The Ups and Downs of Understanding High-Rise Stairwells

Photo courtesy Chicago Fire Department PIO

By Guido Calcagno

High-rise firefighting can present numerous dangers, concerns, and tactical obstacles that must be overcome to safely, effectively, and efficiently put out a fire stories into the sky. However, with the establishment of incident command, effective communication and stretching the appropriately sized hoseline to the seat of the fire must take place for the incident to be successful. One thing that is often overlooked is ensuring that the appropriate stairwells for fire attack and evacuation are designated. Establishing fire attack and evacuation stairwells prior to starting any other tactical objective lays the groundwork for successful firefighting to take place.

We often use the term “coordinated fire attack” when referring to our “technique” when extinguishing a fire safely. This will be compounded with problems such as increased reflex time, occupants in the stairwell, and the inability to horizontally ventilate the fire using traditional means due to the height and location of the fire in the building. When thinking about these problems they can seem overwhelming. With the right preparation and appropriate size-up by the first companies on scene, these issues can be overcome while ensuring we operate safely, effectively, and efficiently.

Roles and Responsibilities

首先解决的角色engine and first truck company arriving on the scene. It is the responsibility of these two companies to form a fire investigation team and stop at the fire alarm control panel (FACP) to identify the location of the reported fire floor prior to any vertical movement. The two company officers have several responsibilities that should be taken into consideration prior to making the ascent to the fire floor. High-rise buildings are required to have a life safety plan (aka Massey Plan) near the front desk or FACP, which should be requested as soon as possible from building staff by the first fire companies. This provides a wealth of information regarding the building and may also play into our tactical decision making as the incident progresses.



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  • standpipe locations
  • 救援援助领域
  • people registered as needing assistance and their unit number (may be outdated so ensure to confirm with building personnel that the information is accurate)
  • stairwells and their locations
  • smoke towers
  • pressurized stairwells
  • stairwells with access to the roof or bulkhead doors

Although waiting for the life safety plan to arrive if not easily accessible is not necessarily practical, the firefighter or lobby control company assigned to the FACP can keep the fire investigation team notified of pertinent information as it is presented to them when the information becomes available.


Making announcements to selected floors directing people to the correct stairwell will limit the amount of foot traffic in the fire attack stairwell, making it easier for firefighters to operate. Buildings with smoke-proof towers or pressurized stairwells will inform their residents (commercial or residential) to use these protected stairwells for a safer means of egress unless otherwise directed through fire drills or via floor layout maps posted in various locations. Although people may still use the fire attack stairwell, it is much more manageable to relocate only a few people versus several people if the correct notifications have been made consistently throughout the operation.



Designating Fire Attack and Evacuation Stairwells

Considerations must be made when selecting fire attack and evacuation stairwells. This can weigh heavily on how the incident will unfold for the safety of both fire department personnel and civilians. Nonsprinklered buildings are concerning for firefighters when it comes to ensuring proper stairwell selection. Standpipe requirements for nonsprinklered buildings state that a standpipe outlet cannot exceed 130 feet from any given point (Magee, 2018). Older buildings may have standpipe outlets that are in precarious locations that may include a stairwell with a smoke-proof tower or pressurized stairwell. For those unfamiliar with a smoke-proof tower, this is an enclosure between a hallway and a stairwell to provide a margin of safety for occupants using this stairwell for egress. Within this opening there is a louver or window-like system that allows smoke to exit the building similarly to that of a chimney. This separation between hallway and stairwell allows building occupants to exit the fire floor without compromising the integrity of the stairwell. Buildings with smoke-proof towers will recommend their occupants to use the smoke-proof tower for evacuation because this is a safer route of travel if people are trying to leave the fire floor.

当拉伸软管管道从地板下面fire this is now a consideration that weighs on the company officer designating the fire attack stairwell because of the increased life safety hazard in the stairwell from the beginning of the fire until the end. Barring an extreme circumstance—and keeping in mind that “convenience” is not an extreme circumstance—the standpipe in a smoke-proof tower should not be used if given the option. This will compromise the integrity of the stairwell once the doors are opened to the fire floor, creating a flow path from a high-pressure area to a low-pressure area, that being the stairwell. Considerations should be made to connect to the standpipe, stretch the hose through the hallway the floor below, and ascend using an alternative stairwell. Extra hose may be required, however this is a safer option for civilians and firefighters. Bear in mind if we are not considering saving lives, we are merely here to put out a compartmentalized contents fire.

Pressurized stairwells are designed to prevent smoke from entering when the door on the fire floor is opened. Thepressurization system旨在防止烟雾泄漏通过将清洁空气喷射到楼梯外壳中通过闭门泄漏到楼梯上,使得楼梯中的压力大于相邻的压力fire compartment(躺,2014)。如果楼梯间的门被打开,system is intended to maintain a flow of air through the open doorway to oppose smoke flow and prevent contamination of the stair enclosure (Lay, 2014). Although this system is designed to keep the stairwell safer, it runs the risk of becoming compromised if too many people start to exit simultaneously or doors are propped open by either civilians or firefighters. As noted elsewhere by John Ceriello and Pete Van Dorpe, if there is consideration from incident command at any point that a stairwell must be pressurized (even a stairwell is not pressurized already), measures should be given to pressurizing the fire attack stairwell prior to evacuation stairwell.

When the designation of stairwells is made it, is imperative that this is announced over the tactical channel for all members to hear. The firefighter or lobby control company assigned to the FACP can make occupants throughout the entire building aware of the safest way to exit by repeating building announcements as needed. Once the stairwells are designated, they will still need be searched. This is particularly true with the fire attack stairwell. Someone should be assigned to search five or so floors above the fire floor prior to the doorway to the hallway of the fire floor being opened. Once opened, a flow path will be created that may be extremely intense if this is wind-driven fire that has left its compartment. Conditions of a wind-driven fire are untenable with turnout gear, thus giving an occupant without protection minimal chance for survival. This would also require that resources be used to remove a victim from the stairwell to medical care.

Types of Stairwells


U-Return Stairs

U-return stairs are a common design in high-rise buildings, especially in modern construction. U-return stairs consist of two flights of stairs with a landing between each floor. This type of stairwell design allows us to modify our hose lead out to allow us to do more work with less people. In some instances, your whole crew may not be able to make the ascent at the same time. By preconnecting all lengths of your hose on the floor below the fire and leading out a dry line one-half floor above the fire while stretching hose, we can eliminate approximately 50 feet of hose from potentially becoming tangled in the stairwell. Once the line is charge with water and our standpipe is set at our desired pressure, the weight of the water will assist us in making the turn into the hallway. This method would allow us to get a considerable distance down a hallway prior to the firefighter on the heel moving into the doorway to address the pinch point. If this is the method of lead out you will be attempting, make sure that when stretching the dry line up the stairs no couplings are brought up to the landing; these can get caught on the stairs if they are grated. Removing the coupling would require you to place a member in a dangerous position to alleviate a problem that can be avoided. Ensure that you do not lead out up the second set of stairs past the landing. This will create a pinch point that may need to be addressed. Please remember that using this method is contingent on fire and stairwell conditions.

Flaking a hose up stairs
(1) U-Return stairwells are common and easy to identify. When leading out hose in a U-Return stairwell consider leading the hose line one half floor above the fire which will allow gravity to help advance the line.


Straight run stairs are another common stair. They ascend just like it sounds, straight. If you preplan the buildings in your response district, you may see that this type of stairwell can run directly into a unit. If this is the case it, would be an excellent time to conduct a five-minute drill to discuss how you would lead out through a neighboring unit if this was your only option based on standpipe location.

Scissor Stairs

Scissor stairs consist of two stairs which crisscross inside the same stairwell enclosure and are separated by a partition. These type of stairwells present some challenges for all of those operating or attempting to exit a high-rise fire. Stairwell doors to scissor stairs are in close proximity to each other and are sometimes improperly marked by the building. For firefighters to become properly oriented on the fire floor, they should perform a size-up two floors below the fire. This will allow firefighters to orient themselves with the proper door they will use to exit the stairwell prior to making their push down the hall for extinguishment. Some scissor stairs may have standpipe outlets located every other floor. For engine company officers, it is important to recognize if you need more hose to reach the fire prior to extinguishment operations unfolding.

Fire Escapes

Several older high-rise buildings will have exterior fire escapes. Using a fire escape for either fire attack or evacuation should be avoided if at all possible, but our jobs are truly dynamic and situations will vary. Even though the fire escape may not be part of our offensive plan, we still need to consider that there may be civilians attempting to exit using this route. For that reason it is important for any incident commander (IC) or search team to check the fire escapes. If you are the IC or policy writer, consider designating someone to periodically check the exterior of the building for people on the fire escape so there is accountability.

Fire escape
(2) Fire escapes are found on many older buildings and must be checked periodically for victims that are evacuating whom may require assistance. Photo by Greg Havel.

Areas of Refuge


Areas of refuge
(3) Areas of refuge can be found throughout the stairwells in high-rise buildings and are indicated by a placards and markings noting “area of refuge” or “area of rescue assistance.” These locations provide occupants and firefighters the ability to communicate with the fire alarm control panel in the event help is needed or fire department radios are ineffective. Photo by Guido Calcagno.

第二个方面u避难区域的利益s in the event communications go awry. Areas of rescue assistance must have a two-way communication system that firefighters can use to contact lobby command (Americans with Disabilities Act, 2010). The communication system will connect to a central control point (FACP for instance), or to a public telephone system if the central control point is not constantly attended (Americans with Disabilities Act, 2010). The person assigned to FACP needs to have sufficient knowledge of how the FACP operates. This includes the ability to make announcements and answer calls from an area of rescue assistance or stairwell phones. This person should have a writing utensil to keep track of all calls for help or assistance coming in to the FACP, as well as documentation of the time they were removed and to where. Maintaining accountability is very significant as the incident progresses.


High-rise buildings can present a number of complex problems. Through effective communication and proper stairwell selection by the fire investigation team we can start to ensure the incident will run safely, effectively, and efficiently from the top down. A variety of training scenarios will allow you to start to develop an action plan for almost any incident; this will make recognition-primed decision making applicable before the incident becomes one that cannot be easily controlled. Little things such as looking at the location of stairwells on a building floor plan prior to ascending or writing the location of stairwells on an elevator door can heighten the situational awareness of all members allowing them to remain more aware of their surroundings. Each situation will be dynamic. Through proper stairwell identification and selection we can ensure the safety of all people throughout the building, including firefighters, as well as make informed tactical decisions that can save numerous lives.


Americans with Disabilities Act. (2010). Accessible Means of Egress.Required Means of Egress [IBC Sect 1007.1 (2003), Sect. 1003.2.13 (2000)]. Retrieved February 13, 2020, from Guide to ADA Standards:

Groves, A. (2020, March 26). Sinificant Illinois Fires: Cook County Administratino Building Fire.University of Illinois Library. IL. Retrieved from University of Illinois; Significant Illinois Fires: Cook County Administration Building Fire:

Lay, S. (2014). Pressurization Systems Do Not Work and Present a Risk to Life Safety. In S. Lay,Case Studies in Fire Safety(Vol. Volume 1, pp. 13-17). Elsevier. Retrieved February 13, 2020, from

Magee, Clay. “Standpipes 101, Part 1: A Beginner’s Guide to Standpipe Firefighting.”Retrieved January 29, 2020, from Fire Engineering://

RLG A Services. (2013, February 28).The Code Corner High-Rise Buildings.Retrieved January 29, 2020, from The Code Corner:

Guido Calcagnohas been a firefighter/paramedic with the Chicago (IL) Fire Department for 15 years. He has a master’s degree in public safety administration and is currently involved with high-rise operations training for the department.

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