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Air balancing is directly associated with the concept of stack effect, (see April 2008 Firehouse). From the aforementioned, it should be clear that the air balance and NPP of a building shifts up or down from the theoretical neutral pressure plane midpoint in the building when air is moving horizontally as a result of wind pressure and through leakage on nearly every floor.
The temperature difference between inside and outside, in addition to the height of a building, play a major role.
In super tall high-rises during cold weather, the velocity of air channeling into the core from lower floors and lobby doors can be high enough to prevent elevator doors in the lobby from opening or closing (see photo 1) due to the sideward pressure on elevator doors, tracks or sliders, as air is trying to rush into and up the elevator shafts.
The air (and smoke) being sucked into the stairwells is, of course, going to be drawn up to the NPP (located roughly midway up the building) and discharged beyond the NPP onto occupied floors many levels above the actual fire area, thereby increasing the life threat to occupants who may be performing a "defend-in-place" posture as directed by fire command. If one or both stair exit doors (in a 2-stair core configuration) are not closing behind fleeing tenants (no stairwell pressurization), then this ensures the fire will also be drawn towards these openings, as the negative partial pressure of the shaftway will pull the fire and smoke towards it.
How many fire ground commanders would be contemplating this threat from stack effect as part of their high-rise SOP checklist? Another side concern of stack effect in buildings in cold climates, is the winter air drawn into the building through curtain wall leakage below the NPP into the ceiling plenum area near the curtain wall which in countless cases has resulted in freezing and bursting of fire protection branch lines, as well as piping systems supplying heating coils of perimeter fan-powered Variable Air Volume (VAV) boxes or fan coils. With an understanding of the air balance, NPP and air movement above the fire floor(s), we should ask ourselves the question – what happens in high-rise buildings below the fire floor in hot weather? On a hot summer day, the descending cool interior air will be rushing out of the vertical shafts below the NPP and onto the lower level floors. Newer, modern commercial office buildings typically possess stair (and sometimes elevator) pressurization systems, as well as at least floor pressurization capability during fires and possibly full smoke removal capability too for the fire floor. Some building codes in milder climates require high-rise buildings to have open vented elevator shafts for smoke purging.
One other danger which is commonly overlooked is the threat of Hydrogen Cyanide (HCN) from the burning synthetic (foam, rubber) and natural (paper, wool) products present during the combustion process and the gas is even deadlier than CO. It is a widely acceptable practice that when a fire breaks out in a high-rise building, the fire department should ensure that two floors above, the fire floor and two floors below are evacuated. Empowered with the knowledge of how air travels within the confines of a multi-story building, you can now predict where the greatest threat from smoke spread will occur. In the past 10 years, there has been tremendous growth in the use of roof-mounted transmission devices. It is important for all firefighters and chief officers to be aware of what these tools are and how they might affect their safety during any type of rooftop operation. Most microwave dishes are relatively safe and ironically, the bigger and more intimidating the dishes, the less power they emit and the safer they are.
What separates the microwave dishes from the "whip antennas" is the difference in wavelength. A "sectored site" is one in which directional antennas are used to provide communications service, such as a cellular telephone base station within a particular geographic region, commonly shaped like a sector of a circle. A "hot zone" is a location where a high RF field exists that exceeds FCC limits for exposure. It is not uncommon to find "hot zones" on rooftops of tall buildings in large cities in North America. The most obvious hazard associated with exposure to high intensity RF source is the so-called RF burn.
Unfortunately, no one will be able to tell just by looking at an antenna how strong the signal is and when it is transmitting and when it isn't. Also be aware of eye trauma hazards that may exist with antenna "trees" that have multiple "branches" of antenna hanging off the main vertical "trunk." This would be an even greater concern at night or in heavy smoke conditions. As mentioned previously, FCC regulations dictate warning signage for roofs with high RF fields which may or may not be implemented.
Firefighters or SWAT team members performing rooftop assignments who circumvent these guidelines will be subjected to the dangers of operating in potentially high RF fields.
In any city, whether the fire department possesses its own helicopters or not, the possibility exists where helicopters may be called in to assist the fire department on a major event, as in a fire, natural disaster or terrorist attack. It is vitally important to note that there is a potentially dangerous interference phenomenon called high-intensity radiated field (HIRF) that exists around transmitters with very high signal outputs.
A thorough check of the roof to determine the presence of rooftop transmitters should be made prior to attempting a helicopter operation. Most fire departments are just now being made aware of this important issue and even fewer SWAT teams are aware of any danger involving rooftops or setbacks. The challenge for managing personal exposure to RF fields is that these devices can vary greatly in signal strength, which cannot be determined without input from personnel familiar with each device or array, or reference to a roof RF survey.
Antenna farms (see photo 5 again) should be approached with extra caution until it can be determined that the roof area is deemed safe to operate. Warning signage at roof access points AND near devices is essential, as is yellow caution stripes bordering off "hot" areas (see photo 8).
Many people think that a site that has RF fields that exceed the FCC MPEs is out of compliance.
There are numerous types of batteries, but most UPS manufacturers provide lead-acid batteries which are either a vented or sealed type. Photo 5 Data electrical feeds traverse a bridge into the rear of a high-rise office building. Be cognizant of the increased concentrated floor loading in areas containing batteries that the floor assembly may not have been designed to carry.  Always check the floor above a serious fire for this threat! The same reason why it squeezes through unsealed or improperly sealed details of the curtain wall (and lobby entrance doors). Massey is president of Massey Enterprises Inc., the world's leading disaster planning firm. The devices in question are microwave transmission dishes, "whip antennas" (vertical rods) and broadcasting towers. Examples of microwave transmission and reception dishes, as well as "whip antennas" and a large broadcasting base. Most fire departments are already aware of cell phone antennas and their related risks, which are commonly found on low-rise buildings.
Large dishes (see photo 1) typically emit only a few watts of power, so you can stand right in front of them and not put yourself in harm's way. They may also be found on roof setbacks on taller buildings with decreasing-sized floor plates on upper floors.


Microwave dishes and panel antennas operate at higher frequencies with shorter wavelengths, while "whip antennas" operate at lower frequencies with longer wavelengths.
The larger, permanently mounted antennas are known as broadcasting towers (or masts) and can be found on some of the tallest buildings in North America. Personnel exposure to these fields takes place when a person is in close proximity to the active antenna.
Normally, a series of antennas are employed that serve two to three sectors, thereby providing signal coverage throughout the geographic region. There are some areas (such as previously mentioned TV and radio broadcasting sites) where no one should go, unless the equipment is powered down and taken off-line due to the hazards of being in close proximity to the broadcast antennas. Similar to the action of a microwave oven heating a cup of water, the rotation of molecules creates friction and, in turn, heating of the exposed mass.
As previously noted, bare element antennas can burn skin on contact if an active transmitter is connected to them. High exposure levels, significantly above the federal standards for exposure, have been associated with cataract formation and increased sterility in laboratory animals. There are some buildings where government agencies have procured roof space to use for their proprietary transmitters.
Firefighters performing roof venting, handling "jumper incidents", fighting rooftop fires, or dealing with climbing daredevils or window-washer rescues should be especially aware of their surroundings, exercising caution to avoid operating near any transmission device that is not confirmed as being a low power transmitter.
TV and FM radio broadcasting antennas produce the highest RF energy fields and the greatest danger to firefighters. If firefighters have to be airlifted to the roof to perform certain duties, or an attempt must be made at rooftop for rescue operations involving civilians or firefighters, any helicopter may be called to the scene to assist - police, military, fire (in some cities), EMS, news or privately owned. HIRF can sometimes be intense enough to cause interference to an aircraft's flight controls and navigational instruments and may lead to an aviation accident with newer aircraft.
It should be strongly considered by any incident commander on a high-rise disaster that this potential exists.
This should also apply to roofs of nearby buildings that are in close proximity to the incident building, as RF fields may be sufficiently intense to create a dangerous flying environment for helicopters hovering in their vicinity. Time of exposure in relatively close proximity to antennas should be limited to short durations, unless a prior study has determined that the occupational exposure limit is not exceeded at that location. Since this requires the assistance of the licensee of the radio transmitting equipment, as well as building engineers, this may present a problem if an incident occurs when there is no staffing present. Proprietary transmitters, such as those operated by government agencies, present significant concerns as to how they can be shut down when on-site engineers may not be able to assist in gaining access to the power source.
The only time that cable trays could potentially become an RF hazard would be if they became damaged and the cables were cut, broken, etc., such that a person could come into contact with the bare internal conductor of the various transmission lines (coaxial cables). Compromising one or both stairs on the fire floor with this situation presented here would essentially turn both stair shafts into smoke towers and greatly endanger the people on upper floors staying put or descending down the stairs from above.
I will explain these systems in greater detail in an upcoming article on HVAC systems for high-rise buildings. Until recently, some fire departments were completely unaware of this "new-age" communication tool, yet they have been scattered throughout their cities for years.
However, high-rise office buildings have begun adding rooftop microwave transmitters to transmit data (for banking, trading or other business purposes). The smaller dishes (see photo 2) can produce a more concentrated beam of microwave radiation and, hence, can lead to a higher level of exposure to personnel operating near them.
Reception dishes are completely harmless, hut normally can't be discerned by simply looking at them. From the FCC's regulatory perspective, two sets of maximum permissible exposure (MPE) limits apply. Commonly used cellular base station antennas are of the panel type, usually around one foot wide by four to six feet tall, and may be arranged in a triangular formation as a cluster of antennas to serve three sectors. With humans, the absorption of RF energy at sufficiently high rates can lead to an elevation of body temperature. Microwave dishes and "whip antennas" can create heating of the body, if the intensity of the RF field is sufficient. RF fields can also adversely affect the operation of various types of medical devices such as cardiac pacemakers and stimulators.
Building chief engineers have told the author that they have no idea how strong the signal strength is and what the potential exposure levels are when working in close proximity to those devices, since they have no control over them. Staying stationary in high RF fields will generally lead to greater exposure than moving through them. Modern helicopter avionics are becoming more computerized, including stabilization and engine input commands. The author was told that government helicopter cockpits are now "hardened" to prevent this problem from occurring. These roofs are extremely dynamic and change so frequently that a consistently updated roof audit of a high-rise district is paramount to a relatively safe attempt of helicopter use during major emergencies. Another concern is that if warning signage of high RF fields does exist, it is usually mounted on the door or access hatch leading to the roof from below. Building engineers may have limited knowledge in this area, since they did not install these devices, nor do they maintain them. Further, many modern communications transmitter sites operate with uninterruptible power supplies (UPS) and killing the electrical power to the equipment room may not stop the transmitters from operating.
Compliance is related to whether people are able to get exposed to the fields exceeding the MPEs.
Coast Guard and all the helicopter mechanics, technicians, pilots and manufacturer representatives who contributed their knowledge and expertise to this article. There may be though, some smoke migrating - due to possibly greater positive pressure from the fire itself - into the attack stair if no stair pressurization capability is present and the fire is close to the core.
He also teaches an advanced course on High-Rise Fire Deportment Emergency operations to major city fire departments throughout the U.S.
For instance, some departments automatically send a team to the roof on any working high-rise fire. When these business entities send data out, it is usually done through fiber optics, microwave links or both. Beyond several feet from the antenna, the radiation exposure dissipates quickly and is usually within applicable human exposure standards.


These are rods you (10 not want to touch, as your skin can be burned by making direct contact.
These transmit television and FM radio signals to surrounding communities for many, many miles (see photo 6). This may be manifest, in cases of very intense exposure to RF fields in the 30-300 MHz frequency range as a slight increase in body temperature. Unlike X-Rays, however, the radiation is not cumulative and damage to body tissue occurs only while a person is exposed above the hazard threshold and remains in this region for a prolonged time; the longer the time of exposure above the hazard threshold, the greater the probability of sustaining a thermal injury. Under ideal conditions, the best options would be to wear a personal RF monitor and receive relevant RF safety training that is keyed to the specific site prior to the fire. Unless a "roof audit" (a survey which determines MPE) is done to measure the areas that should be deemed "hot zones," there is no practical way to tell where the hazard areas might be.
A guideline is to assume that all antennas are active unless you have information to the contrary. They may be aesthetically pleasing, but they can create even greater confusion for firefighters who may not recognize them or even be aware that one exists in their vicinity. However, this will likely not be the case with civilian, police, fire, EMS and news aircraft. Given rooftop obstructions, thermal air currents and smoke from fires, fog, high winds, low-level clouds, darkness and other obvious hazards, they are plenty dangerous enough as it is and require incredibly deft skill on the part of the pilot. How will firefighters know this danger exists if they attempt roof access to enter the building from the opposite direction - by helicopter? They are junction points for AC power distribution and carry with them the obvious issues associated with electrical shock. Many transmitter sites have RF fields that exceed the MPEs but have appropriate RF safety programs in place to control the exposure of individuals who may have reason to enter these areas. Also, thanks to the Los Angeles Fire Department for raising the question on helicopter safety during rooftop rescue operations around these devices, which led to the research into that topic and potential threat exposure.
Thinking through this equation with tall buildings, stair doors on lower floors would easily be pulled into the open position and may not close without human assistance, while doors at the very upper floors will be fairly hard to open for tenants choosing to leave their floors since the strong air currents caused by positive pressure will be pushing against the doors at these levels (unless stairwell pressure relief dampers are present and functioning).
Fire crews would then be forced to drop down and re-stage several floors further down, in turn moving equipment and relief crews further away from where they need to be. This smoke will likely be drawn downward to floors below (and sometimes well below) the fire in some proportion in these warm weather events.
The firefighters' pre-designated assignment is to stand by and await further instruction from the incident commander in the event any type of action needs to be taken at roof level. These dishes are pointed at other (reception) dishes (see photo 3) on other roofs and are, in a sense, "speaking to each other," albeit one way. Pager, cellular telephone base station and two-way radio antennas often emit RF radiation in short "bursts." The strength of the signal surges when these devices are utilized. The higher the power level, the greater the potential for exceeding established safe limits for exposure.
The term "uncontrolled" refers to the fact that no controls over the exposure are deemed necessary.
The rule of thumb should be "If you feel any heating of body tissue - get away from the field!" The higher the signal strength, the greater the danger can be. However, that most likely will not be the case when a fire breaks out in a high-rise building with rooftop transmitters. As stated earlier, roof transmitters can easily emit 500 to 1,000 watts of energy, with broadcast towers reaching into the megawatt range. This, of course, would not apply to first responders or fleeing civilians who find themselves on a roof where these antennas may be present. They turned on all the fluorescent lights on all floors once power was restored in the evening on the day of the bombing, which created enough ambient heat to prevent another crisis within a crisis.
The information contained in this article is based on current, evolving technology in the field of radio frequency (RF) hazards and should not be taken as absolute fact due to the sheer dynamics of the industry. Although Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulations require roof signage warning of potential danger areas (see signs on page 76), the author has personally seen many roofs with little to no signage to that affect.
These rods can be mounted virtually anywhere on a roof (see photo 5) and unlike the microwave dishes, they emit radio frequency (RF) energy uniformly 360 degrees (known as omni-directional). Virtually all exposure limits that have been developed are based on controlling the rate at which RF energy can he absorbed by the body and therefore, limiting the extent at which body or specific tissues can be heated.
What causes this flow of air to occur within the building relative to temperature and pressure? The FCC rules apply only to its licensees and do not apply to building owners and managers.
These are the strongest sources of RF energy found on rooftops and particular caution should be used if required to access regions near the actual antennas. Staying ahead of the game and not allowing yourself to be placed in a position of having to play catch-up is vital to the successful outcome of a serious fire. The 3rd impact of NPP shift is the building pressurization by mechanical HVAC (Heating, Ventilating and Air Conditioning) systems when more outside air is brought into the building than there is exhausted to the outside. FCC limits for human exposure are based on a safety factor of 10, so even if a rooftop transmitting site exceeds FCC limits, while this could represent a regulatory breech, it still may he safe for firefighters to operate (depending upon signal strength) and how long one is exposed. The ERP with microwave dishes is less concentrated than with rod antennas, thus are safer despite the higher power range.
Some buildings run these rods along the perimeter of the roofline, which can prove to be an issue if a window-washer rescue may need to be performed using rappelling techniques. In highly pressurized buildings the surplus of outside air assists in pushing the thermal stack effect air back to the lower levels in the building and thus the NPP has mechanically been shifted downward in the building. Positive stack effect will be present in cold weather, negative stack effect in warm weather – the higher the building, the more pronounced its effects.



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