High-Rise Command: Putting the First Three Chiefs to Work

High-rise fires require a sold command presence

The roles of the first three arriving chief officers are key to establishing a good foundation. (Photo courtesy Keith Witt)

High-rise incidents can present a variety of challenges for responding chief officers. Because high-rise fires are inherently complex incidents with myriad challenges, the first-due chief can feel somewhat intimidated. Upon arrival and entering the lobby of a reported high-rise incident, the first-due chief will most likely find a very chaotic scene, with many things happening at once.

What may seem like an overwhelming situation (fast pitch, if you will) can be easily managed by building the foundation of your incident: establishing a solid command presence. Let’s take a closer look at how that’s done.

First to Arrive
In an unconfirmed high-rise incident, a minimum of three chief officers must be dispatched as part of the first-alarm assignment. Their duties and responsibilities are dictated on their order of arrival on scene. The first-arriving chief officer should become the incident commander (IC).

If you’re the IC, remember that as overwhelming as things may seem, you have two more chiefs who are responding to assist you in the operation. Slow down and take a deep breath. As the first-due chief, your main responsibility is to establish the lobby Command Post, gather information and begin to build the foundation of the incident using the first-alarm resources.

In high-rise incidents the demand for resources is much greater than in low-rise incidents; therefore the first-alarm assignment should provide more resources. Part of the challenge is to effectively manage those resources. Two key points to remember:

  • Allow only the minimum number of companies necessary to enter the lobby to begin the operation. Keep all other companies staged outside. This will help to keep the lobby manageable.
  • Designate the first two arriving units, preferably one engine company and one truck company, as the fire investigation team (for more on the FIT, see http://highriseoperations.com/2012/06/setting-the-table-for-high-rise-events/). Upon their arrival they should assist in gathering as much information as possible before ascending above-grade. As they reach their destination they must continue their size-up and relay as much information as possible to the Command Post. They are the eyes and ears of the IC; all of the IC’s initial actions will be based on the information received by these companies.

Second on Scene
The second-arriving chief officer should report to the Command Post and receive information from the IC as to what has already taken place. This chief officer then ascends above-grade to establish the Operations Section, and assumes the position of the Operations Chief.

A good location to establish the Operations Section is where the fire companies exit the elevators—that is, if the elevators are being used, which should be determined department standard operating guidelines (SOGs) This allows companies to immediately check in upon arrival to that given floor, and await their assigned duties.

Communications is critical in a high-rise incident. Once the appropriate positions are filled, all communications should go through the Operations Chief. Graphic courtesy Keith Witt

The Operations Chief is a key position in the overall operation. Essentially, it is the Operations Chief who runs the entire incident from above-grade. All operations and decisions at this point go through this individual. Any request for additional resources is made by the Operations Chief through the IC. Once this position is filled and the Operations Section is established, the IC at the Command Post should cease deploying companies for specific tasks. If a company is needed for a certain task, the Operations Chief will make the request through the IC.

In essence the IC, though responsible for the overall incident, becomes a resource manager for the Operations Chief, sending up the needed companies, but not actually assigning the tasks. This allows for tighter control and accountability. Once the company is sent up above-grade, they check in with the Operations Chief. It is then that they receive their specific assignment, or are ordered to stand by briefly in an established staging area until the Operations Chief is ready to deploy them.

This process is critical for maintaining accountability. Picture a situation where the Operations Chief requests a truck company for search and rescue. The IC makes the request from the base. The truck company checks in at the lobby Command Post and is told by the IC that they’re going to be used for search and rescue two floors above the fire floor. The company now has its task; with all their adrenaline rushing, they ascend directly to two floors above the fire floor, bypassing the Operations Command post and going right to work. At this point the chain of accountability is lost.

One of the most important tasks of the Operations Chief is controlling the movement of personnel in and out of the fire area. Allowing too many firefighters into the attack stairwell will be counterproductive to the operation. Keep the attack stairwell as clear as possible, using only necessary personnel for hoseline management, forcible entry and search.

In addition, the Operations Chief should establish a process for relieving companies, based on department SOGs. As companies are relieved from the fire floor or their area of operation by a fresh crew, they must report to an established rehab area, which is usually part of the staging area above grade. This will prevent the unnecessary accumulation of personnel in stairways and hallways, and will help to maintain accountability. Once the initial command staff is established, the Operations Chief may want to assign another chief officer to oversee the staging area and rehab, as the incident progresses.

Last But Not Least
The third-arriving chief officer becomes the Division Supervisor, responsible for fire attack operations. Upon arrival they will report to the IC, be briefed on the status of the operation, and ascend above-grade to establish contact with the Operations Chief.

The Operations Chief will assign the Division Supervisor responsibilities in charge of coordinating operations on the fire floor and the floor above, and is designated by the floor on which the fire is located. Example: If the fire floor is confirmed as the 25th floor, then this Supervisor becomes Division 25. Any communications from the Division Supervisor, whether reporting conditions/progress or requesting additional resources, should take place through the Operations Chief. The Operations Chief will then in turn communicate with the IC.

A Foundation for Growth
These are the three key positions in building the foundation of the initial command staff at a high-rise fire. Positions are filled in the order of arrival on the scene, which in turn allows for accountability and continuity of command. These positions should not be deviated from under any circumstances. If a sound foundation is not established, the incident will fall apart.

As the incident starts to expand, so to should the command positions. Search and rescue, support and staging, and the ventilation group are just some of the additional components in the operation where command supervisors will be needed.

Remember: High-rise incidents are labor-intensive operations requiring a large number of resources that must be managed efficiently and accounted for to ensure the safety of the members operating and the success of the operation. Building the proper command foundation will help to accomplish this goal.

Authored By: BFC Keith Witt

Keith Witt is a 32-year veteran of the Chicago Fire Department (CFD) and currently holds the rank of battalion chief, assigned to the 18th Battalion in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood. He holds a bachelor’s degree in fire protection and safety engineering technology from Oklahoma State University and a master’s degree in public safety management from Lewis University. Witt is also a lead instructor in the CFD’s Officer Training Program, a Field Staff Instructor for the University of Illinois Fire Service Institute, and the National Fire Academy. Firefighter safety and survival has become one of his top priorities and motivations.


In an unconfirmed high-rise incident, a minimum of three chief officers must be dispatched as part of the first-alarm assignment.

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