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Exercising is Good for Everyone

In the 1974 movie The Towering Inferno, a bad circuit-breaker on the 85th floor of a 138-story building sets off a fire, trapping 300 dignitaries at a party on one of the top floors. At the time that movie was made, high-rises were considered exotic—found only in the largest cities, such as San Francisco, Chicago, and New York. Today, such towers are ubiquitous, numbering roughly 88,500 and located in more than 7,000 cities worldwide. New York alone has more that 2,000 high-rise buildings. Still, the main theme of the movie remains unchanged more than 30 years later: A fire in one of these towering structures can be a nightmare for first responders charged with containing the blaze and rescuing the people trapped within.

The public may think that high-rise fires are not a frequent occurrence, but the facts suggest otherwise: The United States Fire Administration, a division of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, estimates that approximately 15,500 high-rise fires occur each year, causing 60 civilian deaths, 930 injuries, and $252 million in property loss. Notably, 69 percent of high-rise fires originate on the 4th floor or below, and 60 percent are in apartment buildings, making evacuation a challenge.

Security managers charged with protecting people and assets in these types of structures can increase the odds that they will be prepared to meet that challenge by proactively reaching out to local first responders ahead of time and conducting joint exercises. Last year, while serving as chair of the ASIS International Fire and Life Safety Council, I had the opportunity to participate in an exercise that was the result of this type of outreach. The experience illustrates the benefits of partnering with local authorities for training exercises.

The opportunity for public-private collaboration arose when David A. Talley, CPO, director of security for Renaissance Tower, was at a meeting of the Dallas Emergency Response Team (DERT). He heard an announcement that the Dallas Fire Department (DFD), also known as Dallas Fire-Rescue, was looking for a high-rise facility where it could conduct a fire training exercise.

Talley wanted to volunteer Renaissance Tower, the second tallest building in Dallas and the fifth tallest in Texas, not only to help the local first responders but also to give his security department the opportunity to work with those responders in a major exercise. First, Talley needed management buy-in; he explained the benefits, and they concurred. He then contacted the DFD.

The DFD conducts frequent high-rise firefighting exercises, but these are typically held at its six-story concrete training tower. Most cities have similar training structures. These facilities serve a purpose, but they cannot truly simulate for firefighters what they will encounter in a real-world high-rise environment. That’s why the DFD was seeking a private partner willing to let the department conduct an exercise in its building.

As DFD Deputy Chief Harold Holland, who was in charge of the fire-training event, explains, “Any time you have an opportunity to get away from the classroom and the training center to put your experience and training to the test in a new environment, it allows firefighters to become more innovative in their tactical approach to the specific objectives.”

Among the parties participating in addition to DFD would be the Dallas Police Department, the Dallas Office of Emergency Management, and the Salvation Army. The Dallas medical response team and the arson investigators were there to interact with the Renaissance Tower security department and management team.

The fire department organized and planned the training, and coordinated the support of other city departments and services. Meanwhile, Talley worked with the building’s management, the tenants, and his security staff to ensure that they were prepared. The drill would be on a weekend to minimize the disruption to business operations. Most tenants would not be in, easing the logistics.

The only major tenant that would be in the building was a major credit card company that operates 24/7. Since the incident scenario did not involve the floor of the tenant, it was agreed that evacuation of those workers was not necessary. The goal of this particular exercise was not to test evacuation procedures, which the company practiced separately.

Staging the Event

Finally the day arrived. It was a Saturday. At 7:00 a.m., the fire department’s coordinating team began arriving; team members had the script for the event—the standard operating procedure for fighting a high-rise fire—and the duty roster of participating firefighters from fire stations located around Dallas.

Many of these firefighters would be working for the first time with their team mates. The concept was that of a “train the trainer” format in which the participants would return to their stations and convey what they learned during the exercise.

According to Chief Holland, the objective of the exercise was to test how the fire response procedures and the communications equipment worked in the real environment of the Renaissance Tower. The procedures comported with the Incident Command System (ICS) Protocol, which has become the standard for emergency response.

As the exercise got underway, the Dallas Police Department had already established a four-block working perimeter around the Renaissance Tower to ensure the safety of both participants and civilians during the exercise. Even though the exercise was a priority, the City of Dallas had to continue to operate. For example, the Dallas light rail system (DART) needed to continue its schedule. The rails ran within a few yards of the Tower. Police officers were there to allow the trains through but keep other, unauthorized traffic out.

A section of Elm Street three blocks from the Tower had been turned into a massive parking lot, where firefighters along with the fire trucks and other emergency equipment were staged, awaiting the official alarm. When they received word of the call from the dispatcher, they went into action; the emergency lights went on, the horns began to sound, and firefighters began to scramble for their assigned vehicles.

Some might feel that having the fire equipment waiting at a predestinated place (staging area) would detract from a “real test.” However, assessing response time was not a goal of this exercise. The primary reason for placing the fire trucks and participating responders at a location near the test site was to prevent fire trucks and other equipment racing through the streets in response to an exercise, not an emergency. An injury or series of injuries in such a situation would be difficult to justify.

Activating the Alarm

At 10:00 a.m., the fire alarm was activated on the sixth floor, signifying the beginning of the event. A temporary telephone number for fire dispatch had been established. The building security officer on duty called the temporary number. A city dispatcher assigned to the exercise answered the “emergency” call and alerted the first responders.

From their staging point, emergency vehicles began arriving at the Tower in rapid succession. Also brought to the scene—and one of the focus points of the exercise—was the communications equipment, including two new vehicles. The first was the Mobile Command Center, known as the “Command Van,” which served as an on-location center of operations. The second was the Mobile Emergency Communication Vehicle (MECV), basically a roving antenna to ensure good communications with the firefighters.

The Command Van is a specially designed vehicle built on the concept of a mobile home with pull-out walls. When fully extended, it houses an operations center large enough for six individuals to monitor and command the operations of a major emergency. It is dispatched on any incident that exceeds two alarms.

At the center of the unit is the actual incident command center; in the rear are a small conference room and a restroom. At the front, just behind the driver’s area, is an auxiliary communications center that houses a fax machine, a land line, and a printer. The unit was designed for self-contained operation with generators that can operate the equipment and environmental system of the vehicle.

The communication equipment in the unit makes it possible to establish working channels of communication for specific operational divisions, such as tactical, operations, and fire, allowing each to have its own channel. Several charts, such as the tactical work-board and organization chart, are maintained in the center.

From the center, personnel monitor the overall status of the emergency, tracking resources, and conveying a plan of action to the commanders and firefighters. In this incident, Deputy Chief Michael Price was in charge of the Command Van. Talley served as the corporate incident commander, and his security force was given a communication radio frequency. Talley was in the Command Van along with the building manager, equipped with a set of building blueprints to answer questions as the exercise progressed.

The MECV was also on site. It is a relatively new unit, so this exercise provided a good opportunity to test its capabilities. In buildings where communications are difficult, it has the capacity to receive communications from the lower floors and bounce the signals to the top floors. It can also instantly repeat messages if they were not understood the first time.

In addition to those vehicles, the canteen vehicle of the Salvation Army arrived to serve coffee and snacks to the firefighters as it would do in a real emergency.

The firefighters were in full bunker gear. They began to pull the necessary equipment from the trucks.

The building’s security force’s first duty was to contact the fire department as had already been done. Then, using CCTV capability and the alarm panel, security in a real event would try to determine the exact location and extent of the fire to inform its own efforts and to provide up-to-date information to the arriving firefighters. The security team in a real event would simultaneously begin the evacuation process, but, as noted, this exercise was not testing evacuation procedures.

It was also security’s job to help the firefighters enter and proceed through the building toward the fire. The fire department was directed to the Elm Street entrances, which had been unlocked. Security met the arriving fire crews, briefed them on the situation, gave them access to the building, and answered any questions they had about the building.

With hoses, ropes, bulky cutting devices, axes, huge fans, and ladders, firefighters hurried into the building. Once inside, they found, as in most fire alarm situations, that the elevators were recalled to the first floor and were inoperable. The mock fire was on the sixth floor. The firefighters needed to find the stairwell.

Then came one of those moments where the benefit of having a practice in a real building was obvious as was the benefit of having security personnel on hand to answer questions. The whereabouts of the stairwell in this particular building was not immediately apparent.

The first floor and lobby area were designed with beauty in mind, not functionality. Running along the southwest and northeast walls were a series of off-white panels that to the casual observer looked like mere decoration. However, a door that concealed the stairwells was an unobtrusive part of these panels. It was marked only by small gold lettering that identified it as the access to the upper floors.

In a real emergency, firefighters might have lost valuable time searching for the stairs had they not had security staff at hand to help acclimate them to the environment. Security staff members directed the crews to the portal leading to the stairs. At that point, the fire department took over the building, and the security department pulled back to act as a resource, as needed.

The firefighters made a last minute check of their equipment. Once they started up to the fire location, they would not want to have to return for additional materials. They then headed up the stairs.

Taking the Heat

After the group had gone up and had time to set up their temporary base of operation on the sixth floor, I climbed the stairs to observe the operation. Climbing to the sixth floor gave me an appreciation of what firefighters face in their efforts to extinguish fires and save lives. I was definitely out of breath when I reached the sixth floor, and I wasn’t wearing 94.5 pounds of bunker gear and wasn’t carrying all of the firefighting equipment that was needed to extinguish a raging fire.

As I entered the floor, I passed two firemen who had hooked up several hoses to the standpipe located in the stairwell. The remaining firefighters had divided into teams with assigned duties of fighting the fire or searching for bodies.

Dummies were used for victims and were stashed in various offices on the sixth floor. A fire department observer was watching and taking copious notes as the teams went through the process of securing the floor from fire.

A beeper sounded, indicating that the air supply of one of the rookies was getting low. Excitement causes rapid breathing and an increased use of air. Fire crews come prepared for this. Extra air tanks had been carried up the stairs during the initial climb and were stationed next to the stairwell, along with other equipment.

I noticed that ropes were tied to each of the firefighters to keep them from wandering away from the group in the heavy smoke that would normally fill the area in a fire. The ropes would also allow the team to find or pull back a member who had been overcome by heat, smoke, or exhaustion. I also observed that the teams were crawling on their hands and knees, staying down low where the smoke would be less intense and where visibility would be better and toxic fumes would be less severe.

Back on the ground outside of the facility, the supervisors were at their posts in the Command Van listening to the radio communications and receiving status reports of the exercise’s progress. The MECV was, meanwhile, constantly being driven around to reposition its equipment where reception was strongest.

The tactical teams knew that in downtown Dallas, as in other big cities, each building has areas of good reception and areas where nothing can be heard. The interference is caused by the steel beams used in high-rise buildings. The fire department used this training exercise to locate the good and bad reception areas of Renaissance Tower and charted them for future reference.

Dallas Fire Department supervisors acted as both facilitators and evaluators, documenting the event as it unfolded. They also made sure that the trainees used proper protocol for fighting a high-rise fire. For the most part, the battalion commanders were responsible for on-site correction of problems as they arose, just as they are in a real fire.


The exercise lasted about two hours. After it was completed, everyone met for a debriefing. The Renaissance Tower security team and DFD personnel gathered in the lobby and dissected the exercise. The administrators and planners discussed the logistics of the set up and execution of the exercise.

It was viewed as an overall success without major mishaps. The exercise did, however, highlight some issues, such as the major problem of communication between various agencies that have to respond to such an incident.

“We currently just don’t have enough frequencies to properly communicate without sharing channels and talking over each other,” says Holland. “But we’re working on it and testing it in exercises like this one.”

Talley says that the exercise was instructive in that it gave his team the opportunity to interact with the fire department in a simulation of a real event and to see what they would be expected to do.

Talley is now in talks with the commander of the Dallas SWAT Team to see whether that group would be willing to conduct an emergency exercise based on a high threat situation to give his security team a chance to experience a nonfire emergency.

Going forward, the DFD plans to hold two emergency exercises each year. The department hopes that each exercise will be held in a different facility where the security managers are willing to volunteer time and space. The lesson for security professionals is that anyone responsible for facility fire safety can reap the benefits of joint exercises by contacting their local fire departments and volunteering to host a simulated event.

E. Floyd Phelps, CPP, is a member of the ASIS International Fire & Life Safety Council and a frequent contributor to Security Management.