concept of Know Before You Go (KbyG) to the fire service–acquire facts and data on the buildings in your response area before the fire/emergency event. This may not be possible for every building in your district, so concentrate on those structures that pose the greatest challenge; high-rise office buildings fall into that category. A visit is compulsory if you are to be prepared and professional.

We must rely on systems beyond fire protection, such as elevators, electricity and other sources that power equipment. A component of the FPS is the alarm panel or annunciator that defines and identifies the type of alarm activation, the location, and the number of activated detection points. The officer of the first-arriving unit would meet with a responsible person for an exchange of information and then would proceed to view this panel/annunciator. If the panel is in or near to the lobby, the remaining unit members would perform a size-up to identify the locations of the stairwells and standpipe and to recall the elevators. This is only an element of our “disciplines of approach.” Further information and verifications would include an account from the fire/alarm area; broadcasting of announcements to building occupants; and determining the status of evacuation, elevators, the HVAC system, and the intelligence on the Building Information Card.

Information Gleaned

The first-arriving officer would communicate relevant details of that information to all responding units, including the chief officer who will assume overall command. That exchange would be face to face or over the radio. Many departments assign this first-arriving unit as Lobby Control, and it remains at this location. This is contrary to the paradigm “Quick water on the fire.” The fire service is keen to understand just how fast and furious fires will progress with the fuel package present in the high-rise office environment. If left unchecked, the life safety of the occupants present is in greater danger. Fire produces smoke, which is the predominant factor in fatalities at fires. Other departments will have one member remain at this location in the capacity of a command presence to record/monitor unit arrival and assignment locations, and to provide the incoming chief with this intelligence. Should that member be the officer or other member?

Should the officer remain, the members leading off to investigate the alarm may have limited experience, and there may be only two individuals. In the absence of supervision, will they be able to perform an investigation/size up to confirm that they found the fire–not just a smoke condition? Do they know how to connect to a standpipe, lead out a hoseline, and begin suppression operations unaccompanied by an experienced member? Even if they have the experience to accomplish this, do they have the physical ability to do it? It takes teams of individuals to perform all the physical functions needed.

Most departments do not have staffing comparable to that of large cities and cannot afford to lose an individual who is vital to investigations and placement of a hose line. Nor can they afford to lose a firefighter to operate the elevator if necessary. If the elevator is taken to a target floor, it would have to be taken out of Phase II and returned to the lobby for the use of other arriving units. The officer, the most experienced member, remains in the lobby and is expected to perform the functions of command while awaiting the arrival of a chief officer to exchange information face to face. The Fire Department of New York, which has substantial resources of engine and ladder units that arrive within minutes has stipulated that the chauffeur/engineer of the ladder truck be the individual who remains in the lobby for that exchange of information and accountability of units preceding the area of operations.

Priority of Command vs. Action

I have read opinions, articles, and SOPs on whether the first unit to arrive should be designated the Lobby Control unit. As I have stated, this unit must and will glean as much information as is available, determine what resources (additional units, fire protection systems, and equipment) are needed and available, decide a plan of action, and communicate that to the incoming units and responding incident commander (IC). That initial communication can be a radio transmission to the dispatcher or a frequency monitored by all responding units. This unit should be permitted to proceed to the location of the alarm/fire because it will take time to reach that location. During that time period, other units and the chief officer who will assume overall command will be arriving. The time interval to reach locations (stairs or elevators) of high-rises can be a minimum of 10 to 20 minutes. Additional time will be expended to set up and position for extinguishment operations, if required. That should be time enough for the chief officer to respond and arrive and assume the duties of incident command.

The chief officer (IC) will announce arrival, and the investigating unit can repeat the information gleaned and provide their status (location/actions) and update information that has changed or been realized since the last communication. The IC can contact the other units that may be on location to request their status, location, and intended actions. The IC will now record and account for all units on scene and determine if their strategy and tactics (actions) are appropriate for the situation (alarm investigation, fire, or emergency) at hand. Those departments that mandate the first unit to remain in the lobby are wasting precious time and resources to conduct/perform duties that can be gained through radio communications. Doing so extends the time interval to extinguish/mitigate. “Quick water on the fire” will not only eliminate the problem, but it will reduce the amount of smoke, which is an issue of life safety for everyone in the building.


Gerald Tracy retired FDNY Battalion Commander. Developed many FDNY training programs and has published articles in WNYF and Fire Engineering magazine. He is the Godfather of the fire behavior research for high-rises that included Wind Driven Fires. The keynote speaker at FDIC in 2007 and received the Tom Brennan Lifetime Achievement Award 2016.


1. http://www.nfpa.org/news-and-research/fire-statistics-and-reports/fire-statistics/fires-by-property-type/high-rise-building-fires.

2. https://books.google.com/books?id=AI8BAAAAQAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false.

3. IBC-Chapter-9 Fire Protection Systems, Section 911.1.6.13 and IFC- Chapter-5, Fire Service Features, Section 508.1.6.13.


Let’s begin with the receipt of an alarm     By Gerald Tracy | FDIC.com What’s the chance you will encounter a serious fire in a high-rise office building? According to the National Fire Protection Association report on high-rise fire incidents issued in November 2016, the chances are slim. 1 The supposition made is that […]

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