The concept of ‘stairwell protection’ primarily suggests firefighters should locate and secure, or establish, and maintain, at least one means of vertical egress from a fire involved building. ‘Stairwell protection’ as a strategy differentiates itself from ‘stairwell search’ which is often a reactive response to fire survival guidance calls.
Stairwell search is where teams of firefighters are deployed to areas above the fire sector to search for, and assist or rescue, occupants who are trapped or threatened by fire or smoke.
Stairwell protection is primarily a proactive strategy that is directed at protecting occupants who may already be self-evacuating, whilst at the same time securing stairwells for an emergency evacuation should it ever be needed. The strategy is aimed at using all available means, tactics and resources to mitigate smoke infiltration into stairwells.
A German fire chief once told me that the most important room in a fire building is the stairwell! He is right! Stairwell protection is the most important strategy and function of a successful firefighting operation, in an occupied building involved in fire. That’s why we design buildings that way, to protect the escape routes using passive and active means such as fire resistance and smoke control systems.
The intent is to protect the horizontal and vertical escape channels long enough for persons to evacuate safely and allow firefighters to enter and establish a base from which they can mount an effective fire attack. In a residential building, a care home, a hospital or a phased evacuation office tower, these escape channels must be kept clear of smoke and combustion products for an extended period of time. In a block of flats, the common ‘stay put’ policy means we must ensure that escape routes are relatively smoke free for the entire length of time we are firefighting. If they aren’t, something has gone wrong with the building, its systems, or our own firefighting actions.
In 2005 New York City Deputy Fire Chief Vince Dunn made it very clear for us that we should protect the stairwells at building fires! Did we learn anything then? Is it relevant now? “In 1995, six people died in the stairway of a burning high-rise apartment building in Ontario, Canada. In l998, New York City, four people were killed in a smoke-filled stairway on the 27th floor during a high-rise apartment house fire. In l998, three FDNY firefighters died, in a smoke and heat filled 10th floor hallway, of a high rise-rise senior citizens residence. In Chicago, 2004, six office workers were killed in a smoke-filled stairwell attempting to escape fire in a high-rise building. Stairways and hallways can be deadly spaces during a fire". Fires from high rise apartment and office buildings spread to public halls. Smoke, heat and toxic gases fill up the stairways.
One particular golden fire-ground rule I learned during my time as a New York State firefighter (1976-78) was that the vertical escape routes should be protected at all times by firefighters. This tactical nugget was indoctrinated into me at an early stage of my career and stayed with me throughout my service as a London firefighter.
It appears at section 3.3.29 of the FDNY Multiple Dwellings (residential high-rise) SOP:
3.3.29: "The first line stretched for a fire in a multiple dwelling should be stretched by way of the interior stairs. The primary purpose of this line is to safeguard the stairway so that it can be used by the escaping occupants. The door to the fire apartment must not be opened while people are coming down the stairway from the floors above. When the safety of the stairway is assured, this first line may be advanced to extinguish the fire".
Stairwell Protection Teams
In an operational perspective, the deployment of properly trained and equipped stairwell protection teams, patrolling and monitoring stairwells in assigned five floor zones above the fire floor is of great benefit. These firefighting teams are an enhancement of the Curtis Massey Rapid Ascent Teams in Chicago and New York and must be in position at an early stage during firefighting.
Where buildings also have extended corridors, the assignment of additional resources may become necessary and the effectiveness and correct operation of smoke control systems are vital.
Reversing a 'stay put' strategy
As buildings are at present in the UK, it is unlikely we can effectively reverse a stay put strategy. However, what we can do is maintain existing vertical escape channels free of smoke to enable those that decide to leave to do so safely, whilst enabling firefighters to reach upper levels in case total evacuation becomes a requirement. The original ‘stay put’ strategies for 1960s CP3 buildings was to give an option where the residents away from the flat of fire origin are advised to ‘stay put’, but also leave by the stairs if they felt they wanted to. In fact, that’s exactly what the evacuation instructions were for Grenfell Tower. The fire service has no direct responsibility in the evacuation of fire involved buildings and yet, inevitably they will take responsibility when a building begins to fail by design, or where specific fire behaviour surpasses the passive or active design limitations. There has to be foresight of such failures and firefighting tactics and command strategies that encompass evacuation need pre-planning, training and equipping for.
Smoke control systems and fire resistive measures are provided by codes to ‘protect the stair’ for escaping occupants above the fire floor in ‘stay put’ buildings, even during firefighting operations. Therefore, our tactical objectives are surely to maintain any such escape routes at all times as part of any evacuation strategy.
The importance of stairwell protection and reversing a ‘stay-put’ strategy is nothing new. It was written into national high-rise firefighting guidance in GRA 3.2 and also National Operational Guidance some years ago:
These two factors form life critical directives that should serve to determine our tactical approach at every fire in multi-storey residential buildings. However, there are conflicts in both building design and operational guidance that serve to prevent firefighters from effectively achieving this. Residential apartment buildings in the UK were never designed to support the reversal of a ‘stay put’ strategy as there is no designated means of communicating with occupants. In the USA and other countries there are normally two stairs, a specially protected evacuation stair and often voice alarm public address systems that enable the fire service to communicate evacuation instructions, if ever needed.
Placing rising main outlets in the stair and directing firefighters to take hose-lines through fire doors protecting the stair is additionally countering the above guidance and potentially cutting off vertical escape routes. It is certain that following the Grenfell inquiry and the upcoming technical review of building fire safety guidance, one debate still to be had that may influence the firefighting facilities (B5) guidance on rising mains will surround the following proposals.
“In situations where single exit stairs may become compromised by smoke as firefighters open up the fire compartment, the evacuation of the entire building above the fire floor, and possibly below it, may need to be prioritized”.
Paul Grimwood 2011 Hemming Fire Journal