It is one of the most difficult, dangerous and daunting scenarios facing Tampa Bay area firefighters: a high-rise fire. "We don't go to those types of fires day in and day out," said St. Petersburg Fire Rescue Training Chief Joe Bruni. "It's a whole different animal, and unless you train and prepare for it, you won't be ready for it." That's why Pinellas County firefighters are in the midst of their first high-rise fire drill in eight years. By the end of May, every one of the county's 1,200 firefighters from 18 departments will have run through a practice drill at the abandoned 15-story Graham Park Apartments at 325 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St. S.
Each year there are 1,000 injuries and 60 deaths in an estimated 15,000 high-rise fires in the United States, according to the National Incident Fire Reporting System. The Tampa Bay area, which has a high concentration of the elderly and the immobile living in high-rise towers, is particularly vulnerable. Firefighters estimate it takes two of them to evacuate every special-needs civilian.
But evacuating an entire high-rise is nearly impossible. So firefighters try to knock down the fire from the inside while searching for trapped civilians.
A high-rise fire could require 50 to 70 firefighters to handle, Bruni said, if things go smoothly. If they don't, it could take up to 200 firefighters to tackle the blaze — half of the on-duty firefighters in the county.
The key is the stairwells. When teams of firefighters attack the "fire floor" or search for trapped or injured civilians, the stairwells are their lifelines to the ground. It's also the primary means of evacuating civilians. That's why a team of firefighters concentrates on clearing the stairwells of smoke so the others can do their jobs.
What happens if the stairwells are compromised? The eighth floor — about 100 feet up — is the usual limit of bucket and ladder trucks. But the tallest building in St. Petersburg is the Signature Place condominium tower downtown — at about 400 feet.
The last resort, Bruni said, is for specially trained firefighters to rappel down the side to reach trapped victims. "That would be our last option," he said.