On August 13, researchers from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF), along with personnel from the Indiana Department of Homeland Security, the Marion County Arson Taskforce, and several local fire departments participated in a series of large-scale research burns west of Indianapolis.
Four incomplete, uninhabited apartment units on South Bridgeport Road were burned to explore the effects of flow path ventilation on fires, and the causes of hoseline failures in intense heat – research which can actively contribute to arson investigations and firefighter safety.
“Firefighters used to break out the windows to cool the environment and what we now know is that that allows more air in and the fire grows,” explained Adam St. John, ATF Fire
Protection Engineer and lead researcher. “The air coming in is going to drive fire progression and fire patterns. It’s injuring and killing a lot of firefighters in the line of duty.”
Experts from ATF’s Fire Research Lab in Beltsville, Maryland, led the research effort, which consisted of several concurrent projects related to ongoing investigations regarding firefighter safety, arson, and line-of- duty deaths, according to ATF’s Patrick Hand.
The event was originally intended to be a small local exercise, but it grew rapidly in the four weeks leading up to August 13.
“The intent was to have practical training exercises for local investigators,” said Tim Murray, IDHS arson investigator. “Then ATF got involved and it just blossomed.”
The data from the burns was collected by several ATF instruments, including two interior cameras, which were incinerated as part of the burn but recorded fire and smoke spread. ATF also monitored interior temperatures and tracked heat flux. The researchers varied the ventilation for each of the four burns in order to study how it affected fire growth and movement within the units.
“The more we understand about the effects of ventilation, fire growth, and fire air travel, the safer it’s going to make firefighters,” said Murray.
“It has huge ramifications for the entire fire service in the United States.”