How High-Rises Have Changed Firefighting

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Those of us who have visited or live in large cities may find it impossible to picture them without their famous skylines, but high rises and skyscrapers are a recent innovation. The first high-rise was the Home Insurance Building, built in Chicago in 1884. Starting with Chicago, and following with New York, the U.S. embarked on an amazing and industrial development of high-rise buildings. By the late 19th century, techniques for high-rise construction had developed to such an extent that huge sky-scrapers became a reality.

With more high-rises built every year, firefighting techniques have evolved to ensure the safety of high-rise residents. Many of these techniques have been incorporated into firefighting programs across the country and inform how wind-driven fires are approached. Let’s break down high-rise firefighting innovations through history:

High-Rises and Firefighting

Most fire experts know that the presence of wind can make any fire-fighting situation more dangerous. This fact becomes even more relevant when regarding the top floors of taller buildings, where the spread of heat and smoke can make finding safety more difficult for trapped inhabitants. Although some high-rises come equipped with automatic sprinkler systems and stairwell safety solutions, most high-rises in big cities aren't properly equipped, delivering a greater threat to residents and firefighters alike.

Over the years, high-rise buildings have had a hand in challenging some of the most talented firefighters in America, leading to a number of terrible casualties. In extreme cases, firefighters may have to deal with problems such as:

  • limited access
  • wind-driven fires
  • complex crew rotation
  • air management issues
  • poor means of ventilation

Fortunately, thanks to research efforts, some of these issues are now in the process of being resolved with field-tested equipment and refined tactics.


On November 21st, 1980, the Grand Hotel MGM fire in Las Vegas ended with over 600 injuries and 84 deaths. Military helicopters were used to retrieve occupants from the roof and upper balconies of this 26-story hotel, which likely prevented the death toll from reaching even greater numbers.


The significant heat that wind-driven fires cause makes it impossible for firefighters to reach the public hallways of high-rise buildings to conduct a standard attack. Traditionally, fire departments met the challenge by delivering water from the lower floors to the areas above through vertical "high rise nozzles". Unfortunately, the early models were large and heavy, forcing firefighters to lean out of windows to attach nozzles to windowsills. This method meant that emergency service providers were exposed to potential injury from falling debris or accidents. Over time, improvements to the High Rise Nozzle (HRN) design allowed water streams a reach of 100 feet from 2 and a half inch hoses, and in 2008, FDNY, Polytechnic University, and NIST tested a new high-rise nozzle and approved it for use in the field.


The constant struggle of dealing with high-rise building fires has led to repeated testing in the Chicago Fire Department. As a result, a new tool has emerged known as the "High-Rise Emergency Response Offensive" pipe. Using a rigging design, stabilization and a dynamic pipe, the HERO solution allows firefighters easier access to fire from the floor below the blaze, and the system can be constructed in minutes by a two-person team.

The Evolution of High-Rise Firefighting

Today managing fires in high-rise buildings requires professionals to follow a strict and reliable plan. California, San Francisco, and many other jurisdictions have a countywide plan for mutual-aid, which includes the high-rise plan. Because only a small number of departments will actually have the resources required to manage a high-rise fire, the general plan standardizes various procedures to give each department in the county the same plan for response and training. Effective high-rise firefighting operations need to begin long before firefighters reach a destination. This means that each firefighting crew must have an in-depth knowledge of the different members in their team, what will be required of them, and the resources that are available.
Although steps are certainly being made in the right direction when it comes to helping firefighters tackle difficult circumstances with greater security and skill, it's clear to see that solutions for High-Rise Firefighting may still require some research.

How do you think that the issue of fighting fires in High-Rise buildings could be managed? Do you think there are better options than HERO and the HRN? 

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