Call for Help!

When I arrived at this working fire on the 25th floor of a 26-story residential high-rise, my first decision and action was to “call for help” in the form of a second alarm. (Photo by author.)

Hello, my brother and sister firefighters. Welcome to my brand-new high-rise firefighting operations column. I look forward to bringing high-rise operational strategies, tactics, and task-level procedures to you for discussion and operational consideration. I will be inviting many trusted friends and colleagues to contribute to this column as guest authors. Please don’t hesitate to contact me if you have any questions or comments about our topics of discussion. Please keep in mind, the content of this column is my opinion or the opinions of my guest authors, based on many years of experience, along with research and development.

The natural starting point for any discussion involving high-rise operations revolves around the complexity and labor-intensive nature of these operations. Many statistics and numbers are out there but, put simply, high-rise operations require an exponentially greater number of firefighters and overall resources than most of our ground-based firefighting operations. Over the years, many experts in this operation have cited that for every firefighter involved in high-rise fire suppression or search and rescue operations, there will be a need for three to five additional firefighters to support those operations.

I consider retired Fire Department of New York (FDNY) Deputy Chief Vincent Dunn to be a trusted and extremely valuable expert in high-rise operations. Dunn has cited the numbers 100 firefighters on scene and operating within the first 15 minutes of a high-rise firefight. Wow! Yes, I know that this is a large number of firefighters assembled very quickly. This is doable in a very large system like FDNY but much more difficult for most systems across the fire service. The point is, whether you are in an enormous city, a medium-sized city, or a small city, if you have a high-rise fire you’re going to need help! Lots of it, and as quickly as possible. We must be proactive, and that starts long before the fire occurs.

Stretched Thin

For large events like high-rise fires, we would all like to have the necessary resources and staffing immediately available. I work in a large metropolitan system with reasonable and, some would say, generous resources. However, a significant high-rise fire will quickly deplete those resources. There are only a few really large systems across the fire service. Certainly, FDNY and the Chicago (IL) Fire Department (CFD) are two examples of very large systems. When FDNY has a significant high-rise fire, members will likely handle it with resources from within their system. But keep in mind, they will be relocating lots of resources from other areas (boroughs) of the city to fill holes and will ultimately still be stretched thin across their overall system.

In Chicago, if you review some of the city’s most significant past high-rise fires, CFD resources completed the firefight. However, during those firefights, such as the 2004 La Salle Bank Building Fire, there were lots of resources from other metro Chicago-area fire departments providing fire protection and emergency services to various areas of the city. This is a great example of how even the largest systems need help from outside. And that is my point: We must establish the processes and procedures to make this happen well ahead of time.

Some Examples

Chicago Metro is a great example for us to follow. Chicago Metro and the state of Illinois have established an excellent and proactive system of mutual and automatic aid called mutual aid box alarm system (MABAS). So, for a significant high-rise fire in the city of Chicago, where a large number of CFD resources are committed to that fire, you will see fire companies and resources from outside the city of Chicago backfilling empty CFD fire stations.

Another very exceptional system in our fire service is the state of California. Because of wildland fires and urban interface problems, the California fire service has been proactive in this area for decades. Remember, this was the origin of FireScope and, for all practical purposes, the incident command system. Terms like task force and strike team, now becoming commonplace across the fire service, have been in place for years and originated in California.

The lesson for all of us, especially those in smaller and medium-sized systems, is to establish relationships with your neighbors proactively—today. Build a system like the Illinois MABAS or the California Mutual-Aid System that creates a much larger resource pool than most of us can assemble on our own. Remember, collectively we are much stronger than we are individually.

Keep in mind, this goes much deeper than just asking your neighboring fire department to respond and help you from time to time. Once again, I would use the California system as a great example. A few years ago, I was in metro Sacramento providing a training program. While I was in town, I was invited to a full-scale high-rise exercise that was taking place in a downtown Sacramento high-rise building. There was a large number of fire apparatus parked along the Capital Mall for several blocks, about ¼-mile long. There were rigs of all colors, from numerous Sacramento Metropolitan Fire Departments, and some from longer distances away, within northern California. They were all operating at this large high-rise exercise and simulated high-rise fire. They were using the same equipment, the same operating procedures, and the same radio system. What a concept! Once again, this serves as an example for all of us to follow.

Resource Recommendation

Let me narrow this down just a bit further. In any system, large, medium, or small, the report of smoke or fire in a high-rise building is a big deal—and must be treated as such. There must be a very strong and powerful initial assignment. For most systems, this should include multiple fire companies and several chief officers. I believe that a good starting point is as follows (this resource recommendation is based on a minimum staffing of four personnel per fire company):

● Four engine companies.

• The first and second, paired together to stretch, advance, and operate the first attack hoseline.

• The third and fourth, paired together to

–stretch, advance, and operate a backup line on the fire floor, or

–stretch, advance, and operate an exposure line on the floor above, or

–relieve the crews on the first attack hoseline on the fire floor.

● Three truck companies.

• The first truck company to the fire floor for search and rescue operations.

• The second truck company to the floor above for recon.

• The third truck company to the floor below as the first and primary rapid intervention team for the companies operating on the fire floor in the primary immediately dangerous to life or health area.

● Three chief officers (battalion or district chiefs).

• The first as the incident commander.

• The second as the fire floor division supervisor or fire suppression branch director.

• The third as lobby control.

OK, so the above resources can get us off to a good start; complete an investigation; establish if there is a fire; and, if there is a fire, initiate fire attack along with search and rescue.

If there is a confirmation of a “working fire,” the nationally accepted standard of practice is to immediately call for additional resources. This is usually, in most systems, a request for a second alarm.

The bottom line: You want to stay well ahead of the resource curve and try to maintain an uncommitted tactical reserve, keeping in mind most of your tactical reserve needs to be in staging, ideally two floors below the fire floor. Remember, staging at a high-rise fire is inside the building. The additional resources called for and initially arriving outside are in an area that should be referred to as BASE.

Second Alarm

The actual act of calling for help can and should be authorized at many levels within fire department systems. Clearly, the incident commander can and should call for help as necessary. Remember, calling for help is not just the responsibility of a chief officer. We must train all our company officers that it is OK for them, even the newest, most junior fire officer in the right front seat, to feel comfortable and confident to call for help when they see fire showing from the 10th floor.

There are numerous cues that will guide us in the decision to call for help. When our fire dispatchers contact us and report that multiple calls are being received reporting a fire, that’s a clue. Smoke or fire showing on arrival is another critical clue. But remember, just because nothing is showing from the outside of a large high-rise building, that does not mean there isn’t a significant and dangerous fire deep inside that building.

It all boils down to reflex time. Our reflex time at a high-rise fire is very significant. Call for help early, because it’s going to take significant time (reflex time) to get the help where you need it.


• Call for help.

• Proactively establish mutual- and automatic-aid agreements with neighboring departments.

• Establish shared procedures, equipment, and radio channels with your neighboring departments.

• Train with your neighboring departments.

Dave McGrail is a 36-year veteran of the fire service and an assistant chief with the Denver (CO) Fire Department. He instructs internationally on a wide range of fire service topics, specializing in high-rise firefighting operations. McGrail is the author of the book Firefighting Operations in High-Rise and Standpipe Equipped Buildings, published by (Fire Engineering, 2007). He has two associate of applied science degrees in fire science technology, one with a focus in fire suppression and the other with a focus in fire prevention. McGrail also has two bachelor of science degrees, one in human resource management and the other in fire service administration.