Understanding High-Rise Stairwells

Proper stairwell identification and selection we can ensure the safety of all people throughout the building


(Chicago Fire Department photo)


By Guido Calcagno | Fire Engineering

High-rise firefighting can present numerous dangers, concerns, and tactical obstacles that must be overcome to safely, effectively, and efficiently put out a fire stories into the sky. However, with the establishment of incident command, effective communication and stretching the appropriately sized hoseline to the seat of the fire must take place for the incident to be successful. One thing that is often overlooked is ensuring that the appropriate stairwells for fire attack and evacuation are designated. Establishing fire attack and evacuation stairwells prior to starting any other tactical objective lays the groundwork for successful firefighting to take place.

We often use the term “coordinated fire attack” when referring to our “technique” when extinguishing a fire safely. This will be compounded with problems such as increased reflex time, occupants in the stairwell, and the inability to horizontally ventilate the fire using traditional means due to the height and location of the fire in the building. When thinking about these problems they can seem overwhelming. With the right preparation and appropriate size-up by the first companies on scene, these issues can be overcome while ensuring we operate safely, effectively, and efficiently.

Roles and Responsibilities

Start by addressing the roles of the first engine and first truck company arriving on the scene. It is the responsibility of these two companies to form a fire investigation team and stop at the fire alarm control panel (FACP) to identify the location of the reported fire floor prior to any vertical movement. The two company officers have several responsibilities that should be taken into consideration prior to making the ascent to the fire floor. High-rise buildings are required to have a life safety plan (aka Massey Plan) near the front desk or FACP, which should be requested as soon as possible from building staff by the first fire companies. This provides a wealth of information regarding the building and may also play into our tactical decision making as the incident progresses.

For purposes related to this article, this plan will provide information regarding:

  • standpipe locations
  • areas of rescue assistance
  • people registered as needing assistance and their unit number (may be outdated so ensure to confirm with building personnel that the information is accurate)
  • stairwells and their locations
  • smoke towers
  • pressurized stairwells
  • stairwells with access to the roof or bulkhead doors

Although waiting for the life safety plan to arrive if not easily accessible is not necessarily practical, the firefighter or lobby control company assigned to the FACP can keep the fire investigation team notified of pertinent information as it is presented to them when the information becomes available.

The firefighter or company left at the FACP has two important jobs relating to stairwells: ensure that all stairwell doors are unlocked and make announcements to building occupants as soon as possible to let them know the safest means of egress. Unlocking the doors is typically accomplished by pressing a button on the FACP panel interface or flipping a toggle switch located on the panel. Ensuring stairwell doors are unlocked will allow firefighters easy access to all floors as well as allow occupants to exit the stairwell if they find they have entered the wrong stairwell by mistake. In 2003, this proved tragic for six people that perished in the Cook County Administration Building fire in Chicago, Illinois, as a result of stairwell doors being locked preventing their reentry after entering what they did not know to be the fire attack stairwell (Groves, 2020).

Making announcements to selected floors directing people to the correct stairwell will limit the amount of foot traffic in the fire attack stairwell, making it easier for firefighters to operate. Buildings with smoke-proof towers or pressurized stairwells will inform their residents (commercial or residential) to use these protected stairwells for a safer means of egress unless otherwise directed through fire drills or via floor layout maps posted in various locations. Although people may still use the fire attack stairwell, it is much more manageable to relocate only a few people versus several people if the correct notifications have been made consistently throughout the operation.

Once the FACP has been addressed and the location of the fire has been recognized, there is now enough information to recall the appropriate bank of elevators that will allow fire companies to ascend safely two to three floors below the fire floor (this is dependent on your department protocols). Freight elevators are preferred because they can usually stop on all floors and can typically hold more weight. Prior to entering an elevator, all members should be aware the stairwell locations before entering the elevator and the doors are closed in the event the elevator loses control. The International Building Code (IBC) (2013) requires a minimum of two means of stair egress from all high-rise buildings unless the building is greater than 420 feet, then a minimum of three stairwells are required.

This information is important to relay to all members ascending in the elevator. Providing the firefighter responsible for elevator operation a dry erase marker will help keep accountability of all members traveling in the car as well as giving them the ability to write critical information on the inside of the door pertinent to all members. Items such as the location of the rapid intervention team, fire unit number, and arrows indicating the distance and side of the hallway of stairwells can be extremely useful. This increases the safety factor if the elevator were to open on a floor compromised with heat or smoke to prevent members from crawling into an open elevator shaft. This can also eliminate confusion of the locations of the fire attack and evacuation stairwells designated by the company officers of the fire investigation team.

Designating Fire Attack and Evacuation Stairwells

Considerations must be made when selecting fire attack and evacuation stairwells. This can weigh heavily on how the incident will unfold for the safety of both fire department personnel and civilians. Nonsprinklered buildings are concerning for firefighters when it comes to ensuring proper stairwell selection. Standpipe requirements for nonsprinklered buildings state that a standpipe outlet cannot exceed 130 feet from any given point (Magee, 2018).  Older buildings may have standpipe outlets that are in precarious locations that may include a stairwell with a smoke-proof tower or pressurized stairwell. For those unfamiliar with a smoke-proof tower, this is an enclosure between a hallway and a stairwell to provide a margin of safety for occupants using this stairwell for egress. Within this opening there is a louver or window-like system that allows smoke to exit the building similarly to that of a chimney. This separation between hallway and stairwell allows building occupants to exit the fire floor without compromising the integrity of the stairwell. Buildings with smoke-proof towers will recommend their occupants to use the smoke-proof tower for evacuation because this is a safer route of travel if people are trying to leave the fire floor.  

When stretching a hoseline from a floor below the fire this is now a consideration that weighs on the company officer designating the fire attack stairwell because of the increased life safety hazard in the stairwell from the beginning of the fire until the end. Barring an extreme circumstance—and keeping in mind that “convenience” is not an extreme circumstance—the standpipe in a smoke-proof tower should not be used if given the option. This will compromise the integrity of the stairwell once the doors are opened to the fire floor, creating a flow path from a high-pressure area to a low-pressure area, that being the stairwell. Considerations should be made to connect to the standpipe, stretch the hose through the hallway the floor below, and ascend using an alternative stairwell. Extra hose may be required, however this is a safer option for civilians and firefighters. Bear in mind if we are not considering saving lives, we are merely here to put out a compartmentalized contents fire.

Pressurized stairwells are designed to prevent smoke from entering when the door on the fire floor is opened. The pressurization system is intended to prevent smoke leaking passed closed doors into stairs by injecting clean air into the stair enclosure such that the pressure in the stair is greater than the adjacent fire compartment (Lay, 2014). If the stairwell door is opened, the system is intended to maintain a flow of air through the open doorway to oppose smoke flow and prevent contamination of the stair enclosure (Lay, 2014).  Although this system is designed to keep the stairwell safer, it runs the risk of becoming compromised if too many people start to exit simultaneously or doors are propped open by either civilians or firefighters. As noted elsewhere by John Ceriello and Pete Van Dorpe, if there is consideration from incident command at any point that a stairwell must be pressurized (even a stairwell is not pressurized already), measures should be given to pressurizing the fire attack stairwell prior to evacuation stairwell.

When the designation of stairwells is made it, is imperative that this is announced over the tactical channel for all members to hear. The firefighter or lobby control company assigned to the FACP can make occupants throughout the entire building aware of the safest way to exit by repeating building announcements as needed. Once the stairwells are designated, they will still need be searched. This is particularly true with the fire attack stairwell. Someone should be assigned to search five or so floors above the fire floor prior to the doorway to the hallway of the fire floor being opened. Once opened, a flow path will be created that may be extremely intense if this is wind-driven fire that has left its compartment. Conditions of a wind-driven fire are untenable with turnout gear, thus giving an occupant without protection minimal chance for survival. This would also require that resources be used to remove a victim from the stairwell to medical care.

Types of Stairwells

There are many types of stairwells throughout a variety of buildings. This will address the most common types of stairwells you may see in a high rise.

U-Return Stairs

U-return stairs are a common design in high-rise buildings, especially in modern construction. U-return stairs consist of two flights of stairs with a landing between each floor. This type of stairwell design allows us to modify our hose lead out to allow us to do more work with less people. In some instances, your whole crew may not be able to make the ascent at the same time. By preconnecting all lengths of your hose on the floor below the fire and leading out a dry line one-half floor above the fire while stretching hose, we can eliminate approximately 50 feet of hose from potentially becoming tangled in the stairwell. Once the line is charge with water and our standpipe is set at our desired pressure, the weight of the water will assist us in making the turn into the hallway. This method would allow us to get a considerable distance down a hallway prior to the firefighter on the heel moving into the doorway to address the pinch point. If this is the method of lead out you will be attempting, make sure that when stretching the dry line up the stairs no couplings are brought up to the landing; these can get caught on the stairs if they are grated. Removing the coupling would require you to place a member in a dangerous position to alleviate a problem that can be avoided. Ensure that you do not lead out up the second set of stairs past the landing. This will create a pinch point that may need to be addressed. Please remember that using this method is contingent on fire and stairwell conditions.

(1) U-Return stairwells are common and easy to identify. When leading out hose in a U-Return stairwell consider leading the hose line one half floor above the fire which will allow gravity to help advance the line.

Straight Run Stairs

Straight run stairs are another common stair. They ascend just like it sounds, straight. If you preplan the buildings in your response district, you may see that this type of stairwell can run directly into a unit. If this is the case it, would be an excellent time to conduct a five-minute drill to discuss how you would lead out through a neighboring unit if this was your only option based on standpipe location.

Scissor Stairs

Scissor stairs consist of two stairs which crisscross inside the same stairwell enclosure and are separated by a partition. These type of stairwells present some challenges for all of those operating or attempting to exit a high-rise fire. Stairwell doors to scissor stairs are in close proximity to each other and are sometimes improperly marked by the building. For firefighters to become properly oriented on the fire floor, they should perform a size-up two floors below the fire. This will allow firefighters to orient themselves with the proper door they will use to exit the stairwell prior to making their push down the hall for extinguishment. Some scissor stairs may have standpipe outlets located every other floor. For engine company officers, it is important to recognize if you need more hose to reach the fire prior to extinguishment operations unfolding.

Fire Escapes

Several older high-rise buildings will have exterior fire escapes. Using a fire escape for either fire attack or evacuation should be avoided if at all possible, but our jobs are truly dynamic and situations will vary. Even though the fire escape may not be part of our offensive plan, we still need to consider that there may be civilians attempting to exit using this route. For that reason it is important for any incident commander (IC) or search team to check the fire escapes. If you are the IC or policy writer, consider designating someone to periodically check the exterior of the building for people on the fire escape so there is accountability.

(2) Fire escapes are found on many older buildings and must be checked periodically for victims that are evacuating whom may require assistance. Photo by Greg Havel.

Areas of Refuge

Areas of refuge are fire-resistance rated and smoke-protected areas where those unable to use stairs can register a call for evacuation assistance and await instructions or assistance (Americans with Disabilities Act, 2010). The Americans with Disabilities Act (2010) states that buildings must provide direct access to an exit stairway or to an elevator equipped with standby power. This is an area that is often found in the stairwell itself to provide protection from areas threatened by fire and smoke. The significance of this area is two-fold. First, these areas must be checked when performing stairwell searches, especially if the life safety plan indicates there is a person on a specific floor that may require assistance in evacuating. Keep in mind that not all life safety plans are up to date. If you are acting in the capacity of an IC, use reliable building personnel to verify that the life safety plan is up to date and make inquiries to any people that are known to need assistance. Building personnel can also be directed to answer the lobby phone or contact people who they know may need assistance for a medical reason to stay in place or go to the proper stairwell if evacuation is required or medical assistance is needed.

(3) Areas of refuge can be found throughout the stairwells in high-rise buildings and are indicated by a placards and markings noting “area of refuge” or “area of rescue assistance.” These locations provide occupants and firefighters the ability to communicate with the fire alarm control panel in the event help is needed or fire department radios are ineffective. Photo by Guido Calcagno.

The second aspect of the area of refuge benefits us in the event communications go awry. Areas of rescue assistance must have a two-way communication system that firefighters can use to contact lobby command (Americans with Disabilities Act, 2010). The communication system will connect to a central control point (FACP for instance), or to a public telephone system if the central control point is not constantly attended (Americans with Disabilities Act, 2010). The person assigned to FACP needs to have sufficient knowledge of how the FACP operates. This includes the ability to make announcements and answer calls from an area of rescue assistance or stairwell phones. This person should have a writing utensil to keep track of all calls for help or assistance coming in to the FACP, as well as documentation of the time they were removed and to where. Maintaining accountability is very significant as the incident progresses.

High-rise buildings can present a number of complex problems. Through effective communication and proper stairwell selection by the fire investigation team we can start to ensure the incident will run safely, effectively, and efficiently from the top down. A variety of training scenarios will allow you to start to develop an action plan for almost any incident; this will make recognition-primed decision making applicable before the incident becomes one that cannot be easily controlled. Little things such as looking at the location of stairwells on a building floor plan prior to ascending or writing the location of stairwells on an elevator door can heighten the situational awareness of all members allowing them to remain more aware of their surroundings. Each situation will be dynamic.  Through proper stairwell identification and selection we can ensure the safety of all people throughout the building, including firefighters, as well as make informed tactical decisions that can save numerous lives.


Americans with Disabilities Act. (2010). Accessible Means of Egress. Required Means of Egress [IBC Sect 1007.1 (2003), Sect. 1003.2.13 (2000)]. Retrieved February 13, 2020, from Guide to ADA Standards: https://www.access-board.gov/guidelines-and-standards/buildings-and-sites/about-the-ada-standards/guide-to-the-ada-standards/chapter-4-accessible-means-of-egress

Groves, A. (2020, March 26). Sinificant Illinois Fires: Cook County Administratino Building Fire. University of Illinois Library. IL. Retrieved from University of Illinois; Significant Illinois Fires: Cook County Administration Building Fire: http://guides.library.illinois.edu/c.php?g=416856&p=2842528

Lay, S. (2014). Pressurization Systems Do Not Work and Present a Risk to Life Safety. In S. Lay, Case Studies in Fire Safety (Vol. Volume 1, pp. 13-17). Elsevier. Retrieved February 13, 2020, from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2214398X13000046

Magee, Clay. “Standpipes 101, Part 1: A Beginner’s Guide to Standpipe Firefighting.” Retrieved January 29, 2020, from Fire Engineering: https://www.fireengineering.com/2018/12/05/207023/standpipes-101-part-1/

RLG A Services. (2013, February 28). The Code Corner High-Rise Buildings. Retrieved January 29, 2020, from The Code Corner: https://specsandcodes.typepad.com/the_code_corner/2013/02/high-rise-buildings.html


Guido Calcagno has been a firefighter/paramedic with the Chicago (IL) Fire Department for 15 years. He has a master’s degree in public safety administration and is currently involved with high-rise operations training for the department.


Proper stairwell identification and selection we can ensure the safety of all people throughout the building     By Guido Calcagno | Fire Engineering High-rise firefighting can present numerous dangers, concerns, and tactical obstacles that must be overcome to safely, effectively, and efficiently put out a fire stories into the sky. However, with the establishment […]

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