Managing Editor, IFSEC Insider

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James Moore is the Managing Editor of IFSEC Insider, the leading online publication for security and fire news in the industry. James writes, commissions, edits and produces content for IFSEC Insider, including articles, breaking news stories and exclusive industry reports. He liaises and speaks with leading industry figures, vendors and associations to ensure security and fire professionals remain abreast of all the latest developments in the sector.
January 24, 2022

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IFSEC Interviews

“We learn from the mistakes of others; we may not live long enough to make them all by ourselves” – High rise expert Brent Brooks on the challenges in tall building safety

Ahead of the Tall Building Fire Safety Conference, taking place at FIREX International in May, IFSEC Global speaks to Captain with Toronto Fire Services and speaker at this year’s event, Brent Brooks, about the biggest challenges facing tall building fire safety and what attendees can expect from his presentation at the Tall Building Fire Safety Conference 2022


Brent Brooks, Toronto Fire Services

Brent Brooks is an international speaker and hands on instructor. Brent teaches High Rise Tactics and large diameter hose movements. Currently a Captain with Toronto Fire Services, assigned to Toronto’s High Rise Unit, Brent has developed the IMS, training and RND for High Rise Operations. Brent’s experience also includes serving on numerous committees all related to High Rise Firefighting.

He also represents Canada as a member of the T70 Tall Building Safety Committee based out of London, England. Brent shares information with fire departments from all over the world and has developed a network with subject matter experts related to High Rise Firefighting.

(IG): Hi Brent! How long have you been involved in firefighting – and what led to you specialising in high-rise firefighting in particular?

(BB): My career in firefighting started 28 years ago at Pearson International Airport and Bombardier Aero Space Crash Fire Rescue. I joined the North York Fire Department back in 1995 which later amalgamated with Toronto in 1998.

Two months before I started at the Fire Academy, North York had a horrible high-rise fire at 2 Forest Lane Way. Six civilians died and were found in the stairwells. This was the “big topic” and discussed every day during my recruit training. My very first week on the job, I was lucky enough to be first in on a 2nd alarm low-rise fire. We took the stairs and ran into heavy black smoke. (stairwell door was left open) This forced us to “go on air” SCBA. We located the fire floor and somehow found the fire hose cabinet. We hooked up our hose and nozzle package that turned out to be grossly undersized for standpipe operations.

Water seemed to have little effect on the fire. I was on the nozzle and fought for every inch as we pushed forward until extinguishment. From that moment, I was hooked. (Well… shortly after that. I had to change my shorts first.) In 2006, I transferred to the High-Rise Unit, located in the heart of Toronto’s downtown core.

At the time I thought I knew everything there was to know about High-Rise Firefighting. I was proven wrong in 2010. I had a fire that changed my life. This 8-hour wind-impacted fire was a pivotal moment of realism for me. It takes more than just bravery to put out fires in these vertical buildings, (200 Wellesley St. September 25th, 2010, with multiple firefighters near misses and two MAYDAYS). After this fire I started studying the science behind hose and nozzle packages.

I began my research by investigating past high-rise fires and asking for help from other Fire Departments worldwide. I read papers by Paul Grimwood, Bill Gustin, Dave McGrail, Jerry Tracy, Jack Murphy, Matt Stuckey, and others. In 2015, I started going to “HROC”. It’s the world’s best hands-on high-rise firefighting conference in Pensacola Beach Florida put on by Curt Isakson, Ray McCormick, and the green army from County Fire Tactics. I haven’t missed one yet. Who knew years later, I would be sharing the same stage with my mentors and as a Captain of the High-Rise Unit.

(IG): How different is Canada’s high-rise situation to the current building safety crisis in the UK?

(BB): I can tell you that there is no difference between Canadian and UK firefighters. Firefighters are all the same world-wide, we all want to aggressively save lives and prevent tragedies. Most firefighters in my inner circle donate their time to educating other firefighters and the public.

The difference between Canada and the UK is the firefighting equipment and the tactics used. We both develop our tactics and equipment needs around our city’s infrastructure and the building codes. In North America we use large volume hose lines at low pressure. We use 65mm hose lines that flow 1003 L/min with 350 kPa smoothbore nozzles. This new hose and nozzle package has been the ‘game changer’ for us. Along with using “big water,” we have added door control techniques learned from the UK fire service.

(IG): Do you think it’s ever possible, or appropriate, to have a global firefighting strategy to tall buildings in particular?

(BB): It has to be possible and must be made appropriate as firefighting has no borders. Fires are the same on every continent. We have a world full of subject matter experts and technology has made it easier for us to share information. FIREX and the 7th International Tall Building Fire Safety Conference is a perfect example of this. Countries from all over the world are striving for the same goal of life safety. We now know the science behind fires and how smoke spreads. Sharing this information is critical in making the necessary changes. We need to adapt and advance with the ever-changing building materials, designs, complex layout, systems, and size. We continue to learn from past fire experiences. We learn from the mistakes of others; we may not live long enough to make them all by ourselves.

(IG): What are the three biggest challenges in tall building fire safety? Both from a risk management in occupation perspective, and from a firefighting if an incident occurs perspective?

(BB): The biggest challenge is anticipating and responding to human behaviours under extreme stress. The actions from both occupants and firefighters can alter the movement of smoke and fire spread. Education would be the next big challenge.

Occupants need to evacuate or shelter in place. Firefighters need to get up and control the smoke spread while extinguishing the fire that’s causing all the problems. Every time we travel on a cruise ship (floating high-rise) we go through an evacuation drill. This drill is for both staff and guests.

When living in a high-rise building, you’re only expected to read and interpret what you think should be done in the event of fire. I’d like to see a more formal in-person instruction done every year for the specific building where you actually reside. You’re only as good as your hands-on training. I’d like to see firefighters deploy a full response quarterly with equipment, during an alarm response. We must practice in the buildings we are responding to.

At the beginning of a shift, the fire Chief could say: “Today we are doing a full deployment on the first, ‘bells and smells’ call we are dispatched to.” I do this now with my crew. After we investigate the alarms, we then dry stretch our hose lines. The next challenge is connecting the disconnect between building designers and the firefighters developing tactics. Both parties need to understand the challenges. If one of the building systems fails or there is a design flaw or worse, a catastrophic failure, what is the plan “B” and “C”?

(IG): What are you looking forward to at this year’s Tall Building Fire Safety Conference in May?

(BB): I’m excited to network with like-minded colleagues, continue learning and assist other firefighters which will achieve our ultimate goal of protecting the public. I’d also like to get Paul Grimwood to sign his two books that I have!

I’ll be presenting on High-Rise Tactics and the nozzles that we currently use. I continue to be a “boots on the ground” firefighter, instructor, and a lifetime student, trying to make a difference. We can always strive to do better.

Read the latest IFSEC Global interviews with some of the chairpersons and conference speakers at this year’s Tall Buildings Fire Safety Conference below:

More details on FIREX 2022 can be found here.

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Connect with the fire safety community at FIREX 2023. You'll find hundreds of leading exhibitors from the active and passive fire sector, showcasing all the latest in fire protection, prevention and detection solutions. With third-party product approvals a condition of exhibiting, visitors can be assured of the quality of solutions they're seeing, and the all-new distributor network is also launching this year.

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