High-rise high-risk

A couple of years ago a fire and rescue service was called to a fire in a high-rise building. The incident resulted in a number of firefighters getting injured and there was the potential for serious injuries or even fatalities.

Resources were plentiful and the crews and commanders were experienced, yet potential scenarios for the fire which should have been considered (lessons learned from incidents that had occurred in other services) were missed, with life-threatening consequences. The fire involved furniture well alight in the lift lobby of a 30-plus storey high-rise block (HRB). The assumption was that the “normal” fire was within a compartment comprising a “normal” flat.

This incident highlighted the fact that as a Service we tend to quickly forget lessons that have been learned and the people who are at risk are those at the sharpest of sharp ends – the firefighters in breathing apparatus (BA) on the jets.

High-rise building fires were not always considered to be high-risk incidents (to firefighters and not necessarily the public), but now they are perceived to be some of the most dangerous for several reasons. The general reduction in the number of fires applies to all buildings including HRBs and, the number of high-rise buildings in the country, particularly those in more densely populated metropolitan and heavily urbanised areas, are being demolished to make way for more sustainable and user-friendly housing, reducing the opportunity to gain experience in these incidents.

The relative infrequency, plus the number of serious fires with firefighter injuries deaths or even close shaves, has given these incidents a level of concern which can, if not attenuated, affect how incidents are tackled and affect the safety of firefighters. To address this challenge it is therefore important that when things go wrong (or right) at high-rise incidents, the sharing of lessons learned should be more widely disseminated and openly discussed than they are at present.


“The sharing of lessons learned should be more widely disseminated and openly discussed than they are at present”


High-rise Challenges

The greatest challenge for incident commanders is that of maintaining an effective command structure at incidents where, due to the structure and configuration of the building, difficulty in access and communications with firefighting and support teams creates a disconnect. There can be a remoteness and time lag which can lead to potential confusion between what is expected to happen and what is actually taking place.

Incidents in high-rise buildings are particularly problematic for all sorts of reasons. Access between the incident commander and subordinate commanders, level of resources required, dispersed nature of key command areas including bridgehead and firefighting sectors, incident command team and incident commander themselves all compound to make fires in high-rise buildings potentially dangerous for firefighters. Even where fires in these buildings conform to “normal behaviour” (that is, fires which behave in a predictable manner, unlike the external envelope spread that occurred at Grenfell Tower and other HRBs that have occurred in the UK and overseas), the challenges can seem insurmountable. There have been several recent examples where difficulties have arisen, potentially threatening the safety of firefighting teams.

For the most part, incidents involving fires in high-rise buildings comply with a particular trajectory. Ignition occurs within a room in a flat, consequential spread may involve the whole of the dwelling, but because of compartmentation between flats, including fire resisting doors to the corridor, the fire is contained. With an early alert, the fire and rescue service will be called and hopefully, though not always, suitably rapid intervention will be made to control and quickly extinguish the fire. Even in such a simple scenario, the potential for problems arising still exists.

A fire involving a lobby or corridor contents creates additional challenges. There is the potential for ingress of smoke into the lift shaft, lobby, corridor or stairways at an earlier stage of the incident which, if compromised (particularly in single staircase buildings), then means of escape is limited or eliminated for those trapped on the fire floor or those above.

One of the major problems associated with high-rise buildings is that there can be no nationally agreed method for dealing with the incident in as much as different operational policies can apply across the country. Services utilise variable mobilising procedures, resource availability and attendance times which depend on the nature of the service, the location of building and the urban environment in which it has been built, ie urban, suburban or rural locations.

Resourcing and Response

In terms of the resources required to deal with a normal one-compartment fire in a high-rise building, both the CAST modelling carried out by the Fire Brigade Union and the Pathfinder work during the late 1990s demonstrated that the human resource requirement to carry out more functions on a straightforward high-rise fire was 13 firefighters. This works well in heavily urbanised and metropolitan areas as 13 firefighters may be utilised as part of the initial attendance, but reinforcements may only take minutes to arrive in the case of a more severe fire breaking out. In a typical shire or predominantly rural service area, initial resources centred on a high-rise building may include as many as six pumps (25-plus firefighters) to take into account the time required to provide backup resources if it becomes necessary. Many services changed their attendances to high-rise premises following the fire at Harrow court in Stevenage Herts in 2005 and some have been refining this policy ever since.

The odds remain stacked against firefighters facing a serious incident above eight to ten floors in high-rise buildings (eight to ten floors being operational maximum for exterior firefighting from an ALP alternative ladder – unless you live in Surrey where they have a 48m ALP) making a rapid and robust fire attack. One of the basic tenets of firefighting at any time of incident is the acquisition of sufficient situational awareness so that the incident commander can anticipate the future trajectory of the incident and take appropriate measures to prevent escalation.


“The more complex the firefighting solutions, the more rigorous the incident command processes need to be to safely manage a firefighting strategy that incorporates a wide range of tools and techniques”


Command Structure

For HRB fires, the majority of FRSs in the UK now use a command structure which can reduce the incident commander’s situation awareness as she or he may be located a substantial distance from the incident both horizontally and vertically. While “spotters” and external observations may give a good external perspective of the fire, relying on those at the bridgehead to provide that situational awareness from the internal perspective can be problematic for several reasons.

Firstly, due to the density of screening metalwork within the structure of many high-rise buildings, it is possible that on occasions radio communications (often a common problem identified in post incident debriefs) between incident command and those in the bridgehead may not be as effective as they could. Whereas at ground level incidents, runners could be used as the quick fix to this problem, running ten or more floors up the building takes time and imposes a strain on individuals carrying out this vital communication.

Secondly, those at the bridgehead also have a restricted perception of what is happening. Located at least two clear floors below the fire means that unless an effective reconnaissance has taken place by the fire sector commander in the bridgehead before a fire has forced a withdrawal to two floors below the fire floor, their understanding of the situation may be limited.

Finally, anyone who has been involved at an incident and worked in the bridgehead will appreciate just how congested, noisy and confused it can be and extracting useful information to feed the situational awareness of the incident commander can be difficult. Therefore, it is essential to ensure a tightly controlled communications network at serious incidents in high-rise buildings and observers on the ground are critical to maintain effective situational awareness at all times.

There are also challenges posed by the incident ground command structure and the relationship between the bridgehead and the incident commander themselves. Most FRSs now utilise a procedure where the initial incident commander is deployed outside the building at a command point or within the command unit. Previously, and for many decades and in many services, the initial incident commander would take command and position themselves at the bridgehead with supporting commanders locating themselves outside at the command point. This transition – the reversal of location – represented in many services a massive change and even today incident commanders will go outside policy and procedures and deploy initially to the bridgehead floor, often “just for a look”.

Remaining isolated from the sharp-end requires self-discipline and trust in others in resisting the temptation to move location to get an eye on the job. Changing the rules, despite being with the best of intentions, has the potential to create a rise to risks faced by the firefighting teams and others.

It is understandable why there is the temptation for the initial incident commander to look at the situation from close proximity. In the not too distant past, in some areas HRB fires were commonplace and dealt with by two appliances with nine or ten firefighters. While dry risers were being filled, crews would proceed to the fire floor, a team would start checking hydrant outlets on each floor as they climbed the stairs. Having connected the hose to the dry riser, a BA team, armed with a full bore branch or extinguisher, would break down the door and deal with the fire. For the most part, this approach worked without too many difficulties and was the accepted method of operation, but there were several fires in the early part of the 21st century which helped change the national view of these fires.

Escalating high-rise Incidents

A fire in Arlington House, an 18-storey building in Margate on May 23, 2001, led to one fatality, 13 members of the public requiring hospitalisation and three firefighters needing treatment in hospital for burns. A helicopter was used to check if anyone climbed onto the building’s roof. A few weeks later (July 1, 2001) and five miles due south, a fire in Stanner Court, Ramsgate, required the rescue of 25 residents, with eight adults and three children being rescued from the roof by an RAF helicopter. One hundred firefighters attended the fire and a fatality was later discovered in the 15-storey building.

Following the tragedy of Harrow Court, concern for firefighter safety became a fundamental issue for the FRS once again. After this procedures evolved and resources deployed to high-rise incidents increased in many services and these incidents became less of a “bread-and-butter” event and technically more complex, involving a less dynamic and more prescriptive approach to firefighting in these buildings.

Introduction of the concepts of critical flow rate and tactical flow rates for firefighting jets in many services help improve and develop a greater appreciation of how difficult HRB fires can be. Similarly, the use of positive pressure ventilation techniques (used widely in some services but more hit and missing in others) can provide a solution to maintaining clear access and egress routes of smoke and also assist with reducing fatigue and risk to firefighters tackling the fire. But the fact remains, the more complex the firefighting solutions, the more rigorous the incident command processes need to be to safely manage a firefighting strategy that incorporates a wide range of tools and techniques.

There is a trade-off between setting up comprehensive systems to ensure integrity of the incident and the safety of firefighters when risk to life is involved and time critical. By way of example, a “persons reported” fire in 2009 on the 34th floor of a tower block in the Midlands was tackled by a three pump attendance. Crews were deployed via a firefighting lift to the 32nd floor, tackled the fire, rescued three people, plus an injured person in the kitchen (the room of origin), all within 15 minutes of the first call.

In a more recent fire (initially believed to be wind driven) on the 13th floor of a 16-storey block, there required an attendance of 17 pumps and the time between the first pump arriving and the first entry into the compartment on fire was over 40 minutes. Fortunately, the construction of the building, vintage 1960s/70s, did as was originally intended by the architects and the fire was contained to the compartment of origin. There were a number of reasons for the delay in the attack, not least of which was a failure of the lift which necessitated firefighters climbing the 13 floors with all their equipment and hose. It is also likely the setting up of safety systems, including the emergency teams, reliefs and the additional support mechanisms necessary for a safe system of work took time to implement and used up attending resources.


“It is probably the fear of exposure to criticism when things go wrong that makes services and individuals reluctant to be open and transparent about problems that have arisen”


Public and Firefighter Safety

This illustrates the difference between a rapid attack which creates a higher level of risk for firefighters, but a greater potential for rescuing trapped persons. This is a key concept of the firefighter maxim of balancing firefighter risk and likely benefits of the action, and a more staff safety conscious approach to such incidents but with a diminution of potential benefits. Of course, circumstances will dictate which path an incident commander will have to follow to reach a successful conclusion. But, as has been shown at critical incidents involving high-rise blocks, the complexity involved including the structure, the nature of residents, propensity for panic in the post-Grenfell Tower period by residents all add to the challenges faced by the incident commander and crews.

The fragility of incident ground communications and variations in procedures between services needs to be improved. As greater reliance is being placed upon cross-border cooperation to make up for reductions in fire stations, appliances and firefighters may also add to the potential mix that can frustrate command intentions.

There has been and will continue to be a significant number of incidents in high-rise buildings and despite the (sort of) immediate assurances that premises will be upgraded to make them safer for residents, safety improvements to HRB stock seem to be taking forever.

As an industry, the Fire and Rescue Service continually finds errors and misjudgements that we endlessly review and criticise. The great majority of incidents in high-rise buildings are successfully contained and forgotten about whereas incidents where errors, injuries or worse occur are pored over intensively.

It is probably the fear of exposure to criticism when things go wrong that makes services and individuals reluctant to be open and transparent about problems that have arisen. Equally, services are reluctant to be open about how they perform when things go well. Learning from operational incidents can be about positive learning points, but unfortunately the “keep it on watch/station/borough/brigade” culture persists and we only ever learn of problems when things go wrong and become public; we rarely learn of solutions identified and used in the heat of the moment.

Anecdotal stories of near misses become apocryphal and urban myths; but very often the truth can be more banal and far more illuminating. The culture of secrecy about operational actions at best serves to hold back progress of operational service and at worst can increase the risk to firefighters. The current tranche of HMI service inspections has revealed some of the creative measures employed by services to ostensibly “improve” attendance time performance. This in many respects is an abstract metric and, at the end of the day, the outcome in terms of community safety is dependent more on how incidents are commanded and managed than merely measuring seconds on the stopwatch.


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