firefightersThe results of a landmark study on high-rise fires and the best ways to battle them were released at the 2013 Metropolitan Fire Chiefs Conference in Phoenix, Ariz. last week, prompting many fire departments throughout the United States to re-examine the ways they deal with fires in tall buildings.

The study – conducted by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) – worked with 13 Washington, D.C.-area fire departments to determine ways to improve the fire-fighting process for high-rise incidents. The results indicated that crew size plays the biggest role in the ability to extinguish fires quickly; simply adding two additional members to a three- or four-person team of firefighters can have a drastic impact on the time it takes to extinguish a fire, the study found.

"Unlike most house fires, high-rise fires are high-hazard situations that pose unique operational challenges to fire service response," said Jason Averill, a NIST fire protection engineer who served as a lead researcher on the study. "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."

New best practices in the works

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) plans to formulate new best-practice standards based on the study, while individual fire companies in the country can take the results and custom-tailor them to their departments in the most effective ways possible.

"Rather than providing a one-size-fits-all answer, our study provides a scientific basis for discussions in communities as they consider matching resources deployed to their particular risk levels," Averill added.

According to the NFPA:

  • 41 percent of high-rise office buildings, 45 percent of high-rise hotels, and 54 percent of high-rise apartment buildings in the U.S. do not have sprinkler systems to slow the spread of fire.
  • Even when sprinkler systems are in place, they fail once every 14 fires.
  • There are around 43 high-rise fires in the United States each day.
  • Over 50 civilians die in high-rise fires each year while over 500 more are injured

With high-rise fires so difficult to extinguish (seven-story buildings are too high for most fire ladders to reach), the study provided a much-needed examination of the techniques and strategies used for fighting skyscraper fires.  Upon its release on April 10, industry leaders in the fire and rescue field from all across the county lauded the study for taking a closer look at such an important issue.

Civilians must be aware, too

"High-rise fires are a huge problem, not only in the U.S., but throughout the entire world," said Lou Krupkin, a fire safety expert with SkySaver. "It's great to see researchers tackle this issue in a scientific fashion. The results should save many lives."

"Sometimes it's up to the individual to ensure their safety."

While the nation's fire departments are now armed with important new knowledge from the study, it's also important for civilians to be aware of the danger and work to improve their safety, too, Krupkin said.

"High-rise fire safety is an ongoing process that calls for diligence on the part of fire departments and civilians alike," he explained. "First responders are constantly working to improve their processes, but sometimes, it's up to the individual to ensure their safety. If you live or work in a high-rise building, always plan ahead and try to have a pre-determined escape plan."