buildings provide some unique challenges to first responders. These
challenges arise not only due to the height of the building, but also
because of the layout of the site, complexity of the structure, and the
mixed uses found within the space. These structures can have the
population of a small city, and they can include all the hazards and
occupancies of a city.
"first responders” has a broad meaning that may include, but is not
limited to, police, fire, emergency medical units, or even utility
companies. All first responders have different levels of understanding
and abilities to respond to an incident in a tall building.
These different levels of understanding result from the demographics of their location, their training, and their equipment. When designing fire safety for a very tall building, the design team should meet with the first responders to determine limitations that they may have for different types of incidents or events.
will be different types of incidents or events that may occur during
the life of a very tall building, including during construction. These
incidents/events can either occur naturally or can be caused by people,
whether intentionally or unintentionally.
incidents or events can cause a major impact on the function of the
structure, require a large amount of resources from first responders,
and may possibly cause an impact to services in other parts of the
The building owners,
along with the design team, should review the different types of
possible incidents or events to determine which safeguards will be
installed or provided to reduce the risk. First responders should
provide information on the level of service they are capable of
providing with their own resources.
is necessary for the first responders, owners, and design team to work
together from the design concept continuously through construction and
the life of the building. This will allow the team members to discuss
potential design changes that come along and to move forward to meet
the type and location of an incident, at times first responders may be
able to handle an incident without assistance or safeguards being
provided. It should be noted that there may be incidents or events that
the local first responders may not be able to address, and they may even
require outside help from other organizations.
INCIDENT COMMAND AND CONTROL
owners, building staff, and design and construction teams should meet
with the local first responders to determine what type of
management/command/control systems will be used if an incident does
occur in the structure. How first responders, owners, and building staff
teams interact during an incident will be critical to limit property
damage and minimize injury and loss of life. Most first responders in
the United States use some type of Incident Command System (ICS).
before the construction phase of a structure is completed, the first
responders may wish to develop a working relationship with the building
fire safety director, security director, and building engineering
director. These three staff positions will play a key role in any
incident due to their knowledge and familiarity with the building’s
systems and controls.
an incident, the ability to communicate between the first responders,
building occupants, owners, and facility employees is critical. The
communication between these groups can include the fire alarm paging
system or the firefighter phone stations located within stairways,
elevators, and elevator lobbies, which all connect to the fire alarm
system in the building’s fire command center.
first responders will use some type of radio communication system.
However, due to the amount of steel and concrete within the structure,
radios may not work correctly without some type of repeater system. This
repeater system must be coordinated with all first responders so that
the correct equipment and frequencies are installed. The International Fire Code1 (IFC) and the Fire Code2 (NFPA1) have code requirements for communication systems.
design team should consider providing access roads and doors that allow
first responders into the building. Once inside, first responders will
need easy access to the fire command center, security control room,
stairways, and elevator systems. Ideally, once they arrive, they should
be met by facility staff to provide any type of necessary assistance.
devices may be installed throughout the building. Therefore, first
responders will need keys or other means to unlock all doors for free
access and to reduce the risk of trapped occupants. During the 2003 Cook
County Administration high rise fire in Chicago, IL, six occupants
died; one of the leading factors in these deaths was locked stairway
doors.3 On the flip side, during some terrorist scenarios,
the first responders may ask the facility’s staff to lock down the
building and control the movement of occupants.
and robustly built vertical transportation (elevators) can facilitate
first responders to gain access to upper floors in a safe and timely
manner. The IBC and the Building Construction and Safety Code4
(NFPA 5000) both have requirements for vertical transportation to
provide a reliable and safe system for first responders to use during an
FIRE CONTROL / COMMAND CENTER
the IBC and NFPA 5000 have requirements for fire control/command
centers. The first responders, owners, and design and construction team
should consider the location, layout, and space for the center. In tall
buildings, the center will need adequate space, equipment, and constant
staff monitoring. The center will be the nerve center of all incidents.
Some of the systems that should be located inside the center can be found in table 1.
|Fire alarm panel||Security alarms / access control systems|
|Security cameras||Smoke management / control panel|
|HVAC fan control systems||Stairway pressurization systems|
|Fire pump status||Fire phone system|
|Vertical transportation system status, recall and locking down|
|Mass notification paging system|
|Normal and emergency power supply status and remote start|
|Radio communication / repeater system status|
Table 1. Fire Control / Command Center systems
MEANS OF EGRESS
means of egress for tall buildings can be complex. Trying to move
several hundred occupants from upper floors down to the first floor via
stairways or even elevators will take time. At the same time that
occupants are traveling downward, first responders may be traveling
The design team should meet
with the local first responders to understand operations procedures that
could impact the means of egress. It is common practice for fire
departments in the United States to use stairways as a staging point for
an attack on the fire floor. There are several reasons for this, which
include the fire-rated and smoke-protected construction of the stairways
and the location of the fire department standpipe outlets.
FIRE & LIFE SAFETY PROTECTION SYSTEMS
tall buildings will have fixed fire and life safety protection systems
in place. These fixed fire and life safety protection systems may
include fire sprinklers, standpipes, fire pumps, emergency generators,
firefighter air replenishment systems, onsite water supply, fire alarm
systems, communication systems, smoke control systems, and emergency
power to name a few. These systems can both mitigate the incident and
support the first responders’ actions.
fire sprinkler and standpipe systems will most likely have fire pump(s)
installed. These systems can also have some type of pressure reducing
valves. The valves have caused trouble for the first responders. The One
Meridian Plaza fire in Philadelphia, PA, on Feb. 23, 1991, resulted in
the deaths of three firefighters. Some of the factors that resulted in
their deaths were the loss of normal power, emergency power, and
problems with pressure settings on pressure-reducing valves in the
design professional and ownership should develop emergency action plans
to facilitate actions by the local first responders. Some of these
plans may include evacuation, lockdown, or shelter in place based on the
possible incidents or events that the design team and first responders
agree should be addressed. Training and drills of these plans are
important to test the function and to identify changes based on the
outcomes of these drills.
Joe McElvaney is with the Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department.
- International Fire Code, International Code Council, Washington, DC, 2012.
- NFPA 1, Fire Code, National Fire Protection Association, Quincy, MA, 2012.
- Madrzykowski, D., Walton, W. D. Cook County Administration Building Fire, 69 West Washington, Chicago, Illinois, October 17, 2003: Heat Release Rate Experiments and FDS Simulations. NIST SP-1021. National Institute of Standards and Technology, Gaithersburg, MD, 2004.
- NFPA 5000, Building Construction and Safety Code, National Fire Protection Association, Quincy, MA, 2012.
- Routley, J., Jennings, C. and Chubb, M. Highrise Office Building Fire, One Meridian Plaza, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Technical Report USFA-TR-049, United States Fire Administration, Washington, DC, (undated).