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Mid-rise and low-rise buildings: An operational nightmare for fire crews

Part 2: A detailed look at standpipe and attack options, building systems, and fireground communications

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In most mid-rise buildings, you will not have building personnel to call, nor will you have an FCC (Fire Control Center) where you can retrieve building keys and other vital information.

Photo/Chris DelBello

Mid-rise and low-rise structures can be an operational nightmare for crews. First-arriving units could face a host of unique challenges: access issues, multiple levels, huge void spaces, useless lobby entrances, multiple points of entry that rarely take you where you need to go, maze-like hallways, not to mention the sometimes-huge footprint spanning multiple city blocks.

It’s critical that fire departments preplan these structures and then focus training on operational issues, fire attack options and anything that will make the response more efficient.

Part 1 covered the basics – how to define mid- and low-rise buildings, plus detailed looks at building construction appearances and types, and construction features and materials. Here we’ll cover take a deeper dive into operations.

Standpipes and attack options

Recently, there has been some debate and conversation regarding the use of a building’s standpipes in mid-rise and low-rise buildings. Much of the debate is focused on the reliability of the system, with members telling anyone who will listen that the “flying standpipe” (or stretching a handline directly off the pump panel and then climbing a ground ladder to the fire floor) is the best option. I believe this is coming mostly from folks with little real-world experience with standpipe systems. Yes, standpipe systems can have problems; however, our pumps and hoses can also fail. A brand-new system can fail, but so can a brand-new $750,000 engine.

While it is not realistic for an individual fire company to test every system, it is pretty simple to determine the reliability of the system if you have a concern: Check it out for yourself before you need it. We all make EMS runs and automatic alarms to these buildings. Make it a learning experience. Most managers of these buildings are open to allowing firefighters to test our theories when given enough time and some planning.

Regardless of how you want to make your stretch and attack, we all need a Plan A, right? Yes. And our Plan A should be part of our guidelines. Check. Further, we should not only be very familiar with our guidelines pertaining to these buildings, we should have a working understanding of the physical effort it takes to operate our handlines from a standpipe inside the stairwells, how to use a “flying standpipe” or stretch directly from the pump panel up a ground ladder to the second or third floor.


The safest, fastest and most suitable attack location is from the protection of the Type l stairwell equipped with a standpipe system. This will allow you to set up your attack package and lay it out in a controlled environment, and it gives you a place to retreat and restart if conditions overwhelm the attack team.

Photo/Chris DelBello

I would like to add, however, regarding the use of the flying standpipe or a direct stretch from the pump panel up a ground ladder,” that it is an entirely situational option and should not be Plan A in one’s guidelines for every building in your district unless of course you only have one building in your response area and your organization has determined that the flying standpipe will fit all situations regarding that single structure.

My point is, in many fires at newer mid-rises and low-rises, there are simply too many variables involved and the use of the flying standpipe will often be limited by the building’s construction type, the size of the building’s footprint, the fire floor layout, and the fire’s location on that fire floor.

The safest, fastest and most suitable attack location is from the protection of the Type l stairwell equipped with a standpipe system. This will allow you to set up your attack package and lay it out in a controlled environment, and it gives you a place to retreat and restart if conditions overwhelm the attack team. When a company is being overwhelmed by fire conditions on the fifth floor of a Type IV building, the adjoining room or a room across the hallway from the fire room is not a place of refuge; it is literally an exposure. Planning for a bailout situation of an entire attack team into your guidelines sounds like a bad Plan A to me. The stairwell attack option simply requires returning to the stairwell and shutting the door.

Attack packages

Regarding mid-rise and low-rise buildings equipped with standpipes, consider using a 2½-inch hose and smoothbore nozzles. Why? For exactly the same reason we should use them in a high-rise setting – low-pressure requirements and the ability to pass debris and materials through our nozzles that may have either been placed in the standpipe system maliciously or debris that has built up over time. If you have not had much experience with a standpipe system, you will be surprised at the amount of debris that can build up in a five-story parking garage standpipe system, even in what appears to be a relatively new-looking building. While 2½-inch hose is obviously much heavier and cumbersome than 1¾-inch hose, the assurances, benefits and additional gpms will pay off once the nozzle is opened and water is flowing.


Stairwell packages and deployments are comparable to high-rise buildings.

Photo/Chris DelBello

The benefits of the 2½-inch attack line is another compelling reason to utilize the stairwell as your primary attack position, especially if you’re in a short-staffed situation with second-due companies several minutes away. Using the stairwell allows the initial-arriving company to properly lay out the initial attack line in the stairwell or the floor below, and when the second-due company arrives, they can be assigned to assist in the push.

Building systems

In mid-rise and low-rise buildings, the building systems will be limited in comparison to a high-rise building. Some buildings will have full-on fire pump rooms and others will only have a jockey pump to maintain system pressure for the sprinklers, requiring the department to utilize the FDC to supply or supplement the standpipes.

Some buildings will have a formal FCC (Fire Control Center), and others will only have a small alarm panel mounted on a wall near the entrance of the building, much like a residential system.

Security is a real concern in most of the newer buildings. Access issues vary significantly for every building. Many are set up to provide security to just about every part of the building, including the front lobby door, elevators, access from stairwells to the actual floor, requiring occupants to carry key-fobs to access every part of the building. This is a real issue in my area, as building management only places one key-fob in the “911 box” for our use.

The fix to this problem is simple, however: Require the building management to provide a bigger box with more keys and key-fobs, much like what we would expect to find in a high-rise FCC.


Often, the elevator will automatically recall if the alarm is activated, but without keys, the elevator cannot be placed in fire service mode. The easy fix for this, and it is relatively cheap, is to get with city planners and express your desire to, at a minimum, require an FCC with multiple sets of building keys, addressable alarm system and preplan books. Get with them before the building plans are finalized.

Photo/Chris DelBello

Communication and cooperation

If these buildings start popping up in your area, take a proactive step and try to get involved in the aspects of the construction that are going to make your job easier.

  • Get with the department that approves the building plans and ask them to require a formal FCC in every low-rise and mid-rise. This simple request will save time and frustration during any event.
  • Ask them to require an addressable alarm system so that you can review the history of the alarms and the specific locations of the alarms. This too will save time during automatic alarm investigations.
  • Request that they provide several sets of building keys as well. One set is not enough when you have multiple companies responding with different arrival times.

These are relatively cheap requests that could save building owners a lot of money in the event of a small kitchen fire or burst sprinkler pipe. This would keep us from forcing the lobby doors and potentially many other doors encountered on the way to the unit, and could direct us straight to the correct apartment, saving time and limiting the amount of water damage from a broken sprinkler head

It’s time to get serious

Next time you drive by one of these buildings, STOP. Get out of your apparatus and go take a look at what’s going on. Visiting early in the construction phase will provide you with the most amount of information. But even late into the construction, you will learn things about your newest challenge.

If you don’t think these buildings can be challenging, think again. Google “Houston Texas Firefighter Mayday.” It’s the best example of why you need to be watching, entering and training for these buildings.

Training and knowledge will keep you safer than any guideline ever will.

Stay safe! Get out and train!

Chris DelBello is a 31-year veteran of the fire service. He currently holds the rank of senior captain with the Houston Fire Department, working in the Midtown District. He is also the district training officer, which encompasses all the stations in downtown and midtown, and holds a Training Officer II certification. DelBello also serves as a captain with the Fort Bend County (Texas) Emergency Service District. Connect with DelBello via email.