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Lessons Learned: Close Call at Missouri High-Rise Fire

Disorientation and more in 1998


(NIOSH photo)


NIOSH Fire Fighter Fatality Investigation and Prevention Program

On October 12, 1998, while attempting a rescue, two fire fighters became disoriented in a smoke charged hallway on the 21st floor of a high-rise apartment building, ran out of air, and one of the two fire fighters (Captain on Engine 17, the victim) came close to death in this incident.

Read the Report:
Eight-Alarm Fire in a 27-Story High-Rise Apartment Building for the Elderly Nearly Claims the Life of One Fire Fighter

The fire started in the apartment of an elderly woman, and was reported as originating from an electrical cause or smoking in bed. The fire started shortly after 0900 hours, and the resident unsuccessfully attempted to extinguish the fire with glasses of water for a period of time.

She then called the front desk, reported the fire and exited the apartment, leaving the door open, and took the elevator to the lobby.

By the time the fire department arrived, the entire hallway on the 21st floor was fully charged with thick black smoke, and the fire had escalated, breaking out the apartment windows and allowing the wind to blow the apartment door shut.

Three oxygen bottles in the apartment, for the resident’s use, accelerated the fire growth when they exploded.

NIOSH investigators conclude that, to minimize the risk of similar occurrences, fire departments should:

  • ensure that all standard operating procedures (SOPs) regarding high-rise fire fighting operations are followed
  • ensure that incident command always maintains close accountability to monitor the location of all fire fighters on the fireground
  • ensure that all officers and fire fighters wear and use a personal alert safety system (PASS) device that are involved in fire fighting, rescue, or other hazardous duty
  • ensure that a Rapid Intervention Team be in place before conditions become unsafe
  • develop and implement a written respirator maintenance program for all respiratory protective equipment used by fire fighters
  • ensure that fire fighters entering immediately dangerous to life and health atmospheres have fully charged air tanks on their self-contained breathing apparatus
  • ensure that at least four fire fighters be on the scene before initiating interior fire fighting operations at a structural fire – two in, two out

Additional Safety Recommendations:

  • consider using a rope attached to a permanent object or placing a bright, narrow-beamed light (e.g., laser) at the entry portal to a structural fire to assist lost or disoriented fire fighters in emergency escape.
  • ensure that procedures are established to record fireground radio communications

NIOSH also concluded that municipalities should require all high-rise apartments for the elderly have sprinkler systems installed and operable wherever feasible.


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