A Case for Fire Control Centers
It’s 3:00 am. The bars in Midtown and downtown are pushing patrons into the streets so that they themselves can go home to their family and maybe catch a few hours of sleep before starting over at noon the next day.
In a 47-story high-tech highrise office building in the heart of downtown, a lonely cleaning crew is trying to get all the offices cleaned up. They are scattered all over the building on multiple floors. The only security officer is playing solitaire on his phone and listening to music while wearing his headphones.
A fire crew located downtown is laying in their bed after just returning from a car accident that was caused by a drunk driver. They are closing their eyes and hoping that everyone on the streets gets home safe and without incident. They hate picking up the pieces after these types of events and they would like to get a little sleep too.
Not going to happen tonight though. A member of the cleaning crew at the highrise office building has called in a report of smoke on the 47th floor. She reported a lot of smoke but could not figure out where it was coming from. The smoke became so bad she was forced to quickly exit the floor. She went down to the lobby and notified the security officer who had no real plan of action for such an event.
Suddenly the building alarm system started activating and now the security guard is panicking. He begins walking around in multiple directions not knowing what to do, where to go, or who to call first. The cleaning crew member is advising the security officer that other members of their crew are still unaccounted for. The security officer is too panicked to even comprehend the severity of this information, much less process a straight thought in what to do now.
The first-in and closest fire company arrives on location. They are met in the lobby by the security officer and have to ask the security officer where the FCC is. The officer escorts the crew to the FCC, but realizes he left his keys at the desk and has to return there to retrieve them. When he returns and unlocks the door, the only thing in the FCC is the alarm panel, some brooms, and dirty mops.
The crew, frustrated at this point reviews the alarm panel. The officer then begins questioning the security officer and it becomes quickly apparent that the security officer will be of little help. The captain makes a decision. He is literally shooting from the hip at this point and on his own to make decisions based on his judgment and experience.
The officer recalls the elevator and places it in fire service mode. He pushes the button for the 45th floor as per guidelines, they are to exit the elevator two floors below the reported fire floor. The elevator doors close, but the car doesn’t move. The officer realizes that the elevator requires an electric key fob to operate.
The crew has to find the security officer again and request the use of his key fob. The company officer and his 2 firefighters are now traveling to the 45th floor. The company officer then realizes his back-up companies will not have a key fob to access the elevators. Those crews will be delayed in arriving to the 45th floor. The officer decides to continue on. Maybe it won’t be much to it; after all, all highrise buildings are sprinklered per code now.
The elevator doors open and the crew is met by a very light smoke condition. They report that the 45th floor is not good for a resource division and recommend he 43rd floor to stage crews and equipment.
At this point, the chief arrives on location and wants answers. The company officer is brief and the chief can hear the frustration in the officer’s voice as he explains the lack of required and expected materials typically located inside an FCC. The chief responds with an acknowledgment and the company officer can hear the frustration in the chief’s voice as he begins assigning additional companies to their duties.
The crew enters the stairwell and walks to the 46th floor. They try to open the door. It is locked. They try the key fob. It does not work. The crew knowing there is something actively burning are not a highly-skilled forcible entry crew; however, they enjoy the opportunity to wreck a door and so they all but rip the door off the hinges. The company officer peeks in and sees that the smoke on the 46th floor is much heavier. He reports the smoke conditions to the chief and continues on to the 47th floor.
In the stairwell and on the landing of the 47th floor, the officer can see smoke pushing through the bottom of the door. He orders his crew to mask up before forcing the door. Again, the crew destroys the door and door frame, but it’s still hanging on the hinges.
As they enter the 47th floor, the officer notices a heavy smoke condition, but a complete lack of heat. He initially thinks to himself that this is going to be a difficult situation and fears they may run out of air before even finding the fire. He orders his crew to start forcing open every office door in search of the fire.
After forcing open and literally destroying 20 doors, the chief officer calls the company officer and advises them that the fire is on the roof. It’s a rooftop fire!
The crew, now met by other later-arriving companies that were delayed for lack of elevator key fobs enter the stairwell to continue to the roof, only to quickly realize that the stairwell does not go to the roof. As a team, they must now return to the 46th floor as it was not so heavily filled with smoke and cross the building floor to access the other stairwell, then proceed to the roof as a team and force another door to exit the stairwell to the roof. The crews hook up to the standpipe on 47 and make quick work of the rooftop fire.
The chief reports to the company officer that a member of the cleaning crew is still unaccounted for. The chief reassigns the officer to the 47th floor for a primary search and the officer is to take on a division officer role as the chief is assigning multiple companies to assist in the search.
The search division officer assigns his crew to take the hallway to the left and begin searching. He can hear the strike of the axe on the halligan as they have to forcibly open every door before beginning the search of each office. Additional companies arrive and the officer sends those crews in the opposite hallway. As he watches them disappear into the smoke, the initial company reports back with a frantic and broken up radio report. “Engine1 to Search division: We found a victim in the bathroom. We are headed back to the stairwell. She has no pulse and is not breathing.”
The division officer relays this to the chief. The chief and division officer can hear the frustration in each other’s voices. They both know a lot of time was wasted because the FCC and building management plans were lacking several things.
This scenario was over-simplified because while every bit of it is something we, as firefighters, deal with on a daily basis, a lot more of this scenario was left out for the sake of keeping it short.
The Fire Control Center (FCC)
The Fire Control Center (FCC) also known as the Fire Command Center in the fire code, is a room designated for the sole use of supplying firefighters with information and some basic equipment needed to control, navigate and communicate when responding to a highrise or midrise building.
Inside the FCC, company officers expect to see several things. The most common is going to be the alarm panel. The alarm panel is so much more than a noise-making device for an officer or firefighter that understands and knows how to read one.
Also expected inside the FCC is a depository box. Inside the depository box, firefighters would expect to find building keys, elevator keys, key fobs, fire phones, contact numbers, PA system, floor plans, and a highrise survey.
In some highrise buildings, the security office is also located inside the FCC. Sometimes the security camera monitors are located inside the FCC. This is a good way to get an early indication of how bad the situation is on the fire floor or if it is going to be an investigative-type incident.
Breaking down the FCC
For a company officer that may find himself assigned to the FCC as a division officer, the bigger the FCC the better. Clutter-free is also a huge plus for the division officer. He may be alone or may have several firefighters assigned to him to run as messengers or operate elevators or simply guide incoming companies to the FCC to retrieve needed equipment and information.
An alarm panel located inside an FCC provides a safe, secure, quiet, and isolated location for the division officer to read, study, and understand what the alarm panel is trying to tell us. There are alarm panels that can tell firefighters where and when the alarm occurred. It can keep track of and report successive alarms. This tells a division officer that the fire is growing and spreading and that conditions are getting worse.
The PA system allows the division officer to control the movement of any occupants that may be in the building. Messages such as to remain in place, or which floors need to evacuate and which stairwell or stairwells to use for exiting the building assist in controlling the flow of panicked occupants and keep stairwells clear for fire crews. A firefighter may be assigned to operate the PA system so that the division officer can continue to monitor the alarm panel and disperse information to the chief or incoming companies.
Floor Plans and Building Surveys
Floor plans and building surveys are crucial elements to be stored in the depository box. These plans and surveys will answer questions that security staff cannot when other building personnel are not available. They can show exactly where fire pumps are, where FDC’s are located and where standpipe and sprinkler zones are located. They can provide a list of disabled occupants that will require assistance. They could also show where battery backup systems are located and how to handle them.
These plans and surveys could contain any amount of information one would consider important and then they are stored safely inside the depository box for easy access by fire crews.
The Depository box should have a key for every door in the building, including building access keys, master keys, elevator keys, and electric key fobs. There should be a minimum of five sets of each key required for access into any part of the building.
These keys are provided to incoming crews with specific assignments. Not every crew will get keys, but crucial groups with assignments that will require such keys should receive keys.
The fire phones are used as an alternate source of communications. It can be plugged into an elevator lobby and used to communicate with either the officer assigned to lobby division or command if it is set up in the lobby.
These phones can be used if radio traffic becomes overwhelmed or if radio communication has failed.
The FCC and depository boxes are absolutely necessary to help set up a fluid operation by providing easy access to building information and keys. If the building management supplies it, it is there for the fire crews to utilize. It will also help limit any additional amount of unnecessary damage caused by fire crews having to utilize forcible entry techniques, saving building owners additional financial loss.
Just a quick example, in one midrise residential fire incident, a single crew had to force over 40 doors on the building wing they were assigned to. There were two wings to this particular building, so you do the math and then imagine if it was 4 wings.
No officer with any experience would intentionally go to the fire floor without visiting the FCC first to see what the depository box has to offer. Any officer that does is only showing his lack of experience or understanding of just how important this information can and will be. The FCC and depository box are there because someone with a lot of experience thought it was a good idea. I, for one, agree that it was a great idea. I have seen the difference in outcomes when the information was not made available quickly. Fire company officers should seek it and use it. Highrise and midrise building management should insist that it be included in the construction phase, not as an afterthought. After all, it’s financially beneficial to the building owners in the event of a fire. It saves fire crews time. A fire doubles in size every minute. Time saved is lives saved. Time saved is money saved.
About The Author
Chris DelBello is a Senior Captain with the Houston Fire Department. He has 32 years of fire service experience with 21 years within HFD. He is assigned to Ladder 7 in Midtown which also serves Downtown Houston. DelBello is also a faculty instructor with Houston Community College and a contributing columnist with Firerescue1.com and Firehouse Magazine.