High rise firefighting vs High reach fire engines.

London Fire Brigade 2021 Turntable Ladders; 32m (L) and 64m (R) ©Steve Dudeney

I was an operator of the three types of high reach fire engines used (Aerial Appliances) in London Fire Brigade when I was Station based from the late 1980’s until 2003. I was a Driver/Operator of the Hydraulic Platform’s and a ‘cage’ operator for Turntable Ladder’s and Aerial Ladder Platform’s. I attended countless incidents across London either driving or riding in charge of one of the above from 1990 to 1996 and was responsible for their siting and deployment as a driver/operator or working from the cage firefighting, rescuing, recovering, securing or observing as the officer in charge of the vehicle.

In subsequent years as a senior officer, I was part of a project team that worked with LFB and their Contractor (The now defunct AssetCo). Where key staff with experience in aerial appliances used our knowledge and experience to inform and influence the type and function of aerial appliance that came into use in LFB. Crucially, this saw the reintroduction of the more efficient and reliable Turntable Ladder over the contractors choice of the Aerial Ladder Platform for the 2007 generation of vehicles, which a generation of fire engines later has seen LFB’s new 2021 fleet change completely to Turntable Ladders. It might be fair to say at this point that I could be considered, through knowledge and experience to have a degree of expertise in these vehicles.

In short, I am one of their greatest supporters, and would love to see the numbers increased across LFB area, back to the 35 that were in service when LFB took on it’s current from in 1965 would be a great for a fire service technocrat like me. Sadly though, that era in our society today is never likely to repeat itself. Interestingly (although used and crewed differently) there are 143 ‘Ladder Companies’ in the Fire Department of New York City, and much more relevant (as their use and deployment is more similar to UK Firefighting) The Brigade des sapeurs-pompiers de Paris (Paris Fire Brigade), covering a smaller geographical area than LFB has 63 aerial appliances.

History of Aerial Appliances

A LFB Turntable ladder from the early 1930’s. Photographer unknown

The primary rescue ladder from the mid 1800’s until the 1980’s was the 50ft escape ladder, a three section wooden ladder mounted on a wheeled carriage, that was carried on top of fire engines, initially horse drawn, then steam powered and finally motor driven, called a Pump Escape. These ladders were used by London’s Firefighters to carry out firefighting and rescue for well over 100 years. With the growth in height of building and the need to reach greater height, the first turntable ladders were introduced in the early 20th century and were themselves horse drawn. This time though they were fixed to a ‘turntable’ (thus the name, remained fixed to the chassis and were able to be elevated up to around 70°, extended to 75ft and turn 360° on their turntable. They pre-dated high rise buildings in the modern sense by several decades.

Later, as shown in the photograph above they were permanently mounted to a motorised chassis which leads us directly to the modern turntable ladder we see on the streets of London today. In the 1960’s other types of aerial device were adapted for fire service use. First was the Hydraulic Platform, often called a ‘Simon Snorkel’ after the main UK manufacturer, which were two or three articulated booms (think of your upper arm, forearm and wrist) with a cage fixed at the end of the second or third boom, these had working height of between 77 to 103ft. In the 1980’s Finnish company ‘Bronto Skylift’ (among others) brought the ‘Aerial Ladder Platform’ to the market, which was a sort of combination of a TL and HP, with extending booms, a ladder at the side and a cage at the head of the booms. The first of these, fitted due to their weight to a very large chassis, were introduced to LFB in 1991, seeing service until they were replaced by a similar device on a smaller chassis in the mid 2000’s. Those used in London had a working height of 33m, but were much slower to set up and because of their weight had to be ‘jacked’ off of their road wheels on outriggers much more comprehensively than the TL’s.

A Turntable Ladder working at a fire in Narrow St, Limehouse in 1924.

High rise buildings

When we talk of high rise residential buildings, for commonality, we will discuss the modern ‘block of flats’ that began to appear in post war London in the late 1950’s. In fact the Lansbury Estate in Poplar has eight eleven story blocks from that era, built in 1958/59. Blocks of flats, from early 20th century tenements to elegant central London mansion blocks had been around for several decades previously, but there was no real building regulations bespoke to these types of blocks until the early 1960’s. The standards in relation to newly constructed high rise buildings came as part of British Standard code of practice CP3. This is where construction materials, rising mains, ventilation and all additional measures that differed between low and high rise buildings came into being.

The UK Fire Service designates high rise buildings as those above 18m, 60ft in old money, where it was expected that below that height a 50ft escape ladder carried on a pump escape, with the addition of a ‘first floor’ ladder, the ladder compliment carried on a regular fire engine, people trapped by fire could be reached. Above that, the facilities and construction of the building would ‘take care’ of people. In the 1972 version of CP3, it went further stating… “It has become apparent and generally agreed, that external rescue by the fire service may not always be possible from blocks of flats and maisonettes…. Owing to the high degree of compartmentation provided in dwellings in modern blocks… The occupants should be safe if they remain where they are.” That is the origin of the ‘Stay put’ policy… Incidentally as you can see, a design strategy and not a tactical decision by Firefighters.

High rise fires

There are many thousands high rise buildings in the UK, and they as we have established have been around in large number since the 1960’s. Inevitably, since these buildings were occupied they have been at risk from fire and consequently, over the years there have been many thousands of fires within these buildings. Most of those, thankfully have gone largely unnoticed apart from by the people who lived in or used the block, the fire crews who attended the fires and the landlords or contractors who came in to carry out repairs after the fire.

Personally as a firefighter, driver, junior office and senior officer, I attended dozens of high rise fires, from simple one room fires to complete floor or building burnouts, including the Grenfell Tower fire, where I was ordered on to the incident when I came on duty at 8am on the morning of the fire, several hours after it started. I carried out various roles from being part of the firefighting team initially deployed into the flat to fight the fire, the driver, responsible for securing a water supply and setting into the rising main to provide water for my colleagues inside the building, right up to taking command of large incidents in blocks of flats, two of which I attended in the weeks before I retired from LFB in July 2018.

Because of the part of London that I worked and the period of time I worked there, I attended as many high rise fires if not more than most people in a 30 plus year career. Again, with my experience, knowledge and interest, I was seconded to working groups for both the LFB as part of their high rise firefighting panel and also to the Fire Brigades Union, following a serious fire in a high rise Office block in Paddington in 2003 and a fatal fire in Stevenage in 2005 where two Firefighters were tragically killed. In the time since leaving LFB, I have acted as a consultant for London Fire Brigade’s training provider in assisting with the design of new training in firefighting and fire safety in high rise buildings. As well as acting as a consultant for a number of Landlord’s advising them on planning for firefighting in high rise blocks. Again, I think it fair to say, I have a degree of expertise that is not only related to fighting fires in these buildings, but have an understanding of fire safety provision in terms of the building regulations and the responsibilities of the landlords in respect of the Fire Safety Order.

In all but thankfully a very few fires, the design of the building, effectively a series of fire resisting concrete boxes, built flat by flat, floor by floor has remained true to the regulations under which they were designed and built and have behaved as expected. With the fire remaining within the flat or maisonette of origin, with occasional limited spread of smoke in a localised area and flames, coming from broken windows causing limited spread a floor or so above. Does that mean there isn’t a problem with high rise buildings? No. Does it mean a Grenfell Tower or Lakenhal House will never happen again? No. Are the current regulations around new build high rise buildings where they should be? No, they have improved, but they are not where they should be, particularly as we within the industry were naive in our belief that the regulatory system in the UK would never allow fires like we saw in Dubai and other Countries happen over here.

Even if all new buildings from this day forward were absolutely mandated to have sprinkler systems, additional staircases, and alarm systems, just like similar buildings used as Hotels or Office blocks, what about existing buildings? Although mandating sprinkler system to be retrofitted into existing blocks would be a great step forward in ensuring large fires were unable to develop in future, there is the issue of regular maintenance and inspection to ensure these systems were always working. And how would it be possible to introduce an additional fire protected stairway into existing buildings? External escape staircases may be a theoretical option, but who would bear the massive cost of these in several thousand blocks of flats across the UK and how would the aesthetics and practicalities be considered?

Unfortunately, despite reasonable demands for fire detection and warning systems to be installed in all tall buildings. Human behaviour and real life data paints a story of the boy who cried wolf. Even well maintained systems are often the cause of false alarms and any manner of other events, such as very small fires, burnt toast, malicious actuation, accidental mechanical damage will cause enough false alarms for attrition of the response to the alarm sounding, especially in the middle of the night, that come the big fire, lots of people will ignore anyway.

The real life data that backs this up are places of semi-permanent residence such as University halls of residence or nurses homes. Most of us, when occupying an office, factory or hotel will respond to a fire alarm as we are generally only in these buildings for a short period of time. Where it is our workplace, the employer has a degree of control, by carrying out fire drills and with contractural pressures, instruction to adhere to a fire alarm becomes part of a generally accepted order of what has to be done, like turning up to work in the first place, you won’t be employed for too long if you constantly break the rules.

However, Firefighters across the UK, will be only to willing tell your stories of attending calls to fire alarms in student or other similar accommodation. Having spent several months living there, with a number of false alarms over that time. Unsurprisingly very few people evacuate when the alarm goes off, especially in the middle of a cold wet night in November. If you consider someone living in a block of flats over years or decades, how often would they evacuate realistically after innumerable false alarms. And crucially would they evacuate when a serious fire broke out.

As well as systems to protect residents, albeit thin on the ground it may be argued in relation to similar height buildings put to other uses, all tall buildings previously over 18m, which has in the last couple of years now been changed to 11m, have to have facilities for Firefighters built in. These can be generalised as a protected shaft, effectively the staircase with lobbies and access to each floor. This is where Fire crews begin firefighting operations from a bridgehead, (a notional point a couple of level below the fire floors) a means of getting water into the building, ventilation of the staircase. Newer blocks will also have Firefighting lifts and mechanical ventilation systems and sprinkler systems.

Firefighting in high rise buildings.

In the UK, along with most modern industrialised countries, where there are professional well equipped and trained Fire Services, firefighting in buildings in done internally. These well equipped and trained firefighters with safe personal protection such as firefighting clothing and breathing apparatus along with reliable fire engines and equipment enter the building in most cases to undertake search, rescue and firefighting, unless the building is burning so fiercely it is in danger of collapse or the heat so great Firefighters will perish. Statistically 85% of fires in the UK are fought this way, enabling frequent rescue of trapped victims, the limitation of fire spread and subsequent water damage.

The idea of the protected shaft and firefighting facilities within a high rise building is so those same tactics can be employed. Although the time taken to get water onto the fire, known as the ‘reaction time’ will inevitably be longer, than simply pulling up outside of a house in a street, crews are still able to take their equipment to the bridgehead, plug hoses into the rising main and make an attack on a fire, usually within a few minutes of their arrival. This works day in day out at high rise fires in many areas of the World and is also why most fires in such buildings are the non-events that no one apart from those directly involved will ever have any knowledge of. For that fact alone we have to be thankful.

Back to aerial appliances.

Modern aerial appliances are multi functional, the most important use of a modern aerial appliance is that of rescue, not just from buildings on fire but from people injured at height, trapped below ground (where they can be used in a similar way to a crane) or even below level as they have the ability to elevate below 0° for things such as persons trapped in shafts or wells. Their second role (although LFB claim this is their primary role, I think they are wrong) is to flow very large volumes of water, up to 2500 litres per minute (lpm) onto a fire. That is two and a half tons of water every minute, to gain tactical advantage where the fire, usually in a large space such as a warehouse, factory, church etc has grown to such proportions it has broken though the roof. Firefighters can no longer safely fight the fire offensively and large volumes of water are required to overcome the rate of burning of the contents within the building and eventually quell the fire. The most effective way to do this is from above.

An aerial ladder platform being used as a water tower in its natural enviroment, proving water from height at a large fire. © Steve Dudeney

The idea of an aerial appliance being used primarily to attack a contained fire, even within a high rise building is therefore generally impractical. Unlike Firefighters who can move from room to room, with smaller manageable hoses delivering between 400 to 900 lpm. They can only stop flames spreading in the outer rooms and is very much a ‘sledgehammer used to crack a walnut’ in terms of 2500 lpm of water being blasted into a living room fire in a block of flats. There is of course an important role for them, where they can be deployed, especially where parts of the external envelope of the building have become involved in fire or damaged.

LFB have managed to successfully deal with all of the hundreds of thousands of fires within its history, including the blitz, with aerial ladders with a maximum working height of around 30m/100ft. Grenfell Tower changed that somewhat. The external fire, that spread the entire height of the 68m building was obviously beyond the reach of LFB’s 32m TL’s and ALP’s that were in use. For other reasons, mainly the height of rides in local theme parks, Surrey Fire and Rescue Service, have a 42m ALP, 10m taller than anything that LFB had, that was drafted in later in the morning at Grenfell Tower, in an attempt to deal with an extraordinary fire that had consumed the exterior as wells the interior of a tall building. It should be noted, that it was only because London was in a prolonged warm and dry spell of weather that this was able to set up, after time consuming laying out of large timber jacking plates, on the grass next to Grenfell Tower. In most other times, where the grass is wet and the soil soft this never would have been able to get to work.

It obviously didn’t play well that the largest fire and rescue service in the country and one of the biggest and busiest in the World had to call on a neighbouring much smaller county fire service to provide an aerial appliance with greater reach. That changed things somewhat, so the already planned replacement of the existing 2007 aerial fleet was halted and consideration given to the acquisition of some aerial with a higher reach. Several were considered, the tallest actually available is a 122m vehicle manufactured by Bronto Skylift, but the chassis that rides on would make it almost impossible to negotiate the streets of this city. There are many choices from manufactures in the 42-68m range, but it was decided eventually that the majority, 12 of the 15 replacements would be new, and supremely practical, 32m articulated TL’s with three 64m TL’s to join the fleet.

Pitfalls of aerial appliances.

Although modern aerial appliances fit onto much smaller chassis than they did in previous generations, (non more stark that the fleet of 1991 ‘Bronto’ aerial that LFB used, a 33m working height appliance on a 32 ton multi axle chassis, due to its weight), there are still pitfalls. The current 32m TL’s are among the best on the market today, are massively adaptable and are on a chassis small enough to get into most of London’s streets. But, because of the height they extend to, they have to have jacks (outriggers) that deploy from the side to ensure the whole thing doesn’t tip over when extended. And although modern jacking systems allow for partial or one sided jacking, the width required to deploy is still considerable and become a problem in a lot of London’s congested narrow streets.

When it comes to the 64m TL, it by nature of it’s size has to be paired with a large chassis, similar in size to the old Bronto’s, but obviously much better as it can reach almost twice the height. However, knowing London’s streets intimately, especially housing estates, there will be vast areas where this appliance will not even be able to drive within any workable proximity to the building, before we even consider jacking widths. Then there is elevation to consider. These appliances cannot go up at 90° like a Tower crane, they have a maximum elevation of 73°, so the base of the vehicle, the ladder and the building to which it has to be pitched are effectively a right angle triangle. The base of which has to be 20m away from the building for a perpendicular pitch, then consider the 6.2m jacking with of the outriggers and the 15 ton downforce of the jacks, we have probably taken out almost all back street high rise building and modern luxury apartment developments across the Capital.

The fire in the Relay building this week (7th March 2022) was an ideal fire to showcase the 64m ladder, but it was on the vast expanse of the junction of Whitechapel High street and Commercial Street. Had that fire have been at City Island or Wood Wharf in Docklands, Laurel Point in Stratford, The iconic Trellick Tower in North Kensington or the Ten Degrees development in Croydon. the use of the ladder to its full potential would have been impossible.

What about the higher floors? of the 2700 high rise blocks of flats in London, almost 600 of them are taller than 64m, which is roughly 18 floors, depending on individual floor height of the block. Do the people who live above the 18th floor not have to be considered in all of this? Even if the staircase was blocked with smoke in a smaller building, having experienced on a number of occasions in my career people screaming for their life at second, third and fourth floor windows, their instant and often aggressive reluctance to then climb onto a ladder often comes into play the second the Firefighter reaches out to them. The potential for people freezing in fear, others behind becoming agitated and pushing leading to disaster are to bleak to consider.

In summary, there is of course an absolute need for aerial appliances to be part of LFB’s armour, I think they should be on all calls to fire, no matter what the building, much like they used to be before many of the changes to pre-determined fire attendances in the 1990’s. And these can be especially useful on high rise buildings where they can reach their objective. But they can never replace the skill and bravery of well equipped well trained firefighters using bespoke firefighting facilities to carry out rescue and firefighting in high rise buildings.

The Author, in 2007 discussing the deployment of an aerial appliance at a fire in East London. ©Steve Dudeney

Steve Dudeney was a London Firefighter from 1987 until 2018. he served mainly in the East End of London gaining extensive operational firefighting experience and rising to the rank of Borough Commander. He served in that role in the London Borough of Hackney and Tower Hamlets from 2013 until 2018. Since retirement he is an independent fire safety consultant, specialising in high rise buildings and training of firefighters across the UK in regulatory fire safety. He has been a contributing Author to Firefighting journals and websites in the UK and USA.

2 thoughts on “High rise firefighting vs High reach fire engines.

  1. An excellent article Steve.
    I’m with you all the way on the wider provision of Aerials. However, to me, what the article conveys more than anything is that successful Rescue and Firefighting on High Rise buildings is more often achieved by well trained, well equipped firefighters working within the building.
    I feel that at 64m we have probably reached the limit for the height of FB Aerials in the UK given the physical size of the machines and our often narrow road systems.
    We will never provide Aerials to reach the highest buildings and as such and in the wake of Grenfell,
    a radical overhaul of the planning, design, construction, ongoing inspection and certification of buildings is needed, and the Fire Service must be a major player.

    Thanks again. Great read.
    Take care and stay safe.
    Tony Jones.

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