High-rise and mid-rise firefighting: Lobby control basics
What firefighters need to know about the features of the FCC and how to properly train on lobby control
On the back cover of a book written by Houston Fire Department District Chief (ret.) Matt Stuckey titled “Firefighters and Highrises,” you will find a simple quote that should strike a chord in the minds of every company officer: “Many fire departments are profoundly unprepared for high-rise fires.”
There is no truer statement related to high-rise firefighting. And those same words can be used for mid-rise firefighting.
Beyond department guidelines: Hands-on training
In the two departments that I work for, we respond to high-rise and mid-rise buildings on a regular basis. In both departments, most members feel they are ready for anything. But just having an understanding of your department’s guidelines is not exactly a comprehensive state of readiness. Guidelines alone in no way prepare a firefighter for the mental and physical aspects of high-rise and mid-rise firefighting. The only thing that can prepare firefighters for such an event is hands-on training.
As a result of many high-rise fires that had gone poorly before and throughout my career, I took a vested interest in ensuring that my district was ready for such an event. This not only required reviewing the departments guidelines, but also several multi-company drills that put individual companies through the paces.
This was a true eye-opener for every company, specifically the company officers who had been in the district for 5 years. It highlighted the importance of some assignments that were once considered trivial by initial-arriving companies. The biggest discovery was that guidelines give us absolutely no indication of what it takes to hook up to the standpipe and move the 2½-inch charged hoseline up a flight of stairs, making a 180-degree turn and down a hallway or onto the fire floor, all in zero visibility.
Training pays off
After doing these company drills for four duty shifts in a row, on the fifth duty shift, we had an actual working high-rise fire involving approximately 20% of the fire floor. The fire went extremely smooth, so much so that it seemed anti-climactic. We literally removed all excitement and surprise from this event.
Some said we got lucky in picking the right stairwell. We got lucky our Lobby Division directed us to the stairwell. We were lucky the fire was right there when we forced the stairwell door. Luck had absolutely nothing to do with the successful outcome of that fire. It was training. We trained until every member in the district had a complete understanding of what, when, how and why we do things. Luck is for people without a plan. We had a plan, a well-practiced plan.
To help your department develop your training plan, this high-rise series is geared for the company officers who could be assigned to specific divisions. We’ll start with lobby control, as this is where we set the tone of the incident and from where we start our base of operations.
Lobby control responsibilities
Lobby control – not to be confused with a command post or command center – is a division. It is, or should be, the first division designated, either per guideline or by command. This division, along with a strong command presence, will set the stage for a much smoother overall operation.
Lobby control is assigned to, or assumed by, the initial-arriving engine company. It should later be assumed by a chief officer, allowing the company officer to monitor the alarm panel or other systems inside the Fire Command Center (FCC) and provide ongoing information to the Lobby Division, which would relay to command.
The responsibilities of lobby control are many, and all are critical to the expedient and coordinated success of the initial attack team:
- Accessing and interpreting the alarm panel;
- Accessing the depository box inside the FCC;
- Retrieving and providing information to the initial attack team and command;
- Reviewing and providing a copy of the preplans to the initial attack team;
- Providing building keys to the initial attack team;
- Directing the initial attack team to the appropriate stairwell or elevators or elevator bank; and
- Maintain accountability of and control the flow of companies in and out of the building.
Even in an “investigative mode,” lobby control is critical and should be initiated. Void spaces in mid-rise and high-rise buildings can be large enough to park small cars inside, and an investigative incident could easily turn into a working incident. It is better to have everything in place instead of trying to catch up.
Initiating lobby control during investigative high-rise incidents sets the stage, but it also allows for training moments. As the incident is officially downgraded, officers can talk to their crew about how it went, make corrections as needed, and take time for members to participate in hands-on use of the alarm panel and elevator operations.
Knowing the Fire Command Center (FCC)
The Lobby Division should initially locate or report to the FCC. The FCC is the is the command post for the Lobby Division and the following features can be located here.
Alarm panel: The alarm panel is a vital piece of equipment in an actual event, as it can show the progression of the fire in real-time, typically before an investigative or attack team can get in place. The Lobby Control Division can review and determine a timeline of events going on in the building.
Depository box: This stores the preplans, building keys and fire phones that the initial attack teams will need.
- Preplans: This box stores the preplans for the building, including floor plans, stairwells, elevators, standpipe system pressures, ventilation system information, elevator recall procedures and emergency numbers.
- Building keys: The depository box should contain at least three sets of keys. These keys should be on a type of split ring. On one part of the split ring will be multiple building keys, and on the other ring will be the elevator keys. All these keys should be clearly marked, with one set made available to each attack team, Division Chief and Rapid Ascent Team (RAT).
- Fire phones: Fire phones for the elevators and elevator lobbies on each floor are also stored in the depository box and should be issued to the initial attack team. The use of these phones, and a member stationed inside the FCC, can reduce the amount of radio traffic or be an additional communication device if radio communications fail.
Elevator recall panel: From this panel, elevators can be recalled and any stalled elevators can be identified. Crews will have to be sent to the floor the elevator is stalled on to ensure it is cleared of any occupants.
Note: Elevator operations is a function of lobby control. Lobby control should initially assign one member to control the elevator that will deliver the attack team to two floors below the reported fire floor or two floors below the floor in question. This function can be backed up by additional firefighters as more crews arrive or a chief officer assumes lobby control.
The reason for assigning a firefighter to elevator operations is to ensure the safe and rapid transport of the attack team, but also to ensure its return to the lobby to transport additional attack teams and resources to upper floors.
Elevators should not be used if signs of water, smoke or fire are observed in the elevator shaft. This can be determined by looking up through the space between the elevator and the walls of the elevator shaft when the car doors are opens. The initial attack team will get off the elevator two floors below the fire floor.
Public announcement system: The PAS should be used to provide information to any occupants in the building, such as which stairwell to use for evacuation or to shelter in place. Early use of the PA system will alleviate a lot of confusion, reduce the number of occupants inside the attack stairwell, and create less panic from those not in immediate danger.
Closed-circuit TVs: Monitors can be found in many FCCs. Some FCCs are staffed with security personnel that can provide valuable information on the origin and extent of the fire and occupants in need of help.
HVAC systems: Some FCCs also provide for remote control of the HVAC system for ventilation purposes. If you are not intimately familiar with such systems, it is highly recommended that you discuss the use of the system with the onsite building engineer prior to attempting to ventilate a fire floor and avoid making conditions worse on other floors.
Crew and resource staging
The Lobby Division could serve as the initial staging area for fire crews and equipment. The lobby control officer will be responsible for the accountability of these crews until a formal Staging or Resource Division can be assigned or assumed. These members and equipment need to remain out of the way but within sight and ready for assignment. They must also maintain strict discipline and not begin wondering around the lobby.
Once a formal Resource or Staging Division is assumed two floors below the fire floor, these resources can be relocated there. However, if you consider reflex time into your operations, you will likely have crew staging in both divisions.
Mid-rise vs. high-rise fire operations
The greatest similarity one cannot see but must understand when comparing a mid-rise to a high-rise building is the logistics involved in reaching the fire floor. It takes the same planning and effort to get the firefighters and needed equipment moved to the fire floor regardless if it’s on the 5th floor or the 65th floor.
Most mid-rise buildings do not have an FCC. This does not mean we should forego some form of lobby control. It should absolutely be initiated. We still must consider any information that can be obtained from the alarm panel, maintain accountability and locate the appropriate stairwell for attack.
I recommend pushing your department’s building inspectors or fire marshal to require an FCC or at minimum a depository box inside the lobby of all the mid-rise buildings in your jurisdiction. This would allow you access to the preplans and keys to all the buildings’ interior rooms after hours. This is a simple fix to a potentially large problem.
In most mid-rise buildings, the use of elevators in the initial stages of an event should be limited to the movement of equipment only. During a mid-rise fire, any smoke, fire or water from sprinklers will affect elevator operations earlier in the incident simply due to the lower height of the elevator shaft.
Another, and more significant, difference between mid-rise and high-rise buildings is building personnel. High-rise buildings typically have building personnel – and possibly even building engineers – on site 24 hours a day, available to assist and answer questions or contact those with the answers. You will find that with mid-rise buildings, the only staff available will be a leasing office manager, and no personnel will be available after hours.
Training for high-rise and mid-rise lobby control
Multi-company drills should be conducted for high-rise and mid-rise fires on a regular basis. Training for lobby control should include contacting the building management of any high-rise or midrise in your area. Firefighters should be touching and operating everything. Firefighters putting hands on everything can be a scary thing, but it is an absolute necessity. Theory without manipulation is just that, theory.
Firefighters should be taught how to read and review the most recent history of the alarm panels – something as simple as operating the scroll button. Firefighters need to walk through step-by-step procedures for making access to and obtaining as much information as possible from the FCC, depository box and preplans. Finally, firefighters should be taught not only to recall the elevators, but how to place them into and operate them in fire service mode, as many elevators operate differently from one to the next.
When an organization or company officer fails to train the firefighters for complete understanding of what, why and how we do things at these high-risk/low-frequency events, high-rise and mid-rise building become the ultimate high-risk operation, often ending in failure, injuries, maydays and even line-of-duty deaths.
Own the assignment
When a company assumes the Lobby Division during a high-rise event and retrieves the necessary information, preplans, keys and phones, and then provides that information and directs the attack team to the appropriate elevator or stairwell, it helps streamline the entire operation. A strong Lobby Division presence eliminates the chaos created by having multiple crews walking around searching for the FCC, a stairwell or the elevators while burdened with hose bundles and the assortment of tools required by the attack team. Lobby control also maintains accountability of all incoming crews and sets a strong tone that operations will be coordinated and flow through the proper divisions assigned by command.
Your training and comfort level will be revealed to everyone on scene when you are assigned to the Lobby Division. Train for it, prepare your crew for it and own it when you do get that assignment.
In preparing for a high-rise or mid-rise building fire – potentially a once-in-a-career type of event – the training should be 90% hands-on and 10% guideline review. This is not to discredit the need to know your guidelines but rather to highlight the fact that most companies are not physically and mentally prepared for the challenges that they will face in the stairwells and on the fire floor of such buildings.
Firefighting is a dangerous profession. Our tactics are not dangerous. Firefighters who do not train for complete understanding of this profession, the timing and the manner in which we deploy our tactics make our tactics appear dangerous. The way we make our job safer is through training.
Editor’s Note: What tips do you have for lobby control at mid- and high-rise incidents? Share in the comments below.