High-rise and mid-rise firefighting: Fire attack and stairwell operations

Part 2 – It’s critical to train in actual stairwells to understand the mental and physical requirements of these operations


Fighting fire in high-rises is more than simply hooking up to a standpipe. A well-rehearsed plan is required.

Most officers and companies talk their plan to death at the kitchen table and call it training. But if this is the extent of your preparedness, you are setting up yourself, your crew and any occupants relying on you for failure.

Training in actual stairwells is required for an officer and company to have a complete understanding of the mental and physical requirements for such operations.

Hose packs should be designed should they are easy to carry and easy to deploy. (Photos/Chris DelBello)
Hose packs should be designed should they are easy to carry and easy to deploy. (Photos/Chris DelBello)

Critical stairwell

The stairwell is many things to firefighters. It’s how we get to the fire floor. It is, many times, where the water source is located and where the fire attack will be initiated. It can be a staging area for the backup crew or second line. It is also a place of refuge when things go bad. Simply retreating and closing the door can provide the protection a crew needs to escape a bad situation or restart the attack after being overtaken by rapidly changing fire conditions. The stairwell is a remote command post for the division officer or attack team lead officer. It is where we set our discharge pressure prior to entering a hostile environment.

During high-rise and mid-rise fire operations, the success of operations hinges on the stairwell.

If the attack team botches this operation by not having a practiced plan, crowding the stairwell, abandoning equipment, poorly flaking out the hoseline, propping open doors or simply failing to make it to the preferred standpipe, the likelihood of success will be marginal at best. It’s not as simple as connecting to the standpipe and opening a valve. Success will be determined by your understanding of your department’s guidelines, your company-level training and your ability to maintain the discipline of several companies under hostile conditions.

Forming the attack team

The initial attack team should be composed of six to nine members. The attack team is made up of two to three separate companies that initially travel and function as one. Two to three companies are necessary for transporting and advancing the 2½-inch hoseline that is required for most standpipe operations.

While there may be several officers among the group, only one can be the lead officer; the other officers need to understand and respect this fact and the decisions made thereafter. All communication about the attack team will also flow through or from this officer as well.

The attack team will initially assemble in the lobby. Lobby Control will provide the attack team leader with alarm panel information, building information, the recommended stairwell for attack, building keys, phones, and directions to the elevators if not within view of the Fire Command Center (FCC). The lead company officer should also inquire about the use and ability to pressurize the attack stairwell at this time.

When and how to use elevators

In high-rise buildings, elevators are an essential component of moving firefighters and equipment to upper floors.

In mid-rise buildings, I do not recommend using the elevator for the attack team, as you are only going four to five stories at the most, and the elevator can become affected by fire products much sooner. In mid-rise buildings, it’s best to use the elevators only for moving equipment later in the operation.

The attack team leader should proceed to the elevators, ensure the elevator operator is comfortable in the operations of the elevator, check the elevator shaft for signs of smoke, fire or water, and then proceed to two floors below the reported fire floor. It is also a good practice to stop five floors below the reported fire floor to check elevator operations, then proceed to two floors below the fire floor.

If elevators are being utilized to transport a roof team or Rapid Ascent Team (RAT), locate an elevator that does not serve the fire floor. A blind shaft elevator that only serves the floors above the fire floor is the preferred choice.

Resource floor

Arriving two floors below the reported fire floor, the attack team leader will quickly scout the floor for two purposes:

  1. To determine if it is suitable for a resource floor where additional crews and equipment can be staged
  2. To determine the potential floor layout of the fire floor in residential high rises

The officer needs to determine if floor conditions are good enough for crews to be staged without being exposed to the products of combustion for extended periods of time. Space also needs to be taken into consideration. Space will be needed for all the additional equipment being brought up as well as the crews that will be assigned to the Resource Division. This same floor may also serve as a Rehab Division.

If it is determined that conditions are poor on that floor, the attack team leader should simply report this to Lobby Control and proceed to the floor above for fire attack operations.

The officer also needs to determine the possible layout of the fire floor and confirm the proper attack stairwell. In residential high-rises, the individual units are essentially stacked one on top of the other so reviewing one should be enough to know the layout of others directly above and below. For example, unit 509 will be the same distance from the attack stairwell as units 409 and 309. Note: This is not the case with mechanical and storage floors in office buildings, as individual floor plans can differ.

Once these two factors are determined, the attack team leader will then proceed to the attack stairwell and prepare for stairwell operations.

Stairwell fire attack

Once in the stairwell, the lead officer needs to maintain a strong command presence. Everyone should understand that nothing happens until they say it happens. Having everyone understand this can prevent a lot of confusion, wasted physical effort, tangled hoses and excess equipment getting in the way of operations.

Before the hose is connected to the standpipe, the lead officer and their crew needs to locate the fire. This may be as simple as peeking outside the stairwell door onto the fire floor with a thermal-imaging camera (TIC) or may require a full-on search for the fire. As such, to hook up and charge the line before knowing exactly where the fire is could lead to a complete failure of the operation.

Before any hoseline is dropped or committed, you must locate the fire. You want to locate the fire first to eliminate any unnecessary actions that could be detrimental to successful operations, such as hooking into the wrong standpipe. The search for the fire location can be as simple as taking a look onto the fire floor with a TIC or may require a full search operation.
Before any hoseline is dropped or committed, you must locate the fire. You want to locate the fire first to eliminate any unnecessary actions that could be detrimental to successful operations, such as hooking into the wrong standpipe. The search for the fire location can be as simple as taking a look onto the fire floor with a TIC or may require a full search operation.

While you may have selected the closest stairwell based on the best information from the Lobby Division, it may not give you direct access to the fire’s location. Depending on the floor layout, you may be forced to search for the fire from an alternative stairwell. This would also require possibly connecting into standpipe from the alternative stairwell. The attack team should not commit to flaking out the hose or connecting to a standpipe until ordered to do so by the fire attack team lead officer.

Once the decision is made to connect to the standpipe and start flaking hose, the attack team lead officer will need to confirm that the team is ready, hose is flaked and kinks are minimized, and the hose is charged and flowed until air is removed from the hoseline. The amount of air that must be bled from the standpipe and hoseline will surprise you, and this should be accomplished before committing the attack team to the fire floor.

While still in the stairwell and once water is flowing from the nozzle, the nozzle team officer should confirm that the proper pressure is set on the standpipe using a gate valve and pressure gauge. This step is essential to set a safe operating pressure allowing the nozzle team to focus on fire attack and not the high pressures that could potentially be working against their efforts. Note: Water in the stairwell is acceptable considering there is fire behind the door.

At this point, the lead officer and their original crew should lead the attack team to the exact location of the fire. Again, this could be as easy as peeking onto the fire floor with a TIC or it could require a search. Once the nozzle team has initiated the fire attack, the lead officer and their crew will initiate the primary search.

The third company of the attack team will remain with the nozzle team and assist with efforts to advance the 2½-inch attack line as necessary.

Hose packs should be designed should they are easy to carry and easy to deploy. A hands-free hose pack is preferred, as it allows you to carry any hand tools that you will need. The load pictured is allowed to flake off the shoulder as the firefighter ascends.
Hose packs should be designed should they are easy to carry and easy to deploy. A hands-free hose pack is preferred, as it allows you to carry any hand tools that you will need. The load pictured is allowed to flake off the shoulder as the firefighter ascends.

Standpipe considerations

In many of the periodicals, manuals and even the guidelines for my own department, it is suggested to connect into the standpipe on the floor below the fire floor. For access reasons alone, this makes sense. This keeps everything out of the way for a quick entrance onto the fire floor. The member assigned to operate the standpipe will be out of the way, the door to the fire floor will be unimpeded by the extra hose laying at the door, and the crews won’t have to work around that same hose and firefighter. It is also a safety factor in the event your hose stream is ineffective against extreme fire conditions. This is also a no-brainer for connections that are in hose cabinets outside the stairwell on the individual floors.

After the officer assigned to the nozzle team ensures that all connections are made, the hoseline is bled of air and firefighters are assigned to stairwell landings to avoid pinch points and make moving the hoseline onto the fire floor easier.​​​​​
After the officer assigned to the nozzle team ensures that all connections are made, the hoseline is bled of air and firefighters are assigned to stairwell landings to avoid pinch points and make moving the hoseline onto the fire floor easier.​​​​​

Another recommendation I often see is to stretch the entire length of the hose down below the fire floor. This method requires a lot of energy and coordination on the part of the crew to advance the entire hose in an upward direction. They say this is a safety factor. I believe it is the outcome of a lack of training and overthinking the objective.

I recommend connecting the dry line to the standpipe of the floor below the fire floor and then, while staging the nozzle at the door, stretching the remainder of the hoseline above the fire floor. This method requires less physical exertion on the crews to advance the charged line onto the fire floor – essentially using gravity to their advantage – and it is a much smoother and faster method.

A smoothbore nozzle with stacked tips attached to four sections of 2½-inch hose is recommended for standpipe operations. A high-rise kit is an essential bag with whatever your department feels is necessary minimal equipment and accessories. Standpipe operations are simplified and safer with a gate valve and in-line gauge. This allows the fire attack team to set a safe working pressure and not have to rely on a cheap handwheel provided with many standpipe systems.
A smoothbore nozzle with stacked tips attached to four sections of 2½-inch hose is recommended for standpipe operations. A high-rise kit is an essential bag with whatever your department feels is necessary minimal equipment and accessories. Standpipe operations are simplified and safer with a gate valve and in-line gauge. This allows the fire attack team to set a safe working pressure and not have to rely on a cheap handwheel provided with many standpipe systems.

If conditions are severe when you open the door to the fire floor, then that’s simply where you start the attack. We are firefighters and we have protective gear that allows us to do this. If the conditions are so bad that fire is overpowering the attack line, we will shut the door for our safety and protection. If these extreme conditions exist, we will likely have to consider an attack from another stairwell, essentially abandoning that initial attack line for the moment.

There has been some discussion about the use of a backup line or a second attack line. The discussion I have seen focused on where to connect the second line. Well, we are pretty limited with this option. We can hook into the standpipe one floor below the initial attack line in the same stairwell or we can find an alternative stairwell and connect into a standpipe one floor below the fire floor there. Either option will require more hose. Using an alternative stairwell will also require additional communication and coordination between the two hose teams. As long as you have communications and coordination, either method is acceptable, and neither is better than the other. There are trade-offs to both options.

Attack team division officer

Having a division officer on the fire floor is a huge benefit to the initial attack team, especially the lead officer of the attack team. It moves all the accountability and communications to the division officer and allows the other officers to focus on their tasks on the fire floor.

However, this point cannot be stressed enough: The initial attack team’s lead officer is also the initial division officer. The initial attack team’s lead officer is responsible for everything until a formal division officer arrives on the fire floor, including:

  • Route and mode of travel
  • Initial equipment needs
  • Resource floor and fire attack stairwell
  • Clearing the stairwell
  • Ensuring the crew is ready
  • Location of the fire
  • Hose is properly charged
  • Nozzle team reaches the fire
  • Search is initiated
  • Crew integrity and situational awareness are always maintained.

As you can see, once the division officer arrives on the fire floor, a lot of stress will be lifted from the attack team lead officer.

Rapid Ascent Team (RAT) duties

The RAT is essentially a search team. Their responsibilities include clearing the attack stairwell, preferably prior to the initial attack team launching an attack. The RAT should coordinate with the attack team and begin the stairwell search prior to opening the door to the fire floor.

The initial RAT should start from the floor above the fire and begin working their way up the stairs. When the RAT has searched at least six floors above the fire floor, the RAT can advise the attack team that they are good to initiate the attack.

The second RAT should take a blind shaft elevator from the lobby, if possible, to the top floor. Once on the top floor, they check to see if the roof access door is locked, force it if necessary, close it to control flow and then proceed to clear the stairwell while heading down. This prevents any occupants from being exposed to or being overcome by the products of combustion while trying to escape using the attack stairwell.

In conjunction with the RAT, the Lobby Division should utilize the PA to advise occupants which stairwell to avoid and to shelter in place if not affected. However, it is still our responsibility to make sure the stairwell is clear and any occupants in danger are removed or redirected to the appropriate stairwell.

Once the stairwell is cleared and with communications to the division officer or command, the RAT then can proceed to complete a floor by floor search. Of course, additional crews will be needed to perform such a huge assignment. This, however, is typically the next step for a crew assigned RAT.

RAT is often dismissed by command and crews alike, but usually for much different reasons. Command usually does not have enough crews initially available to assign a RAT or has prioritized RAT too far down the list. However, it should be the next assignment made after the initial attack team.

Most crews do not care for this assignment because there’s typically not going to be much action, but it does require a lot of physical exertion. Regardless of one’s thoughts on this assignment, this function must be accomplished as soon as possible. It must be taken seriously and with the appreciation of its importance. There have been many occupants killed in high-rise buildings trying to escape to the roof and often very remote from the fire. They were killed by the toxic levels of carbon monoxide and found \ later in the operation. Regarding those cases, this was a hard-learned lesson for command. Yet even today with these lessons learned, this function is often overlooked.

Reverse stack effect

Why train in zero visibility for stairwell operations? Imagine a fire on the top floor of a five-story mid-rise building. Also imagine making your way up those same five stories with zero visibility. Now imagine the fire is on the fifth floor and you must make the fourth floor to connect to the standpipe in those zero-visibility conditions before ever charging a line or flowing one drop of water. Are you and your crew ready?

The climate inside and outside the building will determine how the smoke will spread in high-rise and mid-rise buildings. If it is hot and humid outside but cool inside due to conditioned air, smoke will initially flow up, but then start migrating downward, creating poor working conditions for the attack crew well before they reach the standpipe. This is especially true concerning atrium-type buildings and buildings where the stairwells are not pressurized. You may even experience moderate smoke conditions in the lobby that worsen during your climb to the fire floor. This phenomenon is known as reverse stack effect.

If outside conditions are cold and inside temperatures are warm, the smoke will migrate to upper floors remote from the fire floor. This is known as stack effect. Also, with stack effect, the smoke can migrate to many floors above the fire floor and then begin to bank down without ever reaching the top floors, in a sense plateauing then banking down to floors below. This will affect any occupants on upper floors trying to escape using the stairwell on the clear floors then running into heavy smoke conditions as they descend, making a RAT group necessary and creating difficulty in their operations.

Training, experience and understanding stack effect will be one of the biggest keys to any successful operations in high-rise and mid-rise buildings. If the company officer has trained for and prepared the company for such operations, the expectations and likelihood of success will increase exponentially.

Training for poor conditions is imperative. It teaches your crew, as best as possible, what to expect under extreme conditions.
Training for poor conditions is imperative. It teaches your crew, as best as possible, what to expect under extreme conditions.

Training and experience for high-rise and mid-rise firefighting

Command typically cannot select the exact members of their attack team. However, in mid-rise and high-rise firefighting, history has proven over and over that just any crew will not suffice. The crew that is assigned to fire attack from the stairwells must be the firefighters that command knows will get the assignment completed. Command’s choice should be based on the knowledge of individual company’s training, experience, motivation, physical fitness abilities and as a well-respected district chief would say “intestinal fortitude.”

Command should also understand and accept the possibility that there could be a point during suppression efforts where fragmented crews are brought together to form an attack team that ultimately extinguishes the fire. This is, of course, communicated to the division officer and command. This attack team is made up of the survivors – the members who mentally survived the idea that they are up on the 43rd floor about to enter a hostile environment, the members who survived the idea that they are about to fight their once-in-a-career fire.

As an officer assigned to any district with high-rise and mid-rise buildings, you should commit to memory your guidelines on high-rise and mid-rise incidents, and provide the opportunity for hands-on training and working in the stairwells of such buildings – stretching hoselines, becoming familiar with the different standpipe valves and their operational capabilities and options. You should not only train in the stairwells, you should train in blackout conditions. Having your crews connect to the standpipe in zero visibility and lay out the attack line will go a long way in preparing them for an actual event.

Editor’s Note: Do you have a high-rise incident story to share or a tip for fellow firefighters? Share in the comments below or with the editor at editor@firerescue1.com.

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