High-Rise Fires Study Touts Larger Crews

NIST carried out the study with 13 fire departments in the Washington, D.C., region and presented its results April 10 at the 2013 Metropolitan Fire Chiefs Conference.

Fire crews of five or six members extinguish high-rise building fires and complete search-and-rescue operations faster, a new study by the National Institute of Standards and Technology and five other organizations found. NIST, a Department of Commerce agency, called it a "landmark" study and reported the results were presented April 10 at the 2013 Metropolitan Fire Chiefs Conference in Phoenix. Smaller crews face larger fires because of the additional time needed to complete tasks, it found.

"Unlike most house fires, high-rise fires are high-hazard situations that pose unique operational challenges to fire service response. How big a fire gets and how much danger it poses to occupants and firefighters are largely determined by crew size and how personnel are deployed at the scene," Jason Averill, the lead researcher and a NIST fire protection engineer, said. "It's not simply that larger crews have more people. Larger crews are deployed differently and, as a result, are able to perform required tasks more quickly."

The study analyzed 14 critical tasks undertaken when potential risks to building occupants and firefighters are greatest and concluded three-member crews took almost 12 minutes longer than crews of four, 21 minutes longer than crews of five, and 23 minutes longer than crews of six to complete them. Four-person crews took nine minutes and 11 minutes longer than five- and six-member crews, respectively.

"The study also looked at the effect of using fire service access elevators to move firefighters and equipment up to the staging floor and concluded that most tasks were started two to four minutes faster when using the elevators compared with using the stairs," according to NIST.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency Assistance to Firefighters Grants Program funded the study, which was done in a vacant, 13-story office building in Crystal City, Va., and involved 48 controlled experiments and 48 corresponding computer-modeling simulations to evaluate fires that increase at different rates.

"This study will result in better-informed policy and operational decisions influencing levels of staffing and other resources available for responding to high-rise fires," said Dennis Compton, former chief of the Mesa, Ariz., fire department and chairman of the board of the National Fallen Firefighter Foundation. "These are decisions now confronting hundreds of communities across the country."

"Prior to this experiment, some fire departments attempted to deploy with smaller crews on each piece of apparatus," said Lori Moore-Merrell of the International Association of Fire Fighters, a co-principal investigator for the study. "The logic suggested that, if the fire is big enough, just send more units, but it ignores the fact that larger crews have tactical advantages that reduce risk exposure to people and firefighters. Crews of six and even five can carry out crucial tasks in parallel rather than in series. Saving time can save occupant lives and prevent firefighter injuries and property damage."

NFPA defines high-rises as buildings that are seven stories or taller, which exceeds most types of fire service ladders. In most U.S. communities, new high- rises are required to have automated sprinkler systems, which are designed to control the spread of fires but not to extinguish them. However, citing NFPA, the NIST news release said 41 percent of U.S. high-rise office buildings, 45 percent of high-rise hotels, and 54 percent of high-rise apartment buildings aren't equipped with sprinklers. More alarming, sprinkler systems fail in about one in 14 fires, according to NIST.

"Fire departments should be prepared to manage the risks associated with unsprinklered high-rise fires, regardless of whether a building is actually sprinklered," Averill said.

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