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High Rise Fires: Tips for the First Due Engine


Its visibly clear that high rise fires offer a special set of circumstances and challenges that we will have to overcome and be prepared for. Just look up; elevation alone adds to the complexity. Now pile on building systems, multiple stairwells, complex stretches and floor layouts that will easily drain your resources. All these things are going to have to be controlled throughout the incident and as the saying goes, so goes the actions of the first engine, goes the fire. So that where I wan to focus for the next few minutes of your time. Let’s discuss some of the basic steps that the first due engine must be thinking about. These are certainly not all inclusive and may vary based off your buildings and SOP’s. My goal is to capture some general information that will apply to most departments that run high rise incidents.


Size-up/Reflex Time

As the first arriving engine you will have the responsibility to paint a picture for the incoming units. Often you may not have anything visible when you arrive to a high-rise fire. Give a simple size-up. Occupancy type such as commercial or residential, number of floors (if known), and what you see. If you are unsure of the height of the building, you may say something as simple as “Engine 1 is on scene of a multi-story residential high rise with smoke showing from an upper floor.” The specific floor can be verified once you make your way into the building and confirm with both occupants as well as the fire alarm control panel. As the first arriving engine you will likely assume command and begin making assignments. In my agency we also announce, “all companies implement high-rise procedures.” That automatically puts companies into motion as far as what they are supposed to do. Unless otherwise directed, they will assume a specific function upon arrival. It eliminates the need for a lot of radio chatter and companies go right to work. As you walk into the building continue your size-up. Look for things such as FDC location, wind condition, and begin to consider the need for additional alarms or resources as you take in all the information you have gathered in your size-up. Consider you reflex time. The long reflex time involved in these incidents requires that you gather as much information as possible and quickly ascend to the fire floor. Follow on units must manipulate the building services to assist the fire attack. It should be emphasized that these important building services may become unreliable and often unavailable after water starts to flow.



Determine fire location/Designation of Stairwells

After making entry into the building you may start to be fed more information about the fire’s location. This could come from an occupant or even a security guard at the front desk. Bounce this information off the fire alarm panel. This is where you can tack some information onto your size-up. For example, “Engine 1 to all units, fire alarm indicates fire and smoke on floor 10.” Be sure to scroll a couple alarms back into the panel history. You will likely only be getting the most recent alarm and depending on the panel type it may only show one activation. As you scroll through you may see other activations on floors below. This could be a good indication that though the fire is indicating floor 10 as the most recent, both 8 and 9 had the same alarm just moments before. Next will come designation of stairwells. As early as you can you need to identify and communicate which stairwell you will be using for fire attack and evacuation. In high rise residentials our job is made a touch easier, especially in older occupancies. If you are responding to a fire in room 901, you would want to take a look at room 201, or 301. If those room are located let’s say, 3 doors down from stairwell 1, well that is likely going to be your fire attack stairwell. In commercial buildings you will have a wide variety of floor plans and this is not always going to be a useful option. Utilize the building engineers, security, and pre-fire plans if available to assist in your selection. As soon as you are certain you have the stairwell picked communicate it. “Engine 1 to all units, stairwell 1 will be our fire attack stairwell.” Notice I left the first floor out of the recon. Likely the first floor and even sometimes the second floor will not be laid out like the rest of the floors. You will have lobby’s, closets, storage rooms, lounges, etc. Early identification of stairwells is critical. It will provide the incoming IC with your exact location and where fire attack will begin and where to deploy resources to help with fire attack and search. Additionally, it will let incoming ladder companies know where to place PPV fans in the event the building does not have automatic pressurization.


Deployment of hoselines

Now the fun stuff, getting the line in service. I am not going to go into which pack/load to use or even hoseline size. I know department s are using 1.75”, 2” and 2.5” all over the place out there. What I will say is ensure you are using the right size line based off your infrastructure and the types of buildings and resources you have. The deployment of the first line is absolutely critical. I would encourage all of you to build policies that ensure early staffing of the first line, especially in the use of a 2.5” line. The two main takeaways I would offer to you is

  1. Don’t get in such a rush that you make mistakes in the layout. Don’t take forever but get the layout of the hose right before charging and deploying. Ensure you have adequate pressure on your line and set the pressure on the inline gauge (hopefully you have one) while water is flowing. Depending on your buildings you may have to adjust PRV/D’s. As our friend Andy Fredericks said, “take some time to make some time.” This will pay dividends down the hall moments later.


  1. That. Line. If you are on Engine 1 and units are arriving and doing other support functions distant to that hoseline and you need help, guess where they should be going? On your line to assist in the advance. I don’t care if it takes 2-3 companies to staff and move the line, that’s what we do. There is nothing more important than the effective advance of that line. All those other support roles should be filled eventually, but nothing tops the placement of that line for full extinguishment.


As in all structures, crews must contend with a wide variety of obstacles while advancing hoselines in a high-rise. Office layouts using workstations will present a maze of furniture and partitions for crews to negotiate. Fires that are located in other areas of the building can contain stored and stacked furniture, inventory, food handling carts, luggage carts, etc. Prior to advancing hoselines into areas with suspended ceiling assemblies, firefighters should always check for fire in the plenum, preferably physically and with a thermal imaging camera. The ceiling assembly could fall on the crew, resulting in firefighters being trapped in a maze of cross-tees, hanging wires, and cables.


In closing just remember that the first arriving engine at a high-rise incident can set the tone for the duration. Good communication, clear direction, and a professional approach to placing that first line in service will ultimately lead to positive outcomes. Your chances of success are increased by getting out there and looking at your buildings and putting the time into valuable training.

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