2013 NFPA CONFERENCE + EXPO RUNDOWN
How Willis Tower management and the Chicago Fire Department joined forces to protect the country’s tallest building.
NFPA Journal®, May/June 2013
By Michael Schroeder and Anthony Vanbuskirk
Chicago’s famously known as the city of broad shoulders, and the iconic Willis Tower, formerly known as the Sears Tower, accounts for a lot of the town’s architectural brawn. At 110 stories and 1,450 feet (442 meters) high, it’s the tallest building in the country, as well as in the Western Hemisphere. Its 4.5 million square feet (418,063 square meters) of floor space is home to offices, restaurants, shops, a U.S. Post Office, two chiropractors, and two dentist’s offices. Roughly 25,000 people pass through the building daily.
Wacker Lobby in the Willis Tower. About 25,000 people pass through the building each day. (Photo: Courtesy of Willis Tower)
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Working Together for One Response — The Chicago Fire Department and Iconic Willis Tower
Michael Schroeder, director of
business continuity and life safety for U.S. Equities Asset Management, LLC; Anthony VanBuskirk, deputy district chief (retired), Chicago Fire Department
Wednesday, June 12, 9:30–10:30 a.m.
That’s why building management has teamed up with the Chicago Fire Department (CFD) to conduct an annual large-scale drill to test and fine-tune emergency-response procedures. Drills can number hundreds of participants, including firefighters and the building’s management, security, and engineering staffs. Journal asked Michael Schroeder, director of business continuity and life safety for U.S. Equities Asset Management, LLC, the company that manages the building, and Anthony VanBuskirk, a CFD deputy district chief (retired), to recount their experiences with a recent drill: what worked, what didn’t, and why cooperation is critical for protecting lives and property in one of the world’s most complex structures.
U.S. Equities Asset Management, LLC
It is 5 a.m. on a chilly Saturday morning in October, and I’m in one of Willis Tower’s massive lobbies meeting with Tony VanBuskirk, a district chief with the Chicago Fire Department (CFD), along with Tom Cronin, the building’s chief engineer, and Keith Kambic, the building’s security director. We’re gathered at this early hour to discuss final preparations for our annual emergency drill, an event that teams Willis Tower management with the CFD to fine-tune our emergency-response skills.
Today’s drill, several months in the planning, involves a simulated fire on a predetermined floor. For building staff the drill represents an opportunity to apply their skills under a stressful yet controlled environment. More than 60 staffers are participating, including members of the building’s security and life safety team who are serving as “actors” who will interact in a variety of ways with the responding firefighters.
We huddle for a short time until Tony and Tom depart for the mock fire floor, and I head over to the briefing area in the building’s conference center to make sure our actors are clear on their roles. For months we’ve been developing “injects,” the hundreds of mini events to be carried out as part of the event’s chronological script. Everything from the initial alert to the final all clear is plotted to occur at a specific moment. Early in the planning process, building life safety and security management create “what-if” events that test various response components: mechanical (speaker activation, intelligibility, and volume), procedural (making sure building responders travel in pairs and take the stairs to the fire floor), business continuity (utilization of a third-party mass-notification service), and more. Everyone participates in the drill; if you’re not a responder you’re an actor, acting out roles ranging from injured people to irate guests to news reporters. It’s all designed to give our responders real people and situations to deal with.
The next few hours are a blur of preparation, making sure all the moving parts are set to go. All the actors are in their places. As the lead controller, part of my job today is to start the drill, which I do by calling an engineer and telling him to activate a smoke detector on the predetermined floor. At 8:30 a.m., the smoke detector goes off. The drill is on.
Just one aspect of preparedness
While exercises are a critical component of enhancing the Willis Tower’s emergency management program, we believe that to truly get the most out of our relationship with the fire department we must work together before, during, and after an incident.
The annual large-scale drill is just one, albeit an important, piece of the emergency preparedness pie—our work with the CFD and other city agencies is comprehensive and non-stop and a big part of the building’s emergency management program that I oversee. The program is built on emergency management basics: planning, through written response plans; mitigating, through continual building life safety inspections and timely maintenance; response, if and when necessary; and recovery, which means quickly returning to business as usual. We follow the Chicago High-Rise Life Safety Ordinance and Municipal Code of Chicago, which reference a variety of NFPA codes; for emergency planning, we have used NFPA 1600®, Disaster/Emergency Management and Business Continuity Programs, as an auditing tool. We also review our written plans, conduct tabletop exercises based on horizon scanning to determine the potential of a future event or current issue, and do walkthroughs with building staff that range from life safety patrol techniques to reviews of recent technology upgrades.
In addition, other city responders, such as the police Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team, will conduct exercises, complete walkthroughs, or give presentations. Chicago emergency management personnel have used the building to train and conduct exercises for their Certified Emergency Response Team (CERT) program. CFD community education personnel are invited to conduct presentations and participate in tenant fire drill monitoring and debriefs. Building security supervisory staff participate in fire safety director training and review materials throughout the year. City fire inspectors are escorted through the building, and rather than treating the inspection as a chore to be completed, life safety staff engage the inspectors to learn from the inspection and enhance building life safety inspections.
For all its complexity and activity, the Willis Tower is extremely safe, and emergencies that require external response are few and far between. When issues do arise, it is important to not just respond properly but to also review the response in a timely manner. For example, Tony was once part of a CFD response to the building for smoke accumulating from an unknown source on a lower level — and it wasn’t a drill. While the event was minor and quickly resolved, it provided an opportunity for building management and the CFD to execute an actual response. Afterward, Tony took the time to stay at the lobby fire panel and debrief the response with me. I was able to act quickly to make a few necessary adjustments in the building management’s response.
Observing the drill
Seconds after the smoke detector activates, the building’s security command center operator (CCO) sees the alarm point appear on his computer screen. He glances over to the engineering control operator who shares the room, and they simultaneously dispatch their building staff field responders. The CFD is alerted, and all other radio chatter stops. The CCO monitors the screen for any other cues as to what might be happening on the mock fire floor.
A security supervisor and building engineer make their way to the alarm location. They meet two floors below and walk up the fire stairwell together. Each calls in their movements to their respective operator, and each asks for the status of the alarm. Both have been told that a “flow” — a flow alarm indicating that a sprinkler is flowing water — has activated and that the CFD is en route.
From her training, the security supervisor knows that she is now the acting fire safety director (FSD), a designation given to those in charge of emergency response until the fire department takes over. All Willis Tower supervisors are sent to emergency response training — one day per week for eight weeks, provided by fire department trainers — to earn the FSD designation. Our approach to emergency situations is that the tenant is the first responder, building security is the second responder, and the fire department is third, which is why training for tenants and building staff is so critical to ensure that the proper steps are taken in the first seconds and minutes of an emergency. The security supervisor radios lobby security and tells him to “make sure the books are out” — that critical building information kept at the lobby fire panel is readily available for arriving firefighters. “We also need an engineer at the fire panel, so make sure that happens,” she tells lobby security.
A few minutes later, several CFD trucks arrive in front of the building, lights and sirens going. Tony and I are in the lobby, monitoring the building staff’s response. Tom is up on the fire floor, and Keith is moving throughout the building. Tony watches closely how his crew responds, and we both await the initial crucial point of contact between the actors and the firefighters.
Finally it happens. The initial wave of firefighters appears, geared up and ready to go. The initial fire department incident commander (IC) makes his way to the lobby fire panel where the building’s fire safety director (FSD) and engineer are waiting. Critical information such as floor plans, standpipe locations, elevator runs, and more is laid out and available for review. The IC asks a lot of questions — Has the floor been evacuated? Are there any water flow alarms? Are there any tenants in need of special assistance? — and gets answers from building management.
The IC decides his next move, and for the next 90 minutes the actors and firefighters work to solve various problems, some planned, some spontaneous. Public address announcements are made and building “occupants” are relocated to a lower floor. The actors present the firefighters with an array of problems typical to a large-scale emergency: medical issues including a heart attack, people in need of special assistance, people unsure of the best way to evacuate unsafe areas. Elsewhere, security staff escort firefighters to key elevators and fire pumps. An actor portraying a persistent TV reporter attempts to get information about what’s going on. Other actors posing as concerned spouses and worried citizens place multiple phone calls to the building. Meanwhile, firefighters find the source of the smoke, and the “fire” is put out.
At about 10 a.m., the “fire’s out” signal is given and the drill concludes. All participants — building engineers, security, reception desk personnel, firefighters — gather in one of the building’s restaurants for a thorough debrief over hamburgers and hotdogs. All the information gathered during the exercise is included in the debrief, and building management starts with a rundown of building personnel, clarifying roles and responsibilities. All responders have observers who catalogue their actions during the drill, and this information is included in Tony’s dissection of the CFD response, company by company, challenge by challenge. For an hour, we discuss equipment, procedures, life safety, protocols, and countless other points large and small, from both the building management perspective as well as the fire department side. Each group has takeaways to follow up on.
It’s a lot of work for everybody involved to pull off something of this scale every year, but the experience and knowledge we take from it is irreplaceable. That’s why we’ll continue working with the CFD to develop this relationship — we both understand that people working together can makes a safer building for everyone.
CFD deputy district chief (retired)
Chicago is home to more than 2.5 million people and roughly 1,700 residential and commercial high-rise buildings, many of them — including the Willis Tower, the highest of them all — world famous. Gleaming modern towers stand shoulder to shoulder with century-old “legacy” buildings designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Sullivan, and Dankmar Adler.
Regardless of architectural pedigree, these buildings and their occupants are all the responsibility of the Chicago Fire Department (CFD). More specifically, they were my responsibility. Prior to my recent retirement, I was a CFD deputy district chief for the city’s first district, which covers the hundreds of high-rises in Chicago’s central business district and beyond. It was a responsibility I shared with the men and women of the various bureaus of the fire department, as well as a large behind-the-scenes supporting cast, including the Office of Emergency Management and Communications (OEMC) and the city’s police, building, and legal departments. Just as importantly, I was aided by the owners, managers, and staffs of these high-rise structures, including engineering, security, and management staffers at the Willis Tower. The combination of efforts by these disparate entities is what makes it possible for the fire department to solve the many puzzles that can develop during an emergency situation in these complex buildings.
In my experience, the successful mitigation of emergencies relies at least as much on the information available at the outset of an event as it does on the resources that respond. Information is the key, and the best time to get it is before an incident occurs. Part of our information-gathering process for the Willis Tower was an annual simulated emergency involving fire department personnel and the building’s staff. We wanted to improve CFD interaction with tower staff to make our initial actions as effective as possible, and to fine-tune the initial setup of the fire department’s high-rise response. Well before I participated in the drill with Mike Schroeder and his staff at Willis Tower, they had developed emergency protocols for the building’s management, engineering, and security staffs. They prepared critical data sheets and floor plans as part of an overall emergency plan, and assembled them in a code-compliant, simple-to-navigate book designed for use by emergency responders. As Mike says in his action plan, building security staffers need to “make sure the books are out” in an emergency. And as I always told my company officers and chiefs, “make sure you get those books.” It’s all about information.
Complex building, complex exercise
A recent Willis Tower emergency simulation involved a fire on an upper floor that CFD personnel responded to. About 60 members of the CFD worked with a similar number of Willis Tower engineering and security staff to see how the information flows, and how it could help mitigate our “emergency” in this landmark building. Working with Mike and other Willis Tower staffers, the exercise was an opportunity for me to observe the high-rise incident command protocol as it unfolded, and to focus on how and why company officers and battalion chiefs adapt to obstacles they encounter.
Not every building requires such an in-depth effort, but the complexity of the pre-plan exercise only reflected the complexity of the building itself. The tower includes 110 stories, a variety of commercial occupancies ranging from office space to shops and restaurants, and sophisticated communications systems. The average occupancy is about 12,000; roughly 25,000 people come and go each day. It’s a significant challenge from a fire service perspective, which is why it’s so important that the emergency information resources available match the needs of the building. That goes for any building; the scale may be different, but the principles of pre-planning remain constant. Information has to be on hand prior to an emergency. It has to be in a standard, concise format that can be easily assimilated by first responders, especially during the initial stages of an incident.
The exercise began with an alarm activation on the upper floor. Such an activation in a building without an accompanying phone report is called an “automatic alarm” in CFD terminology, and the response is one engine, one truck, and one battalion chief, for a total of 11 firefighters. Soon there were multiple reports of heavy smoke on an upper floor, and the first-arriving battalion chief upgraded the response to a high-rise still alarm. The chief relayed this information to the OEMC, and the Chicago Fire Department Incident Command protocol is activated, which supplements the original 11-man response with an additional four engines, four trucks, a squad, five battalion chiefs, a deputy district chief, a command van, and EMS personnel.
At the tower, I watched as the first engine and truck companies were briefed by building staff. In conjunction with the arriving battalion chief, they designated the initial attack stairwell prior to proceeding, via an appropriate freight elevator, to a level three floors below the reported incident. Other companies deployed according to incident command procedures. As the third and fourth truck companies arrived, the first battalion chief, who was running the show from the building’s lobby while maintaining communications, directed them to begin their rapid ascent team (RAT) activities to establish control in the designated attack and evacuation stairwells. The third engine company assisted with lobby control as the officer prepared to transmit the incident commander’s relevant directions and information to building occupants via the life safety communication microphone—not just once, but at intervals sufficient to allay the fears of building occupants and to account for changing situations.
The first thing I was looking for were the extremely important interactions between the first-arriving companies and the information that Mike and his staff had waiting for them, including information from the fire alarm panel and floor-plan books. Most importantly, I was assessing the interactions between arriving firefighters and building staffers, including that vital transfer of information from staffers who had already been on the scene for the critical first few minutes before our arrival.
Things were going very well, for the most part. Firefighters made initial contact with staff, gathered the human and written resources that were available, and were given instructions in the use of the building’s life safety communications system. At the same time, though, first responding officers did not request enough information from building staffers on the location of the problem, what the best access was, and what the available communications devices were. The battalion chief was close behind, but those officers still needed to slow down and get that crucial information.
Subsequent arriving battalion chiefs took their places at forward fire command, fire attack, search & rescue, and logistics positions. Typically, the deputy district chief would be the overall incident commander, in charge of imposing order on the inherent chaos of the emergency scene. That day, though, I was strictly an observer, and I happened to overhear the lobby control chief ask the OEMC for a deputy chief from an adjacent district to fill in for my absence. While this is not a written directive in the incident command protocol, it was an example of someone taking the initiative to solve a problem as it arose. Thinking “out of the box” is critical in a situation where everyone is multi-tasking, and reporting changes or deviations from standard procedures is equally important.
As the exercise went on, the attack engine charged the line with compressed air as a way to simulate problems with pinch points in a charged hose line in confined stairways and narrow hallways. The forward fire command chief, who was in charge two floors below the incident, encountered difficulty communicating with the battalion chief in the lobby. One of the RAT teams encountered actors posing as office workers who wanted to leave the building because they were nervous about all the unusual activity going on. It was a perfect example of the maxim that “buildings don’t fail us — people do.” They were minor problems, but they were the kind that can throw a wrench into the most elaborate plans, ultimately putting lives and property at risk. Ninety minutes after it began, the exercise wrapped up.
These and other minor problems were analyzed in the extensive debriefing for all participants. During this critical after-action session, we replayed what we did, company by company and chief by chief, what went right and what didn’t. We were good at identifying the problem in the building and addressing it, but we weren’t as good at using our manpower in the most efficient way possible. Getting people to safety beyond the actual fire was a problem. But we did a great job using the building’s life safety communications system — we were able to supplement our direct communications devices with the building’s handheld radios. The forward fire command chief ended up calling a mobile communications unit, which connected with the battalion chief in the lobby — an example of thinking outside the box to maintain that communication link, because you can’t just give up if the radio doesn’t work. Mike and the engineering and security staff did the same kind of debriefing. This is how we all learn and improve, and it’s an important part of fulfilling our responsibilities to protect building occupants.
This kind of fine-tuning is one of the final steps of a process that begins with the development of fire and life safety codes by organizations like NFPA, and with the application of those codes to documents like Chicago’s building codes and its High-Rise Emergency Procedures code. Detailed pre-planning is one way we can make this process go even deeper to help ensure the safety of firefighters as they crawl down darkened hallways toward unknown peril, and of building occupants as they make decisions about what to do in an emergency. The essential fire service catch phrase applies to every stakeholder: everyone goes home.