Considerations for Smaller-Sized Departments Dealing with High-Rise Fires


Blog by Will Anderson
Platoon Chief with the Euclid Fire Department in Ohio

Serving as a Platoon Chief with the Euclid Fire Department in Ohio, there’s no shortage of work to do. Like most of you, our call volume is up, while our budget is down. In 2012, we answered nearly 8,500 calls for service with a staff of around 80 cross-trained firefighter/paramedics.

Euclid offers a little bit of everything. We have a major interstate (I-90) that allows more than 1 million vehicles to pass through each week. We have heavy and light industry, commercial buildings, two major rail lines, rapid transit buses, and a large Metro-Park, which all bring the chance for technical rescue and hazardous material incidents.

We also have an aging housing stock. More than 85 percent of homes were built before 1970, and thousands of these houses are nearing the century mark. Also, since the 1960s, the city has seen more than 30 high-rises built, all of fire-resistive construction (Type 1). Most are residential, a handful are commercial. Our tallest building is 21 stories and I’m told were home to the largest apartment complex for senior citizens between Chicago and New York City.

Daily, we’re faced with EMS calls, elevator emergencies, alarm activations, odor investigations, or some type of fire in these buildings. The personnel of the Euclid Fire Department have become very well accustomed to operating in our high-rise buildings.

This blog will cover a serious fire in a seven-story commercial building that I functioned as Incident Commander (IC). There were several lessons learned and reinforced from this fire that I wish to pass on. This isn’t to say I’m an expert, I haven’t seen it all, but there was a lot to learn from this experience that I’d like to share:


When I entered the fire service in 1995, it was taboo to talk about mistakes made at a fire. It was perceived as a sign of weakness. If you learned anything from anyone else, it was usually how to not do something. A little over a decade ago, however, I realized there was a better way to look at things. Professional development took on a new meaning for me. Suddenly, I couldn’t get enough training. This belief still holds true today.

The fire I’m focusing on in this article occurred at 3 a.m. We received multiple calls for fire showing from a high-rise office building. It was only six months prior I was with a crew of firefighters performing a company inspection of this building. I remember thinking then that a fire in this 60,000 square foot building could be very bad. Now we were faced with fire showing from multiple windows on the second floor.

Prior to my arrival, I requested our Mutual Aid Box Alarm System (MABAS) to be activated. We were responding with two engines, one truck and three ambulances. I was in a command vehicle. We knew all hands would be going to work based on what we were being told. The mutual aid request would bring an additional three engines, one truck, and one ambulance from neighboring cities. I should mention that our medics assigned to an ambulance typically function in a firefighting capacity at working fires unless they’re specifically designated to serve as an EMS crew.

On arrival, crews began receiving their assignments. Attack was the first assignment given. It’s been my experience that the sooner we get water on any fire, the better things seem to be. The fire was auto-exposing up to the third floor. Due to the size of the fire, I assigned a back-up line to protect the attack crew. The third assignment given was vertical ventilation of the stairwell. This process consisted of opening up roof doors and roof hatches.

What working incident could go without a problem or two, right? During the offensive firefight, interior crews communicated they were making progress, but they had low pressure. A few moments later the pump operator informed me we had lost our supply line. Suddenly, a large amount of water was seen bubbling up from underground. We had a water main break and lost our hydrant.

At that point, interior crews had made some progress, but I ordered all interior crews down to the first floor until a new supply could be established. Within a couple of minutes, we had secured a second water supply from a neighboring department (Willoughby Hills Fire Department), which also responded on the box. In the meantime, the assisting Wickliffe Fire Department, which was handling RIT duties, was redeployed to the exterior to set up a ground monitor on the Delta side of the building to prepare for a defensive attack. The team secured its own water supply to support efforts. Fortunately, we never had to go defensive on this fire.

Interior crews quickly went back to work on Division 2 of the building. Searches were being conducted on the upper floors, utilities were being controlled, and significant progress was being made. About this time I received a radio report that a large section of drop ceiling had collapsed on a crew of firefighters, but entanglement was being addressed. One firefighter was able to free himself and his crew with large wire cutters he carries for such an event. A “MAYDAY” was never called because this well-trained crew kept its calm and performed extremely well under pressure. A back-up crew was in place and RIT was standing by if either were needed. Fortunately, neither was.

This fire reinforced many different topics relating to our job and our safety. Here’s an overview of the key takeaways:

>> Small departments are initially at a disadvantage for serious fires in high-rises: We know high-rises are not relegated to metropolitan areas only. Smaller cities have these building, and despite limited staffing, need to be ready. We have a minimum staffing of three on each apparatus (one officer and two firefighters). Ambulances have a minimum of two. We typically arrive with 10-12 firefighters at a high-rise incident. We’re forced to rely on mutual aid from surrounding communities. Getting that first line in operation is extremely important. The saying is so true: So goes the first line, so goes the fire.

>> Training is paramount: Training issues in high rises can provide a department with opportunities to hone their skills. Pay attention during company inspections. Know the locations of the FDCs, standpipes, and boiler and elevator rooms. Are there compactor shafts in your high-rises? What’s your plan for a compactor fire? Do you know which type of elevator key is needed? Are the elevators hydraulic or electric? Do you know the numbering system of the apartments? Where is the Knox box location? If you open a standpipe but have no water, can you troubleshoot the problem? Are you hooking up on the fire floor or the floor below? Do your standpipes have pressure-reducing valves (PRV)? The opportunities to learn are nearly endless in a high-rise. Do your part to teach your younger, less-experienced members how to stay alive in these buildings.

>> Complacency: If we bring a 2.5-story wood-frame mindset to a high-rise building, were setting ourselves up for failure. Failure in our business means injury and maybe death. Our department has a good amount of experience with fires in residential high-rises. We lack experience with fires in commercial high-rises. As I was giving assignments to crews at this fire, I told each crew to slow down and think about what we were going into. I told them this fire was different than what were used to. After the fire, several members came up to me and thanked me for telling them that. It made them realize the seriousness of the fire and how a commercial high-rise differs from a residential high-rise. Residential high-rises of Type 1 construction are compartmentalized very well. It’s unlikely the fire will extend beyond the apartment of origin unless it auto-exposes to the floor above or the occupant leaves the apartment door open as they escape. By code, the doors are supposed to be self-closing. Also, the apartments are typically no larger than 700-800 square feet. Conversely, commercial high-rises cover large open areas. Each floor of the fire building we faced was nearly 8,000 square feet in size. Most are much larger than this. Also, commercial high-rises likely have increased fire loads, maze-like interiors, HVAC systems that can spread smoke and fire, and drop ceilings that may have illegally-stored wiring and conduit above the ceiling panels. When these drop due to fire exposure, they can trap and kill unsuspecting firefighters below. The point is to know your buildings!

>> Role of the Incident Commander: It’s easy for a new command-level officer to feel the need to help by pulling hose, propping doors, making a connection to a hydrant, etc. when staffing is limited in a small department. Don’t do it! Another featured contributor at TargetSolutions is Dr. Richard Gasaway. He is considered the subject matter expert on situational awareness and writes extensively on the topic and how it pertains to the role of the Incident Commander (IC). Please take the time to read his material. It will make your fireground safer! To provide crews with the best possible chance for success, an IC needs to be totally focused on his/her job. If an IC is pulling hose, how can he/she be focusing on the big picture? We face risk at each fire we respond to. As an IC, some risk can be controlled and some can’t. You owe it to your personnel to provide them with the best chance for success. You can do this by totally focusing on the needs of the incident, staying one step ahead, knowing your personnel, and delegating tasks to support officers or senior advisors.

This first article covered a lot of information. I hope it stimulates some discussion amongst your members around the kitchen table. Regardless, firefighters have a duty to pass on their experience to new members. Dennis Smith of FDNY (retired) once said, “a true mark of a leader lies in how he treats and teaches the lowest member of a department: the probie.” Officers have a duty and obligation not only to their firefighters, but also to their families. Company officers, you have to do your part to make sure your crew goes home safe and healthy at the end of their shifts.

Chief Officers have the same job, but also the additional responsibility of doing their part to make sure these same firefighters go home safe and healthy at the end of their careers. By working together, we can make that happen.

Thanks for reading and stay safe!


About the Author

Will Anderson is a Platoon Chief with the Euclid Fire Department in Ohio. He’s in his 18th year in the fire service and is certified as a State of Ohio Firefighter 2, Fire Instructor, and Paramedic. He recently completed his Fire Officer 1, 2, and 3 training in addition to his Blue Card certification. He has an Associate’s degree in Fire Science, another in Emergency Medical Services, and is nearing completion of his Bachelor’s Degree in Fire Science Administration.

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