Fire chiefs wear white hats, fire captains wear black hats and firefighters wear red ones.                                              RoundTable photo

In practice drills during the evenings of May 6-8, firefighting teams from Wilmette, Winnetka, Skokie, Park Ridge and Morton Grove were on hand to help Evanston’s Fire and Life Safety Services Department “fight” a simulated fire at One Rotary Center, 1560 Sherman Ave. Their presence was pre-arranged, but had it been a real fire, a call would have gone out through a mutual-aid box (MABAS) alarm.

During the drill on May 8, the simulated fire was reported on the eighth floor, and two teams of firefighters were dispatched immediately: a FIT team to the eighth floor to locate the source of the fire and a search-and-rescue team to the ninth floor, said Fire Division Chief Dwight Hohl. While the fire-locator team remained on the eighth floor to find the source of the fire, the search-and-rescue team began its work on the floor above the fire, to see if it had spread upward.

If fire is found on the floor above the original floor, the fire-locator team will search that floor and continue until the extent of the fire has been ascertained, said Chief Hohl. Because smoke rises, the top floor of a high-rise will also be checked, even if the fire is confined well below, said Fire Chief Greg Klaiber.

The search-and-rescue team also searched the stairwells to locate potential victims and to rescue those in danger. In a building with two stairwells, such as One Rotary Center, one stairwell will be determined the “attack” stairwell, to allow firefighters and equipment up to fight the fire, and the other will be the “evacuation” stairwell, to bring down evacuees, said Chief Hohl. In this case, no tenants had to be evacuated.

Evacuation of all tenants in a high-rise is not always necessary, said Chief Hohl. If they are in no danger – and in particular, if any are frail, elderly or disabled – evacuation down many flights of stairs may be harder on them than remaining in their offices or apartments, once the fire department has determined it is safe to do so, said Chief Klaiber. Generally, he said, those on floors below the fire do not have to leave. The fire floor, the two floors above that and the top floor will generally be evacuated, he said.

Working with a building manager, concierge or another person who knows the building and the tenants, “we’ll get a list of who is in the building and who is not, so we can do building checks, condo checks and well-being checks,” said Chief Hohl. 

A “wrinkle” was added to the May 6-8 drills in the form of a simulated Mayday – a firefighter had been “injured.”  The firefighter was found, evacuated and treated.

During an actual fire, each team will have a brief respite every 20 minutes, in the form of a medical evaluation, hydration and, when appropriate, a bit of food before returning to fight the fire, said Chief Hohl.

The procedures followed at One Rotary Center are those followed for all high-rise fires, said Chief Klaiber. “In any building over four stories, we fight fires the same way.”

As do many high-rise buildings, One Rotary Center has a sprinkler system, with water hookups at each floor within the fireproof stairwell. Firefighters will carry the hoses into the building and hook them up to the connection on the floor below the fire, said Chief Hohl.

During this series of drills, the Evanston Fire Department took the extra precaution of using an outside hookup as well, Chief Klaiber said. That redundancy would allow water and water pressure to be replenished from the outside, said Chief Hohl.

All the fire departments follow the protocol Incident Command System as prescribed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Incident Command System, according to FEMA, is a “standardized on-scene, all-hazards incident management approach that allows for the integration of facilities, equipment, personnel, procedures and communications operating within a common organizational structure; enables a coordinated response among various jurisdictions and functional agencies, both public and private; and establishes common processes for planning and managing resources.”

During the series of drills, “we learned something every night,” said Chief Klaiber. “The biggest challenges are communication, with multiple departments checking in, and accountability – knowing where everyone is.” One Rotary Center, operated by Cushman & Wakefield, is a good building, said Chief Klaiber. “The owners are making some renovations that are helping us out,” he said.

The additional teams participating in the drill showed up at the pre-arranged times. Had this been a real emergency, said Chief Hohl, help from Wilmette and Skokie could arrive in as little as 10 minutes after a MABAS alarm was sounded. Firefighters from other departments might take longer, given distance, traffic and other variables, he said.

Mary Gavin is the founder of the Evanston RoundTable. After 23 years as its publisher and manager, she helped transition the RoundTable to nonprofit status in 2021. She continues to write, edit, mentor...