Tall 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.

The term "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.

There 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.

Many 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 community.

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.

It 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 construction timelines.

Depending on 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.


The 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).

Even 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.


During 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.

Most 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.


The 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.

Security 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.

Reliable 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 incident/event.


Both 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


The 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 upward.

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.


Very 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.

The 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 standpipe.5

Emergency Plans

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.


  1. International Fire Code, International Code Council, Washington, DC, 2012.
  2. NFPA 1, Fire Code, National Fire Protection Association, Quincy, MA, 2012.
  3. 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.
  4. NFPA 5000, Building Construction and Safety Code, National Fire Protection Association, Quincy, MA, 2012.
  5. 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).