High-Rise Fire Training

Multi-agency high-rise training drill in Las Vegas serves up valuable lessons

By Aric Neuharth and Brian Gray
Published Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Las Vegas is the land of high-occupancy high-rises, each of which presents individual challenges to emergency responders. As a result, fire departments in the Las Vegas Valley routinely review and revamp high-rise fire strategies and tactics. But sometimes you need something a little more, something that feels real.

About a year ago, the Las Vegas Training Council, which comprises representatives from each of the valley departments (Las Vegas, Clark County, Henderson and North Las Vegas) decided that it wanted all personnel in Southern Nevada Fire Operations (SNFO) to practice high-rise response—specifically, to review what works in the current operational plan and what needs to be adjusted.

The Training Council focused on seven areas that it wanted the drill(s) to address:

  1. Fire attack
  2. Lobby control
  3. Staging
  4. Positive pressure ventilation (PPV) for high-rises
  5. High-rise tactical worksheets
  6. Elevator use in high-rise fires
  7. Base operations

Although the training took a significant amount of time and preparation, the lessons we learned were invaluable in enhancing the preparation of our crews to respond to a high-rise fire. In this article, we’ll explain some details of the drill and the lessons learned.

A 3-Tiered Approach
In February 2009, we started our high-rise training at the Lady Luck Casino, a 25-story high-rise that’s currently unoccupied. Las Vegas Fire and Rescue was the only department to participate in this initial walkthrough, although subsequent walkthroughs involved other departments. The purpose was to evaluate the plan in preparation for a multi-agency hands-on drill. We discussed fire attack, radio traffic, how to gain control of the elevators, correct terminology to use on the radio, correct radio channels to use, and how, as the incident progressed, the lobby would transition in terms of command.  

This was one of the first times we’d discussed how to ventilate a high-rise structure. And we realized that we were developing a lot of good information that should be shared among agencies. The other Valley fire departments learned of this training, and wanted to have their crews attend something similar. Thus, the idea of a multi-agency real-time drill was born.  

We spent a lot of time driving around the high-rise corridor, looking at numerous buildings that were either under construction or vacant. The criteria for our structure included:

  • A building where the central smoke alarm system could be placed out of service, allowing us to use smoke machines and simulated fire in the structure.
  • A building with working passenger elevators, so that we didn’t have to use the construction man-lifts.
  • A secure building with enough room to park three alarms of apparatus.
  • A building tall enough to challenge the crews and create the time-delay of ascending 20+ floors.

Eventually, we decided on the Fontainebleau, a 68-story casino that’s currently under construction. It features an interesting floor layout. The length of the floor is 600 feet end-to-end, wide open, with no fire curtains or fire doors. The building was unoccupied, secure, had working elevators, was tall enough, and the central smoke alarm was incomplete and would not be affected by our smoke machines.

Once the drill location was chosen, it was time to prepare the firefighters. Our approach was to teach the crews our expectations, walk them through the training, and then add the smoke and victims to create a realistic scenario. We did not want to simply drill them, but wanted to set them up for success as we evaluated the plan.

In preparation for the Fontainebleau exercise, we conducted a second drill at the Texas Station casino, a six-story casino that’s fully occupied and operational. The scenario: Fire was reported on the fifth floor with occupants trapped. This drill was primarily for the battalion chiefs to work on radio traffic issues and how they would track/account for units on the high-rise tactical worksheets. We didn’t use equipment, but crews had to participate in real time and discuss the actions they were taking, things they were seeing and obstacles they were encountering, and relay that information to the command post. Command could then practice organizing the incident and evaluate radio traffic, what worked and how to streamline it.

Finally, we scheduled a third drill, a walkthrough at the Fontainebleau the month before the real drill. This walkthrough was broken up into six stations: base, lobby, elevators, staging, fire attack and ventilation. Instructors were assigned to each station, with firefighters rotating from one station to another. Since the instructors were from different agencies, the challenge was to get them all on the same page. One day, you’d have someone from Clark County teaching fire attack; the next day, Las Vegas.

The crews really liked being able to come to the building and get familiar with the layout prior to the real drill. We’re familiar with other casinos in the area, but the Fontainebleau was under construction, so very few of our personnel had had the opportunity to become familiar with the facility. The walkthrough was very beneficial. The crews would go back to the stations, open the books and research areas in which they knew they needed to brush up on before the actual drill.

So before the actual Fontainebleau training, we’d conducted three different drills/walkthroughs to help orient and prepare the crews to make the most out of the live drill.

The Real Deal
The actual drill was held on six different days in November. Las Vegas Fire and Rescue sent about 400–500 firefighters through; Clark County sent about 600 firefighters, North Las Vegas sent 150–200 firefighters, and Henderson sent about 300 firefighters.

The scenario was fire reported on the 25th floor with construction workers on scene, heavy smoke throughout the 25th and 26th floors, and workers self-evacuating down stairwells, some overcome by smoke. Some workers were working in hotel rooms doing electrical work and sheltered in place because there was too much smoke in the hallway.

There wasn’t an operating central smoke alarm system in the Fontainebleau at the time of the drill, which gave us a unique opportunity to use our smoke machines throughout the building. As a result, visibility on the fire floor and the floor above was near zero. Fire knockdown was presumed to have happened when the crews reached the machines and turned them off.

Overall, the feedback from the drill was very positive. We were amazed at the amount of participation. The crews acted like they were going to a real fire, and it was easy for them to get into that role, because it seemed like a real event, with simulated victims and smoke.

Lessons Learned
We learned something from each of the three preparation drills and the actual live drill. Those lessons include:

  • Adjust the plan according to the fire attack crew’s reports. At Texas Station, the main lesson was getting the chiefs to listen to the fire attack crews’ reports and to use that information to order additional resources and make the proper assignments. Some of the chiefs came in with pre-existing ideas of what units they were going to be assigning. Those who adjusted the plan to the circumstances had better results.
  • Be prepared for difficult radio communications. Inside the high-rise stairwells, communications were extremely poor. There’s a huge echo and the noise of footsteps and equipment being dropped on the metal stairs made it very difficult for command to hear. While ascending to the fire floor, fire attack captains may have to open a door to a clear floor and step out of the stairwell to provide reports. There are dead zones throughout the hallways, so sometimes they need to open a hotel room door and get close to the windows to transmit out.
  • Leave elevator keys with the elevators. In the early sessions at the Fontainebleau, the first few crews kept the keys as they moved to the fire floors, so additional crews wouldn’t have access to the keys, and they’d wind up waiting for an elevator for 15–20 minutes, or they had to take the stairs. We realized that this was a training issue, and for later drill sessions, we told crews in the pre-briefing not to take the keys with them. The remaining drills went a lot smoother, and we are currently putting together follow-up training to better educate our crews on elevators. One other note about the elevators: Since the building was unoccupied, the elevators ran more slowly than they would with an occupied casino.
  • Drill repeatedly on elevator control. The truck companies always had questions about the elevators—how to gain control of them, how to evaluate whether they’re safe to use, how the recall system works. As basic as it seems, many crews had never had the opportunity to review where to find the keys for different buildings or how to use them. When conducing pre-plans of buildings in your area, confirm the correct elevator keys are on site. This is also a good time to review how to operate the elevators in Fire Service Mode.
  • Vent early. The building’s smoke-handling systems do not move the smoke as quickly as firefighters need under active fire conditions, and should not be relied on to effectively handle your ventilation needs. Crews coming up had to use PPV fans early on to improve the visibility. Within 5–10 minutes of the fans running, the visibility would improve dramatically. This significantly reduced the amount of time needed to locate and extinguish the fire. Using PPV early also improved conditions for the occupants who were sheltering in place.
  • Assign the entire second alarm to the staging floor. Fire attack crews took about 15–20 minutes to get to the fire floor; by that time, they were almost ready to cycle out. As a result, it would be best to get the whole second alarm up to the staging floor and let them start determining rooms for equipment, personnel staging and rehab, and prepare to relieve fire attack crews. In our scenario, we had fire extend to a single room on the floor above, with heavy smoke throughout the floor above hallway. This floor also had smoke inhalation victims requiring the use of more than one crew. Moving all second- alarm units up to staging early in the incident gets your personnel in position for faster deployment.
  • Accountability is critical, and needs improvement. The captains and command had to account for a lot of people, and there were times when we lost track of some crews. There were multiple entry points into the building, and initial-arriving crews used different stairwells and elevators to access the upper floors. Control points must be announced and communicated to all crews. Crews don’t necessarily have to use the same door to enter the building, but prior to going aloft, everyone should funnel through control points for tracking purposes.  
  • Consider assigning a tactical channel dedicated to the fire attack group. Although tactical channels are routinely used, one of the most common complaints from the crew was that they would like to see the fire attack group have their own channel. Keeping fire attack units on the initial channel provides later-arriving crews with important information such as access and conditions found. Once the fire floor is located and the group is established, however, a separate channel should be established. Many captains were trying to keep track of 14 people, and that’s difficult when all radio traffic is on the same channel.  
  • Be prepared for real-world emergencies during the drill. Plan for the worst and expect the unexpected. Have a plan for how to handle the situation without disrupting the entire drill. Dedicate a separate radio channel and a safety officer to monitor that channel and mitigate any emergencies. When you’re working with 100+ firefighters for each drill, who are wearing turnouts and SCBA, carrying high-rise equipment and treating the drill as if it were a real response, you will have injuries. During our drills, we were challenged with reports of a sprained ankle, a twisted knee, a mannequin believed to be a downed firefighter, and multiple flu-associated issues (it was H1N1 season). Be ready with a dedicated Medical Group and a clear egress route to transport if needed.

In addition to these tactical lessons, the training provided some logistical lessons. The only way we were able to successfully conduct this training was that each agency sent four or five people to help. Early on, you must identify who your logistical officer will be and start collecting equipment. One of the challenges we face between the four agencies is that our equipment has slight differences. During the walkthrough, we provided hands-on training of the different high-rise hose-packs, nozzles, PPV fans and signage that the firefighters might encounter when responding with other agencies. We wanted crews to have this information ahead of time so they would be successful in the drill.  

In addition, look closely at the details of each topic you want to provide, and identify the specific training the crews need. We thought, how hard could it be to control an elevator? You put the key in, turn to Phase 1, and step into the elevator. But it was one of our biggest learning points. Most crews couldn’t believe how challenging the elevator systems could be if they didn’t have the proper training.

A Little Give & Take
The Fontainebleau training provided a great opportunity for us to evaluate and continue to improve upon our high-rise response plan. Next, the Training Council will convene to review this drill, identify common problems and determine what changes to make in the plan. Once they identify those updates, they will pick another location and conduct the training again.

When we do, we’ll benefit from what this series of drills taught us about multi-agency response: A little give-and-take goes a long way. There’s not just one way to do things, and during a high-rise fire, there’s no time to argue.

Fontainebleau Drill Objectives

  • Test and evaluate the Valley-wide High-Rise Response Plan’s Organizational Chart.
  • Test and evaluate the Valley-wide High-Rise Response Plan’s Communication Model.
  • Test and evaluate the Valley-wide High-Rise Response Plan’s resource deployment model through a third alarm.
  • Measure the time requirements for first-responding crews to establish an effective fire stream at the fire floor.
  • Measure the time requirements for first-responding crews to ventilate the fire floor.
  • Measure the time requirements for first-responding crews to completely search and evacuate a multiple-story hotel.  
  • Measure the time requirements for first-responding crews to establish a fully staffed and functional staging area.
  • Measure the time requirements for first-responding crews to establish a fully staffed EMS branch. 
     

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