(Article appeared in print as "Look up, drill down")
High-rise buildings adopt fire-suppression technology because they are required to by codes, not just because it is available. Fire departments expect such installations to meet standards from the start — they are the first line of defense. Maintaining these systems to ensure the technology stands ready to react after time is the second line of defense. But what is the third?
If you answered ongoing and comprehensive training and education, you move to the head of the class. Failure to train can result in failures during fire, and that isn’t what you want to have to explain on the 6 o’clock news.
Before I elaborate on this training need, remember the four quadrants of the risk-assessment model: low consequence/low frequency; high frequency/low consequence; high frequency/high consequence; and low frequency/high consequence. Many people fail to realize that the high-consequence/low-frequency event probably is the one for which risk-mitigation technology was installed in the first place. And we often fail to train personnel using this same line of logic.
Recently, I read “Revisiting the Swiss Cheese Model of Accidents,” a report from the Euro Control Experimental Center in France. Author J. Reason proposed that multiple contributors (the holes in the cheese slices) must be aligned for any adverse event to occur. Barriers in the system (the slices themselves) are intended to prevent errors that result in adverse events. This is a perfect metaphor for examining what fire departments should be doing in high-risk domains.
Portland (Ore.) Fire and Rescue invited me to attend its high-rise drill. Lt. Ryan Rossing and
Lt. Chris Barney organized the exercise in a 27-story building to see if its combination standpipe system would perform exactly as projected.
The department is well-prepared to fight fires in high-rise buildings. I reviewed its alarm assignment, and it met my expectations for a metropolitan fire department. But the drill didn’t focus on how many people it would to take to perform the job. Rather, it focused on whether the technology would do everything that it had been installed to do.
I often have written that Murphy’s Law is the first rule in combating fires: Anything that can go wrong will go wrong while a building is burning or falling down. Rossing and Barney developed a drill that tested every aspect of the buildings standpipe installation. They didn’t just look at the standpipe; they pumped into it. They didn’t just look at the fire pump in the basement; they ran it. They looked for the things that were going to go right and had a strong sense of what could possible go wrong.
They were rewarded for their diligence by discovering a little bit of both. Fortunately, most of the testing and research went exactly as predicted. They extensively documented each piece of evidence to support their findings, both good and bad.
When discussing with property owners the installation costs related to systems that combat very-low-frequency/high-consequence scenarios, many will attack with one simple question: If an event happens that infrequently, is the cost really worth the benefit? If you have not faced that question, you are in the minority. If you have faced that question and have only one answer — because it is in the code — then this drill should resonate with you. Drills are where your answers come from.
If we continue to require risk mitigation in buildings, the fire service needs to be experts about its performance. We need to train on it. We need to evaluate it. We need to have the specifics about what it takes to make it work correctly under those high-risk scenarios. Lastly, we should be able to look our constituency in the eye when we say that we not only need these provisions, but can be rendered ineffective if they have been denied.
My helmet is off to Portland Fire and Rescue. Many departments would benefit from doing similar exercises in their high-risk occupancies.