Fire Dynamics, Addendum

“The evolution of our tactical capability will only be enhanced
by the evolution of our mental agility.”


These are Bobby Halton’s words in his description of the NIST Fire Dynamics for the Fire Service presentation. To me, that’s a rather amazing and daunting statement, “mental agility”. There is a continual emphasis to sharpen our states of individual and collective readiness. How much of an effort do we give to the intellectual part? The Housewatch poses the question to us as well in “Street Smarts and Lighting Farts…”

The presentation provokes a new era of thought in fireground tactics. The information provided is based upon repeated tests related to events, some tragic, in the fire service. The data that NIST provides is repeatedly tested, absent of outside influence, such as manufacturers or labor organizations, and is openly welcoming of fire department scrutiny. Perhaps what is most encouraging is the purpose NIST seeks to make the fireground safer through knowledge of fire behavior. Every attendee came away with ten discs specific to each test in the presentation. NIST presenters Steve Kerber and Dan Madrzykowski specifically stated that the information presented is to be shared, distributed and taught; to think of it as a train-the-trainer concept. Below are some key, repeated and thought provoking points from their presentation. As your read this don’t fall into the common mindset that this is another effort by the safety police to take us out of the interior attack. Nor is it an approach of “slide rule” firefighting, book smart and little experience. Their objectives are clear: develop a better understanding of fire dynamics and how it impacts your personal safety and, make you think more and ask why.

Ask Why
Very few know the specific origins of today’s fireground tactics. What was developed approximately fifty years ago and currently in use may not be working in some situations, or may be improperly utilized. There is a huge difference between tactics and theory. What is learned here (presentation) needs to be put to the test in the field. Firefighters know very little about fire behavior. According to Kerber and Madrzykowski, Firefighter I (102 hours) has 3 hours of fire behavior. Firefighter II (60 hours) has none. Fire Officer I and II (108 hours) also have no hours specifically devoted to fire behavior. 1% of your initial training is about fire behavior. How much do you remember? What is needed to fill the gap?

Building Construction, Fire Behavior
The average private dwelling has changed considerably in composition and fuel load. While the fire environment changes, the fire service changes slower, if it changes at all. When looking at possible causes, the fire service tends to look for specific single faults in construction and instead, should be looking at the whole of the structure. The traditional fire curve, or development stages, we learn from our early fire department training has changed. We are now faced with “under ventilated” fires and members being burned or killed in post-flashover fires. Statements of “we only had a small bit of smoke showing” from fireground investigations indicate that we are arriving and making entry at a time when the fire has begun to die or the atmosphere is too rich for flashover. What appears to be a minor or “routine” fire turns severe when entry is made and the room then flashes over. This should lead us to reevaluate our process of sizeup and initial report as well as taking the time (seconds) to make sure our initial attack is setup according to what is being seen. Perhaps this is a new use of the old saying “stay low and let it blow”.

Heat, Temperature, Smoke and TICs
The key about temperature is not necessarily how hot it is but to understand where the energy comes from and the transfer (heat flux) of this energy. As materials begin to burn they add to the fuel load above us (ceiling area). Regardless of whether they are burning or not, they are fuel; smoke is fuel. In research recreating specific fireground conditions, thermal imaging cameras recorded the high temperatures without showing the contrast of actual encroaching flame spread, or rollover. Just like the smoke showing quote, this coincides with statements about how hot it was inside but the fire was not to be seen. This is also noted in the highrise PV tests in Chicago. Likewise, when one study looked at a basement fire, in the simulated test the TIC (located on the first floor) showed slight indications of heat from the basement; however no indications of floor collapse were seen. Mannequins on the first floor stayed in place for approximately five minutes, supported by carpeting alone. As Madrzykowski stated in this specific example “we need to understand the structure” better, in order to begin the initial attack. This should cause us to review past LODDs and Near-Miss reports where members fell into basements.

PPV
You will never be hard pressed to find debate about the use of PPV fans in the initial attack. NIST’s information does not become mired in that battle, but efficiently provides the data from their research on PPV use. There is a ton of detailed information in the presentation and here are some key points:

  • The energy release rate may increase (when using a PPV fan), but the fire does not get hotter (remember, the concern is not so much on temperature but the energy and its transfer).
  • In the ‘room fire test’ (single, furnished room) the fan use did cause a 60% increase in the burn rate during the attack, but it was venting outside of the structure.
  • To properly coordinate PPV fan use with the initial attack suggests that companies wait 60 seconds for the fire to react to the introduced oxygen. Doing the 360-degree sizeup takes just as much time.
  • In the Toledo highrise test, the fire in the building alone produced greater CO than the PPV fan used. The tradeoff between a slight amount of CO for a smoke filled corridor should be obvious.
  • In the FDNY tests, NIST looked at the amount of CO produced in a dwelling and determined that running power saws inside, produced greater levels of CO (500 ppm) than the PPV fan.
  • The PPV in Schools test (Toledo) proved that departments with minimum staffing can effectively utilize PPV to remove the hazard from the occupants, in cooperation with a well organized initial attack.
  • There has to be a better way to combat highrise fires than sending crew, after crew, after crew, down a hallway with 2 ½-inch handlines.

We are being faced with honestly questioning some of our current tactics. What was developed many years ago should be able to be scrutinized to see what can be done better. Certainly with departments facing fiscal and staffing problems this is a good idea.

Finally, regarding human nature and learning, it sho
uld be stressed that firefighters and officers must fully learn this information in order to pass it along. Bits and pieces cannot be squeezed into a kitchen table skull session or a front ramp roundtable. The fire service owes it to those in the referenced studies who died, to make sure what is being taught is correct. The full information is readily available from Kerber and Madrzykowski. To shortchange any of it, or make it up as you go, could possibly cause severe outcomes.

Human nature is odd. If I were a betting man, I would say that before any of this information is widely adapted and put into use, we may very well see firefighters burned or killed because someone, with only half the information, will put a PPV fan in service on the fire floor of a highrise building during a poorly planned fire attack. Don’t think so? Take a look at the YouTube videos showing us using the PPV fan at fires in private dwellings.

A well respected firefighter and officer in my area is credited with the quote “a good firefighter knows how, a better firefighter knows why.” Kerber, Madrzykowski and the staff of NIST are giving the fire service the tools to become better. Contact them at madrzy@nist.gov, skerber@nist.gov and at www.fire.gov for this information.

Additional, Related Reading
NIST Officials Work to Spread the Word to the Fire Service
N I ST Fire Dynamics for the Fire Service

FDNY Tackles Challenges of High-Rise Blazes

FDNY Loses Three Of Its Bravest in Brooklyn
Washington’s Bravest Remembered
Thousands Honor Iowa Firefighters
Arson Blaze Claims Two Houston Bravest
Two Florida Firefighters Killed in Training Exercise
Deadly Station Nightclub Blaze Revisited at NFPA
Survivors of Chicago Fire Recall Escape
Chicago Fire Department Report Explains How Its Investigators Determined Cause
Virginia Firefighter Dies Searching for Victims

Radio @ Firehouse
Firefighter Trapped – A Mayday and a LODD
Live at FDIC – Firefighters Burned!
The PRELIMINARY Facts Thus Far in the Recent LODD of Pennsylvania Fire Instructor Robert Gallardy
Training and Tactics Talk: Truck Company Operations

NIOSH LODD Reports
Brooklyn, NY
Washington, DC
Keokuk, IA
Houston, TX
State Fire Academy, PA
Osceola Cnty, FL

Fire Dynamics for the Fire Service

I attended this event yesterday at NIST and was very impressed. There were many members from Montgomery, Fairfax and Prince William counties. I also saw a few of us from PG and DC and out-of-towners as well. A lot of the information presented was the prologue to the PPV research done at Governors Island. Later information involved research and testing done in two live fire training line of duty deaths (Florida and Pennsylvania) and other significant fires such as:

Vandalia Street (NY)
Cherry Road (DC)
Iowa (private dwelling), 22 December 1999
Texas (McDonald’s restaurant), 14 February 2000
The Station Nightclub
Cook County Administration Bldg., Chicago
Prince William County, VA

One of FH’s reporters was there and I saw Bobby Halton of FE there as well, so expect to see at least a blurb on the two sites at some point. I’ll be writing more about the lecture itself later. Some big things that are still in my mind a day later are:

* NIST (Kerber and Madrzykowski) is fully intent on getting this information to fire departments everywhere. As Steve said in the presentation, “think of this as a train the trainer program”. There is no copyright information on the material specifically for you to take and use and pass along. Each attendee came away with 10 discs of the specific research done in each test. You can still contact them for the information, madzry@nist.gov or skerber@nist.gov

* This is not written in a way that is over the head of the backstep firefighter. The information does not delve into the various formulas and equations. You are given a basic understanding to assist you in interpreting and understanding the data and results.

* This is not “slide rule firefighting” (a PG term, i.e. book smart). There were many, many engine men and truckies eagerly looking into why fires are doing what they do and what more can we learn and then actually use.

* Our basic, tried and true tactics may need to at the very least, be re-evaluated. This is not your grandfather’s fire service anymore.

* We (fire service) learn very little about fire behavior in our required training.

* “Only smoke showing”; our sizeup evaluations and reports are getting complacent and we do not even know it.

* In the various tests, thermal imaging cameras are not showing the heat in the screen (the temperature digits are shown), i.e. the “white” areas. So the viewer is misled into thinking the area is somewhat tenable. This also coincides with the post-investigation statements of “we felt a lot of heat but saw no flame.”

* TICs cannot be relied upon to reveal indications of possible floor collapse during basement fires.

* The fire service tends to zero in on single faults in construction. We need to look at the whole of the structure.

* There is a huge difference between tactics and theory. What is learned (NIST presentation) needs to be put to the test in the field.

* The fire behavior arch (the stages of growth) has changed.

* Firefighters are getting injured and killed in post-flashover fires.

Remember, this isn’t slide rule firefighting. NIST’s purposes are to recreate the conditions, gather data and test hypothesis. In the incidents above they were asked to participate by the involved departments and other organizations.

The purpose of this research is to help reduce the fatalities and injuries. They are fully aware that it still requires stretching a line and putting water on the fire.

Personally, I believe this research and later research will become this generation’s “little drops of water”.

Sadly, I also believe considering “behavior” that long before we see any new widespread adoption of new PPV tactics, we will see firefighters burned or killed because someone will, with only half the knowledge, place a PPV fan on the fire floor hallway of a high-rise or mid-rise fire and start it up as part of a poorly evaluated and planned initial attack.

If you don’t think so then look back at all the YouTube videos showing improper use of PPV at private dwellings.

More later. You can find the specific information NIST is doing online on the Fire.gov link to the left.