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High-Rise Firefighting

Keeping the Firefighting Options Open

High-rise buildings can take a considerable length of time to evacuate in the event of a fire and can be extremely dangerous environments for occupants and firefighters alike. So firefighting at height needs to be quick, effective and – above all – as safe as possible if lives are not to be put at unnecessary risk.

A high rise building is defined in NFPA 101:2012 (Life Safety Code) as a building more than 23 metres high. Having first really started to make an appearance on cityscapes a little over hundred or so years ago in the late 19th century when, as steel-framed structures, they started to punctuate the skylines of such cities as Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, Detroit, and St. Louis, high rise buildings are today commonplace across the globe. Indeed, China currently holds the record for the country with the greatest number of high rise buildings, and the world’s tallest structure is the 828-metre high Burj Khalifa building in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. The new One World Trade Centre “Freedom Tower” in New York City is the fourth-tallest skyscraper in the world and the tallest building in the western hemisphere, reaching 541 metres into the sky. Australia’s tallest building is the 323-metre Q1 (short for Queensland Number One) building on the Gold Coast in Queensland, the fifth-tallest residential building in the world.

According to a 2013 NFPA report, in the period 2007 to 2011, there was an average of 15,400 reported structure fires in high-rise buildings every year in the USA with associated losses of 46 civilian deaths, 530 civilian injuries, and US$219 million in direct property damage. Four types of property account for half of high-rise fires: apartment buildings, hotels, office buildings, and facilities that care for the sick.

Architecturally they can be imposing and often visually very impressive. But, for the firefighter they can be extremely challenging high-risk environments – as has been confirmed by operational reports from all over the world – that demand specialist firefighting equipment and techniques.

A major consideration when it comes to firefighting is the particular building’s height or, perhaps to be more precise, the height at which the fire is taking place. If that floor level is within the reach of an available aerial platform or platform fire truck – currently between 34 metres and 40 metres – firefighting operation can often be carried out from outside the building. If, however, the floor on which the fire is taking place cannot be reached using aerial platforms or platform fire trucks, firefighting operations from outside are no longer possible. In the past this meant that the only option was to resort to inside attack in the floor where the fire was taking place in order for the fire to be extinguished.

This presents firefighters with several issues. These include the reliable availability of adequate water pressure at the floor where the fire has broken out; the prospect of fighting the fire by having to enter the fire-engulfed floor; and the availability of the best possible equipment if there is no option other than to engage the fire from the effected floor.

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What You Have is All You’ve Got
The reality is that in most cases, the first firefighting response to a high rise fire will be the arrival of one or two fire trucks. As swift containment of the fire and the safe evacuation of those trapped is the first priority, these first-on-scene firefighters will start work with whatever equipment they have at hand. Awaiting the arrival of more resources – personnel or equipment – is simply not an option and is clearly not in the mind-set of the majority of professional firefighters. This was so tragically demonstrated by the selfless bravery of the on- and off-duty firefighters who attended the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre in New York City.

High rise fires are frequently fanned by high wind speeds that are greater than those at ground level, the more so if the building is in a coastal environment where winds coming off the sea can be significantly stronger than those experienced inland. So, the priority should be for all first response vehicles to carry equipment that will improve the initial contact with the fire. This means that equipment needs to be compact to be stored on the engine where storage space is at a premium, and lightweight to be easily carried and manhandled by fire crews up numerous flights of stairs. The name-of-the-game has to be to maximise the efficiency of the equipment users, which is why maximising the firefighting options is so important.

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Standpipe Flow & Pressure
When the only option is to resort to mounting an inside attack in order to effectively extinguish a fire in the upper floors, ensuring that water from the wet or dry standpipe or rising main has an appropriate flow and pressure on the floor from where the fire is going to be tackled is of critical importance. Water pressure in standpipes or rising mains can be inadequate for any number of reasons including scale build-up in the pipe, age of the installed system, lack of proper maintenance or vandalism of the system.

Traditionally, flow metres have been too heavy, cumbersome and large either to be stored on first-response fire trucks or carried up flight after flight of stairs by firefighters eager to reach the affected floor. This situation has been dramatically improved with the recent unveiling by Elkhart at this year’s FDIC (Fire Department Instructor’s Conference) in Indianapolis of an NFPA 14: 2013 (Standard for the Installation of Standpipe and Hose Systems) compliant inline, digital standpipe flow meter that is both lightweight (it weighs just 2.38 kg) aluminium construction and compact.

Significantly, the meter measures both flow and pressure for high-rise standpipe applications using an integrated sensor, taking the guesswork out of high rise firefighting by giving a visual confirmation of the flow. From the firefighter safety perspective, the new flow meter confirms the water flow and pressure prior to the commitment being taken to enter the fire zone or tackle the blaze. Via a dual LED display it measures pressures up to 17.2 bar and flows up to 946 litres-a-minute. It is one-touch battery powered by a 9V battery with quick-change housing with battery saving standby operation. The unit is programmable for both imperial and metric settings.

Up Close & Personal
Inevitably, there will be high rise fires where there is no alternative other than to attack with hand line nozzles. With firefighting manpower levels now decreasing worldwide (or so it seems) it is important, in a high rise fire with such life threatening potential, that nozzle selection gets particular attention. There is a particular need to be able to engage a fire at high flow rate with minimal nozzle reaction, so achieving a high flow rate at low pressure is a topic currently being discussed widely by senior firefighters.

Among the most popular nozzles from Elkhart for high rise firefighting is the fixed-flow, break apart Chief nozzle that delivers a constant litreage from either a smooth bore straight stream or full fog at the same low pressure. With more than 300 available variations, it comes in true low pressure versions with specifically engineered, calibrated and labelled stems down to 3.5 bar.

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Out of Harm’s Way
Even with advances in flow metering and nozzle design, remote firefighting remains the safest option for firefighters. To achieve this in high rise buildings where the fire is above the level reached by aerial platforms or platform fire trucks Elkhart designed Hero Pipe, which delivers a high volume of water from the floor below the fire, directing it at the heart of the blaze.

Hero Pipe delivers the firefighting attack water from the exterior of virtually any building, targeting large volumes of water from an unmanned telescopic waterway utilising the company’s Sidewinder EXM high-flow, electric remote controlled water cannon. The floor-below design provides a significantly safer option for the neutralisation of hazardous material fires and, once the proper attack point has been established, Hero Pipe can be set up by a two-man team, and be in operation in as little as two or three minutes. Safety features include a control valve and pressure gauge that are utilised to eliminate the need for standpipe operator communication.

The equipment can be used on conventional load bearing walled buildings and those incorporating curtain walling hung off the building’s structural framework. The assembly’s base unit is clamped securely to the window sill of the floor below the fire or, in the case of curtain walled structures; it fits directly on the floor slab and incorporates a non-slip base footing. In either case, the assembly is additionally restrained by the use of adjustable hydraulic stabilisers that are fitted between the structural floor and the structural ceiling of the storey below the fire. The pipe extends upwards out of the window to any height between 2.29 metres and 4.57 metres to the incident floor above. It incorporates a quick-connect coupler that ensures fast and easy adaptability, while a remote controlled articulated nozzle provides 40° horizontal movement and 80° vertical movement.

The system is transported in three parts comprising: the base unit; the waterway; and the hydraulic stabilisers. The assembly’s base unit is a one-piece assembly and is unloaded from the fire truck and rolled into position like a wheelbarrow. The assembly’s sill clamps incorporate a ratchet locking mechanism that provides vibration-proof clamping and 635.6 kg of nominal pressure. The lightweight pipe rolls on tracked wheels and contracts to just 2.29 metres for ease of storage, transportation and handling. Each of the hydraulic stabilisers produces up to 158.9 kg of self-circulating end pressure.

The incorporation of the Sidwinder EXM water cannon gives the ability to deliver a targeted stream via remote control. This allows the operator to use horizontal or vertical movement to reposition the water stream without exposing himself or herself to any unnecessary danger. A further enhancement that is proving popular is to combine the assembly with a high resolution thermal imaging camera. This enables the hottest areas of the fire to be ascertained, chemicals to be detected remotely, and the nozzle to be targeted accurately for the greatest and swiftest effect. The recommended camera for this application is Bullard’s T4 Max and digital command centre.

Jerry Herbst is Strategic Development Manager, National Accounts, at Elkhart Brass

Jerry Herbst is Strategic Development Manager, National Accounts, at Elkhart Brass

For further information, go to www.elkhartbrass.com

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