High-rise firefighting uses much of the strategy of "regular" structural firefighting, however, some of these tactics must be modified for high-rise firefighting due to the unusual conditions that it entails. Some of the unique issues that must be addressed in high-rise firefighting are risk management, difficulty in achieving adequate ventilation, prompt and complete evacuation of occupants, inadequate pressure in standpipes and management of personnel. High-rise fireground operations are tailored around these concerns.

The compartmentation or maze-like design of the interior (especially in office high-rises), relative difficulty of egress, fire spread and necessary firefighting methods all make high-rise firefighting extraordinarily hazardous. Firefighting in a high-rise environment is disproportionally dangerous when compared with normal structure fires. Between 1977 and 1996, 16 firefighters died from traumatic injuries suffered in high-rise fires in the U.S. Even though this figure is small compared to the total of 2,277 firefighters who have died in the line of duty since 1977, it is significant because of the relatively small proportion of actual high-rise fires to other fires {1}.

There are a number of objectives that firefighters must achieve, and they must be weighed in respect to the danger that the fire, smoke and structural integrity of the building presents. The primary concern, as always, is life safety. Occasionally, evacuation of occupants will be postponed until the fire is controlled or extinguished. This is usually done when the fire is not very large, and can be put out quickly. Conversely, the opposite may be done on occasion, where firefighters postpone the opening of doors or ventilation paths to the fire floor because of the large amount of heat and smoke that would rush over the firefighters heads and into the stairway {2}. This heat and toxic smoke would burn or asphyxiate the evacuating occupants, if present in sufficient quantities. Because one of the primary ways which fire spreads in a high-rise fire is by lapping out a window, cracking or melting the window above it, and spreading the fire through this opening, a company is usually on the floor above the fire floor. Their job is to ventilate, keep the fire from spreading upward from the fire floor (often called vertical extension). In Chicago, the first due truck or squad is generally assigned to assist with fire attack while the second due truck or squad performs search and rescue above the fire floor {1}.

Ventilation is an arduous task in high-rise firefighting because smoke has more volume to permeate before being released into the environment. In a house fire, windows can be knocked out relatively quickly and vertical ventilation on the roof can be performed. In high-rise firefighting, there are more windows than are feasible to break (also, property damage should also be a concern), and even if firefighters were able to break a large number of windows, the personnel on the ground would be subjected to danger and external incident command operations could be hampered. In addition to this, vertical roof ventilation only does so much good; smoke is still trapped in all the unventilated rooms with a route of entry for the smoke. Some stairways are positively pressurized in order to ventilate smoke and gases by the fire protection system. Depending on the amount of ventilation already available in a stairway or other passageway, diesel fans may be used to evacuate gases and smoke, but only if the amount of ventilation is enough to remove all the byproducts of combustion of the fans from the stair or passage way.

Evacuation of occupants is another issue that is a major concern in high-rise firefighting. The primary concern is for the occupants above the fire floor who must be evacuated. This is done (or not done) under different circumstances. If the fire on the fire floor(s) only takes up a portion of the floor space, and there are multiple stairways, evacuation will usually be done through a stairway away from the fire and that is not being used for firefighting purposes. Other times, this is not possible, and occupants must be evacuated through a stairway shared by firefighters and search and rescue crews. Still other times, when the level of danger in the stairwell(s) is too high, occupants may be evacuated by helicopter from the roof, or ordered to stay in place until conditions permit a safe exit. In the case of helicopter evacuation, prudence must be used in the operation of the helicopter (LA City has SOPs stating that "the helicopter landing zone be at least one-half mile from the incident and that the helicopter not fly within 500 feet of portions of the building affected by fire." {1} The rotors tend to fan (literally) the flames.

Another problem presented to fire department when dealing with a high-rise fire, is inadequate pressure in the building's standpipe. Prior to 1993, the NFPA standard (and the implementation in most then-modern building) was a pressure of 65-100psi with a flow restricting device if the residual pressure was between 100psi and 175psi and a pressure reducing valve if the static pressure was greater than 175psi {1}. This was for both 1 1/2" and 2 1/2" outlet sizes. The downside to this was that the design had a specific design in mind (2 1/2 inch hoses with smooth bore tips, which require approximately 50 psi nozzle pressure to operate (i.e. 65 psi minus 15 psi for friction loss) {1}). In 1993, the NFPA standard was modified to reflect the pressure issue. The pressure limit for all outlets greater than 1 1/2 inches was increased to 100 psi minimum flow pressure and 175 psi maximum static pressure. The standard also specified that pressure reducing devices must be installed on 1 1/2 inch outlets that would exceed 100 psi flow pressure at the required flow rate {1}. This new standard reflected the common usage of combination fog nozzles (especially automatic nozzles) with 1 3/4" or 2" hose lines by firefighters in high-rise fires.

High-rise incident command utilizes sector commands. These subsets of the incident command system are used to enhance communication and make sure that all aspects of the incident are attended to, in addition to enhancing firefighting safety. Different SOPs direct different companies to do different things depending on different circumstances, but most all of SOPs require a staging sector (interior and/or exterior), stairway and support sector, lobby control sector, fire attack sector, Rapid Intervention Team (RIT) sector, top sector and operations sector. Staging provides equipment and supplies to personnel, stairway and support help with transport of supplies up to the sectors on upper floors and ensure the safety and condition of the stairway(s). Lobby control helps evacuate victims who have made it to the bottom floor, monitors condition at the fire control center, aquiring building plans, finding security guards and engineers, managing the HVAC system and making announcements over the PA. Fire attack has the task of extinguishing the fire; several companies rotate through this sector. The top sector is usually one or two floors above the fire floor, and prevents vertical extension and assists in ventilation. The operations sector is usually outside the building or a few floors below the fire floor. This sector is used to coordinate the others and keep an eye on the overall situation.

High-rise fires are fought in one or more of five different ways {2}:

  1. Frontal Attack
  2. Flanking attack
  3. Defensive Attack
  4. Non-attack
  5. Outside attack

A frontal attack is where firefighters approach the fire head on attempting to extinguish the flames. A flanking attack is used when a frontal attack fails. One or more companies come around to the fire's side, and attack it from there. Defensive attacks are often used when there is a moderate to large amount of fire spread. Usually staged from stairway openings and upper floors, the primary motivation in a defensive attack is to prevent further spread of the fire. A non-attack is used when the fire is so large that any attempt to distinguish it would do more harm than good. This is usually done to prevent harm to occupants being evacuated {2}, and a defensive attack is usually begun when conditions permit. An outside attack usually incorporates the use of an aerial master stream or master streams positioned on nearby rooftops or balconies. An outside attack is generally only useful if the fire floor is within 15 floors of the ground (otherwise, there is no way to get water to it).

The most effective method in fighting high-rise fires is automatic sprinkler systems. Sprinkler systems have been proven successful in controlling and extinguishing these fires and protecting building occupants {1}. Well-maintained automatic sprinkler systems, when used in combination with current firefighting tactics, pre-plans and fire-conscious building construction can mitigate the severity of many high-rise fire incidents.

{1} Bush, Reade and Routley, J. Gordon. NFPA Report 082, "Operational Considerations For Highrise Firefighting", April 1996.
{2} Dunn, Vincent. "High-Rise Firefighting Strategy and Tactics - Part 2", Firehouse Magazine, pp. 28-30, December 2000.