IN APRIL, THE NATIONAL INSTITUTE OF STANDARDS AND TECHNOLOGY (NIST) issued its long-awaited report, High-Rise Fireground Field Experiments, also known as NIST Technical Note 1797. The study confirms what every firefighter already knows: the fewer on-duty firefighters who respond to a fire and the longer it takes to get to the scene, the larger the fire becomes and the greater danger it poses to occupants and firefighters. Rather than relying on anecdotes, there is now a scientific study to support requests for adequate staffing levels and response times for departments protecting high-rise buildings.
The goal of the study was to determine the effect of staffing on a high-rise office tower fire operation in which the primary objectives were extinguishing the fire while conducting search-and-rescue operations on the fire floor and the floors above. In the actual field experiments, firefighters from the Washington, D.C., area were asked to complete 38 critical tasks in a 13-story high-rise with a realistic fire simulation on the tenth floor and simulated fire victims on the tenth and eleventh floors.
We were among the subject matter experts who helped determine the needed strategies and tactics that resulted in the tasks necessary to combat this high-rise fire. Each task was timed.
The experts addressed the staffing variable in two ways: the number of firefighters per company, and the number of fire units per alarm. Company staffing ranged from three to six firefighters per company. Alarm response was divided into high- and low-alarm response configurations. The low-alarm response consisted of three engines, three trucks, two battalion chiefs, and two ambulances per alarm. The high-alarm response consisted of four engines, four trucks, two battalion chiefs, and three ambulances. Fire simulations were conducted with and without sprinkler protection, as well as with and without elevator availability.
NFPA 1710, Organization and Deployment of Fire Suppression Operations, Emergency Medical Operations, and Special Operations to the Public by Career Fire Departments
, classifies high-rise fires as high-hazard fires. This goes for occupants as well as firefighters. Thousands of occupants may occupy such buildings, and multiple hose lines may be required to extinguish fires in them. For firefighters working many floors above grade level, it can take much longer to escape.
For fire departments being asked to do more with less, the NIST report provides substantial evidence that trying to do more with less at a working high-rise fire is likely to result in the unnecessary loss of lives and property. The study clearly justifies calls for additional staffing and the response times enumerated in NFPA 1710.
We strongly recommend that all fire professionals carefully examine the results of this important study, particularly the survival probability of the simulated victims on the tenth and eleventh floors. You should analyze the different response levels in terms of company staffing, the total number of units responding, and company response times, including the probability that companies may be unavailable due to other responses. Compare your response times to the response times in the study and adjust the times to match conditions in your community.
Armed with the solid data of the NIST report, a re-examination of the resources available in your community may lead to adding more units to high-rise alarms, staging more companies at the scene, or revising your standard operating procedures — everything you need to do the job right.
Ben Klaene is the former safety/training chief for the Cincinnati Fire Department. Russ Sanders is executive secretary of the Metro Fire Chiefs Association and the former chief of the Louisville Fire Department.