HIGH-RISE Fire Fighting
  Developing better responses to fires in tower bocks and high-rise buildings.


Understanding and Identifying risk


"Firefighters are routinely exposed to levels of risk that would be unacceptable elsewhere in society" quoted from UK Health and Safety Executive: OC 334/5 2012




The Doctrine of the UK FRS (Fire and Rescue Manual : Incident Command) says:


"In a highly calculated way fire fighters;

Will take some risk to save saveable lives

May take some risk to save saveable property

Will not take any risk at all to try to save lives or properties that are already lost"


Recent events in the UK-FRS confirm the FRS willingness and ability to take risks. But are we taking them in a Highly calculated way ? Hind site would seem to suggest that we aren't!

In recent years the UK-FRS have lost 4 firefighters to fires in residential tower block fires. As recently as 2011 we came close to loosing 4 more firefighters, when they became trapped in a lift servicing a high-rise building in London who, unbeknown to them, corridor was on fire.

High rise fires pose a significant risk and potential danger to all Firefighters attending them.


Moral Pressure


Firefighters are professionals who are highly trained to use many rehearsed routines, procedures and a wide range of equipment to save life, property or the environment within a dynamically risk assessed environment. The argument against moral dilemmas for firefighters is that as professionals They understand and are experienced in the arena of emergency incidents and should stick solidly training.

A moral dilemma is an apparent conflict between moral imperatives, in which to obey one would result in transgressing another(1). Much research has been undertaken on moral dilemmas but it is broadly accepted that as humans rather than animals (who perceive bodily self-interests and have limited ability to perceive alternatives) we have the abilities of forethought and rationalisation - so moral dilemmas or the situation of committing one wrong to avoid committing another wrong does exist.

The debate can also considers the 'amount' of wrong but this is really perceptual and intangible.

Resolving moral dilemmas is rarely simple or clear-cut and very often involves revisiting similar dilemmas that recur within societies. In possible scenarios, fire fighters who are the first to arrive at the scene may have pressure to undertake roles which would under there normal Service Orders require more resources than are available such as deploying BA. It is accepted that such incidents are fortunately quite rare; however it is unquestionable that they do occur. Considering that fire fighters are already willing to put their lives at risk to save others when the service asks less individuals to initially undertake potential life saving activities the increase in this risk would be untenable. It cannot be argued that the less firefighters in attendance the more concentrated the risk and dilemma.

The Health and Safety Executive recognise this also with the quote (2): “….firefighters are routinely exposed to levels of risk that would be unacceptable elsewhere in society. This is, however, their function and there is a societal expectation that they will fulfil this role.“When considering what is reasonably practicable, inspectors should take account of this imperative, which embodies the role and functions of the firefighters, along with the societal expectation of what they will do.” Fire Services have been warned by the Review of Standards of Emergency Cover Report – Technical Paper C – Response & Resource Requirements (1985): “It is essential to avoid situations which motivate or pressurize firefighters to act unsafely in the interests of saving life”.


Risk Aversion


It has become popular to accuse the UK FRS of being risk adverse. It may be true to say that organizationally they have. But this is generally not true of operational firefighters and their immediate supervisors.

What has become apparent is that, as more senior supervisors attend incidents (armed with a greater depth of training in the legal, strategic and political issues surrounding safety), there is a tendancy for the command decisions to be perceived as 'more' risk adverse.

Risk Awareness


Risk Awareness is closely related to Situational Awareness (3), Situational Awareness (SA) involves being aware of what is happening in the vicinity, in order to understand how information, events, and one's own actions will impact goals and objectives, both immediately and in the near future.

This understanding is itself related to the skills and knowledge the IC brings. The FRS is recognised worldwide for its work and proficiency in techniques such at Dynamic Risk Assessment (DRA) but a risk assesment can only be accurate if it wil well informed.


Risk Balance

What is required of those making command decisions is a deep and through understanding of the specific problems that high rise buildings can poses. This combined with pre-incident, building specific intelligence (PRM-SSRI) and current incident status will better inform the decision making process.



Operational Discretion

The use of Operational discretion by Incident Commanders will, in most circumstances, lead to an elevated risk. As such, its use must be limited and warranted.


All FRS operational procedure for high rise incidents should be tested and robust but, we must recognise that it is impossible to anticipate every situation which may occur, the procedure should also allow sufficient flexibility. This will empower an Incident Commander to exercise operational discretion when either pre-planning arrangements or the prevailing circumstances make this justified.

At many high rise incidents, the full implementation of the Fire and Rescue Service’s operational procedure, without any deviation, will be necessary and appropriate. This will assist in ensuring that these incidents are resolved safely, effectively and that all FRS personnel are following a preset process.


However, scenarios can arise at high rise incidents where unforeseen or unpredictable circumstances require deviation from existing tactics. Typically this may be when  :


1. To rescue a ‘saveable’ life in circumstances where the complete implementation of high rise procedure would lead to an unjustifiable delay, resulting in the potential for greater injury or additional lives lost.


2. To deal with Fire Survival Guidance (FSG) callers who may need evacuating due to incident escalation


Any deviation from procedure must be justifiable in terms of risk versus benefit and based upon the Incident Commander being fully risk aware and knowing the actions which are normally required as part of operational procedure.

The Incident Commander must only deviate from high rise procedures having deliberately risk assessed their intended actions and their likely impact and any deviation must be the minimum necessary to achieve the objective(s).

This approach will minimise exposure to the increased levels of risk that will be taken and any decision to depart from operational procedure should be recorded.

The level of justification required from the Incident Commander must also be proportional to the degree of deviation undertaken i.e. significant deviation from an established procedure will require correspondingly high levels of justification.

The Incident Commander must return to standard operating procedures as soon as practicable.

All deviations, and the associated risk assessment from procedure should be formally recorded at the incident using an Incident decision log or by message to the Incident Control Point