BY NICK J. SALAMEH
Much has been said and studied about fire behavior over the past few years. So why are some in the fire service slow to consider the science-based information and adjust strategy and tactics to make positive changes in our own best interests?
The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and Underwriters Laboratories (UL) have completed and continue to produce significant work to aid the fire service in better understanding fire behavior, air flow dynamics, and the benefits of door control. These research organizations conducted scientific studies and illustrative tests to empirically demonstrate their findings in real time. The results suggest that many of our fundamental strategies and tactics-taught and used for decades-may not be in our best interests today.
The research supports the argument that the fire service itself is creating the negative fireground environments-through our actions or inactions-that contribute to firefighter injuries and fatalities. The strategy and tactics that were appropriate for legacy construction and furnishings fires are inappropriate for today’s modern construction and furnishings fires, which burn much hotter and faster. The research provides a better understanding of the benefits of door control and limiting ventilation to control the fireground.
The increased square footage and open floor plans of many contemporary single-family dwellings have created fireground environments similar to commercial warehouses, but we have failed to adjust our tactics. Whereas the minimum recommended size line to attack a warehouse fire would be a 2½-inch line, a 1¾-inch line is still preferred for a warehouse-sized single-family dwelling.
The NIST and UL studies are still relatively new; but, unfortunately, change in the fire service historically comes slowly. Whether you call it tradition, culture, or something else, we have to take responsibility. Science suggests we make a change, and that must happen now! In light of the information that NIST and UL presents, which is difficult if not impossible to refute, the firefighter fireground injuries and deaths still occurring demonstrate that the fire service overall is not changing fast enough. Why?
Despite new science-based research, there are numerous excuses and caveats for not applying it on today’s fireground. Some may fear the unknown or do not fully understand the current scientific studies or are just plain stubborn, stuck in their ways, and unwilling to change.
Tradition, pride, and ego are significant factors holding us back. The fire service is proud of aggressive firefighting; fire departments proudly declare themselves to be “aggressive.” We claim this is what the public expects. However, what the public expects is that we deploy highly skilled and trained people to professionally mitigate their issue. Although sometimes giving our all may mean laying our lives down for theirs, it should not be a tradeoff. Our goal must be to save viable life while still preserving firefighter lives. Granted, things happen on the fireground, and sometimes firefighters die. This is reality and all the more reason for firefighters to maintain their good health, skills, and abilities and to keep their knowledge of fire behavior, building construction, and air flow paths up to date. Our strategy and tactics must be effective in combating fires in today’s construction. We must calculate, coordinate, and base our fireground actions on conditions and available resources to avoid the unexpected circumstances.
Property conservation is among the fire service’s goals, but the application of this principle has not kept pace with the times. Think about it: Some chain businesses (fast-food restaurants, department stores) actually budget for fire loss. Often, the buildings are made to burn down, like those of modular construction. If the building burns down, it’s easier to remove it from the concrete slab and build the next one so as to be back in operation as soon as possible.
When was the last time you saw a house of contemporary construction that suffered severe fire damage that was repaired, not just torn down and rebuilt? Insurance companies are spending millions in litigation over mold/mildew lawsuits from properties that were repaired after the fire. It’s often easier and less expensive to rebuild. So, why would firefighters risk their lives for property? Sure, we can save property through salvage and by stopping the fire as soon as possible. The reality is that times have changed, and property loss in some cases is expected and budgeted for. Risking firefighter lives for property has never been acceptable, so why does it still happen?
What are some of the caveats that keep us from changing for the better? One caveat UL will often mention is that it does not intend to tell firefighters how to do their jobs. UL just presents its findings so firefighters can better understand fire behavior, air flow paths, and actions to take to improve conditions, sometimes known as resetting the fire or softening the target. It’s not UL’s job to tell us how to do our job, but we would be wise to apply its findings on the fireground.
Attacking from the Outside
Another caveat concerns attacking the interior fire from the outside. Some say this tactic should not to be used at every fire. We know every fire is different, so strategy and tactics will differ from fireground to fireground. However, I challenge you to identify a structure fire in which attacking the fire showing from an opening that is within the reach of exterior fire streams will not significantly improve interior conditions for firefighters and viable trapped occupants. Improved conditions include decreasing interior temperatures by hundreds of degrees; getting an initial knockdown on the fire to hold it in check; cooling the environment to reduce the possibility of trigger events like flashover; and resetting the fire so the fire department can control the fireground, not the other way around. So why wouldn’t you do this if you could?
Controlling Flow Paths
One more caveat concerns using interior and exterior doors to control air flow paths-e.g., closing the door from where the advancing line is entering or simply not propping doors open. This is misunderstood the most. This does not mean closing the door on the hoseline such that the hose becomes wedged under the door and kinked and the water flow is reduced. Rather, it is a means to control the amount of air that can be drawn in from this opening to maintain an imbalance in air flow. We would not want the air intake to draw air in at the same rate air or gases are venting from the structure. This helps maintain a rich environment lacking oxygen so the fire cannot erupt in a flashover or a backdraft. The concern some have about closing/not propping open every door on entry is a lack of understanding and an inability to change our muscle memory. Propping doors has been taught for years in the fire service; we need to change this.
Consider how often, in reviewing fireground footage, the fire gets worse after the fire department arrives before it gets better. Often, this is the result of uncoordinated fire attack and ventilation or premature ventilation performed before a hoseline is staffed, charged, and in place. This is the result of firefighter ignorance of the importance of fireground coordination.
In the past, we learned to chock doors open so they wouldn’t kink the hoseline and so we could quickly exit. We were actually creating an air intake for the fire, creating a flow path, and putting ourselves in the middle of it. Attacking from the unburned side also contributed to creating the air flow path. Maintaining door control and limiting ventilation maintain a rich environment and allow us to cool and extinguish the fire, reducing the potential for a trigger event. By maintaining the integrity of doors and windows, we do not lose the ability to close them if needed.
So what does all of this mean? Basically, all members of the fire service should study the fireground research of NIST and UL. We need to review it, learn and understand it thoroughly, and know how to apply this information on the fireground.
Firefighters are often their own worst enemies. For instance, if a fire was large enough that members should have pulled a 2½-inch hoseline, a critic will always claim he could have put the fire out with a 1¾-inch line. Or, if he does not get a line on the fire fast enough, the second-due company may advance its own line ahead of the first due instead of exercising discipline to help get the first line in place first.
The added peer pressure will sometimes cause the first on-scene company officer to not take his 360° lap to save time. Or, if a first-in company officer decides to attack fire showing from an opening from the exterior before committing crews to the interior, a critic will say that they were scared to go in and get it. We have to let go of the peer pressure, the pride, and the ego and maintain discipline to do what is best for the conditions of the call. Omitting important initial steps like an adequate 360° size-up is unwise and will often cause you to miss essential information for moving mitigation efforts in the right direction from the start.
For example, maybe the best action is to have the first line hit the fire from the exterior and then advance to the interior to complete extinguishment; to allow the second-due company to advance its line to the interior to complete the knockdown; or to address the outside fire before committing crews to the interior. How many of you are saying, “My crew would kill me if I did that”?
Consider an engine that fails to lay out going down a one-way road. The closest hydrant may be on the next corner, well before the structure. Should the engine have the second due reverse lay from it to a hydrant, or should the initial unit reverse lay to the hydrant and let the second-due engine become the fireground engine? The first due taking the hydrant could also drop a leader line and hose packs to begin work. Egos and peer pressure aside, lay out going in and do what is right for the call you are on, not necessarily what you have always done or what the crew wants. You are the officer! Lead the crew, and help them understand the decisions you ultimately made after the incident.
If we understand our enemy, we can lead it rather than have it lead us. The latter happens frequently, and we are often accidentally successful. Sometimes we do not succeed at all. Safer firegrounds are possible, but we need to understand this information and remain disciplined to do the right thing for each call, whatever it is. If we fail to understand the fireground and fire behavior dynamics and if we allow ego, peer pressure, lack of support, and uncoordinated actions to sabotage our efforts, we will most often fail.
Most of us are familiar with the phrase, “If you see something, say something.” Call an audible if things are not going well or if actions appear to be counter to mitigation efforts. Size-up is not just the responsibility of the first-in officer-it is also that of every incoming officer and each individual crew member. Say something if you see something, and allow the company officer to make decisions based on the available information.
If you are an officer arriving after the first-due officer, complete your 360° size-up and determine if conditions are better or worse than what the first-in officer advised. Communicate your findings, and call an audible if they are worse and something different needs to happen, like putting out the fire on the exterior if it has been missed or ignored.
For battalion chiefs arriving on scene, if conditions during your size-up indicate initial company actions are not working or are counterproductive for the current conditions, call an audible and take control of your scene. Don’t just follow along with initial decisions and hope for the best. It is better to mess up and not hurt anyone than to go along with what you know is not right and hope for the best.
The NIST and UL information is clear; and if ever there was a time to learn and understand information critical to fireground survival and effectiveness, it is now. For most of us, our fire behavior training came in four-hour segments during Firefighter I and II certification, and that was it. NIST and UL have put together the most compelling information and have backed it up with real-time studies that clearly illustrate fire dynamics. We should appreciate the work they have done and continue to do on behalf of the fire service. The information is there; we just need to learn it and apply it for safer and more effective fireground operations.
National Institute of Standards and Technology, First Responder Portal, http://www.nist.gov/first-responder-portal.cfm.
Underwriters Laboratories, New Science, Fire Safety, http://newscience.ul.com/firesafety.
Underwriters Laboratories, Firefighter Safety Research Institute, http://ulfirefightersafety.com/.
National Institute of Standards and Technology, Engineering Laboratory, “ ‘Live Burns’ in Spartanburg, S.C., Will Benefit Research and Firefighter Training” http://www.nist.gov/el/fire_protection/fire-012313.cfm.
Underwriters Laboratories, New Science, Fire Safety Article, “Interrupting the Flow Path” (http://newscience.ul.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/NS_FS_Article_Interrupting_Flow_Path1.pdf.
Enlightenme.com, “The Relation between Water Damage & Mold” http://enlightenme.com/water-damage-mold/.
NICK J. SALAMEH is a fire/emergency medical services captain II and the training program manager with the Arlington County (VA) Fire Department, with which he has served 29 years of his more than 35 years in the fire service. He is the chair of the Northern Virginia Fire Departments Training Committee.