Original Post at: http://www.firefighternation.com/article/profile/thought-leader
It was 2006, and I remember looking out of the 14th floor of a Robert Taylor Homes project building at many of Chicago’s landmark, iconic buildings. I was with a few Chicago firefighters who were serving as impromptu tour guides as we scanned the geography and architecture of Chicago’s surrounding neighborhoods and discussed recent fires in the area. We were essentially just killing some time in between the overhauling of numerous apartments being used to conduct part of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Wind-Driven Fire Testing; I was there on the invite of a couple of involved Fire Department of New York (FDNY) and Chicago firefighter pals.
As the scientists at street level analyzed the fire behavior in the apartments we were tasked with opening up, we ascended to the upper floors to see the impact on smoke movement when positive-pressure ventilation (PPV) fans were fired up in the stairwells at the street-level door and three floors below the fire floor. This gave us a chance to see everything from above and empirically describe what we observed and felt once we went back down street-side. It was the first time I was exposed to fire science research at the scientific level, its related instrumentation, and the people involved. It was also the first time I met Steve Kerber.
There were numerous scientists on hand for the Wind-Driven Fire Tests, including the famed Dan Madrzykowski and gang, as well as subject-matter experts from fire departments in the United States and Canada.
What I didn’t know at the time was the impact this research I was participating in would actually have on the fire service’s future and that it would become the genesis for today’s Underwriters Laboratories (UL)/NIST ventilation and fire behavioral research. When I met Steve Kerber in Chicago, he was a very young researcher for NIST and, like me, was one of the two baby-faced firefighters hanging out there that day. I was a young, covering lieutenant in my job, and I was eager to take the quick trip down to Chicago to get in on the research action. I didn’t get a chance to talk too much with Steve that day, as I was busy tearing apartments to smithereens once we got the green light that testing had concluded in each respective apartment. However, I certainly knew from my interactions with him that Steve was as eager, ambitious, and passionate about this job and what he was doing there as I was at mine back home.
Years later, our paths would cross again. This time, we were in different places in our careers as a lot had happened in those years. Steve had made the move from NIST to UL, formed the UL Firefighter Safety Research Institute (FSRI), and instituted the most highly recognized firefighting research and development studies since Keith Royer and Floyd Nelson (I’ll let you Google their names to see how long ago they were part of the picture, for effect). I, on the other hand, never met a promotional exam I didn’t like and promoted to captain and battalion chief just before I met up with Steve again. This time, I was asked to take part in the Study of Residential Attic Fire Mitigation Tactics and Exterior Fire Spread Hazards on Firefighter Safety research that was being developed. But now, Steve was the boss and was leading an extremely talented group of researchers and subject-matter experts through the most advanced and polarizing fire behavioral research in fire service history.
Unless this is the first time you’ve ever picked up a FireRescue or Fire Engineering magazine or visited any fire service Web site, you’ve heard of Steve Kerber. Or perhaps you’ve seen him at FDIC or speaking around the world on what UL’s been up to. Steve and his team seem to be everywhere, yet he still manages to conceptualize new research experiments, write grant proposals, pour over reams of data for hours, crawl through vacants he’s setting up for test burns, and help to wire up thermocouple trees for an upcoming test in Building 11 at UL. But there’s a lot about Steve many of us don’t know, including how he got to where he’s at and his fire service beginnings; why he chose this career path; and what he has in store for the future.
I’ve asked Steve to take a few minutes out of his busy schedule to discuss a little bit about his personal backstory, his impressions of his research’s results on the fire service, and what he plans to talk about during his anticipated keynote address at FDIC International 2015.
In His Own Words
FireRescue (FR): What inspired you to become a firefighter? Tell us about your start in the fire service?
Kerber: I was born into the fire service. Many in my family were dedicated volunteer members of the Broomall Fire Company, a suburban Philadelphia department in Delaware County, Pennsylvania. My grandfather was chief for 27 years, my dad was a line officer and later president, several of my uncles and family friends were all members. I spent many hours at the fire station looking up to the members there and trying to soak up whatever information I could.
The day I turned 16, I put in my application to be a junior member, and my dream of one day being a firefighter began. I have been a student of the profession ever since. I made every call and every training session I could until I left for college.
FR: What were your University of Maryland at College Park (UMD) days like? What was being a live-in firefighter all about? What’s the culture in that part of Maryland?
Kerber: My days in College Park at the College Park Volunteer Fire Department (CPVFD) were incredible. I showed up at 18 and could not get enough of it for more than 10 years. CPVFD is a volunteer department that is part of the Prince George’s County Fire Department (PGFD), the largest combination fire department in the United States. Coming from a suburban volunteer department with a light call volume and very few fires, this was an eye opening experience for me. I spent five years living in the “Sackroom.” This is the living quarters above the apparatus bay that houses the “live-ins.” While I was there, we would have 16 to 20 students living in the firehouse. We would go to class during the day when we had career staff on hand (7:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Monday through Friday), and we would cover the station the rest of the time (3:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m. Monday through Friday, plus weekends and holidays). In other words, we would cover the equivalent of three shifts and the career staff would cover the fourth.
If I was not in class learning fire protection engineering, I was in the station waiting for the tones to get on the engine, truck, foam unit, or ambulance run by CPVFD. When I was there, we averaged about 2,500 fire calls and 2,500 ambulance calls a year. We were first due to the UMD so the hazards in our response area were very diverse. The biggest thing to adjust to in PGFD is speed, especially in the northern part of the county. Many stations are close together; they are all staffed with dedicated members and every fire gets four engines, two trucks, and a squad. That means if you make a wrong turn or hesitate on the scene, then someone else is going to do your job. It requires a lot of focus on training so that speed can be balanced with efficiency and safety.
A great thing about CPVFD is the diversity of its members. Most are coming to college from a volunteer fire department somewhere, and they bring that experience with them. CPVFD has been built that way and has constantly evolved that way–taking the best of all of those departments when applicable. Members basically come on a four-year rotating basis to attend college and then they get jobs and leave. There are also “townie” members who live in the area and not in the station. These members are the backbone of the department and provide stability to the other rotating members. This rotation allows for rapid exposure to more responsibility.
In my more than 10 years at CPVFD, I served at ranks from firefighter/EMT to deputy chief. While that is fast for most of the fire service, when you spend around three of four shifts living in a firehouse or right up the street from the firehouse with a chief’s buggy, then the experience comes quickly. I never felt ready for the next promotion, but constant training and studying the fire service, along with support from great fellow firefighters from CPVFD, PGFD, and surrounding departments, helped me fill the gap.
FR: What was it like getting a job at NIST at such a young age? What was your impression of Dan and the gang when you first met them?
Kerber: I started at NIST when I was a junior at UMD. I was working at the Maryland Fire Rescue Institute assisting at the fire academy with whatever needed to be done. One day a group showed up for a class that was similar to an introduction to firefighting course. They needed a ladder truck for the class attendees to climb so I ran up to CPVFD to grab our truck. This is where I met Dan and the rest of NIST’s Firefighting Technology Group. I was impressed with what they were doing and was fascinated with the idea of fire service research. I worked with them to get a co-op position and I wound up being there for eight years.
The team there is amazing. They are very dedicated to firefighter safety and do what the fire service needs even if they get pushback or have to deal with government bureaucracy. My first couple of jobs at NIST were to fire model the Father’s Day Fire, to learn the impact of a blocked fire door in the basement, and to study PPV. Working with the team at NIST and with FDNY, along with other fire departments across the country, had me hooked on this career path.
FR: Describe your role in the Wind-Driven Fire Tests and what your biggest takeaway from your participation in that research was?
Kerber: The Wind-Driven Fire Tests were a real turning point for fire service research. This was really working with the fire service to better understand fire behavior and what to do about it. After the Vandalia Ave. Fire in NYC, where Lt. Joseph Cavalieri, Firefighter Christopher Bopp, and Firefighter James Bohan from Ladder 170 lost their lives, Jerry Tracy was on a mission to make sure this did not happen again. He crossed paths with Dan Madrzykowski and answers were going to be found–it was just a matter of time and opportunity.
That opportunity came as part of my PPV stairwell pressurization project. The project described previously was aimed at examining stairwell pressurization, but we had an opportunity to simulate a wind-driven fire on the third floor with the help of the Chicago Fire Department’s Mobile Ventilation Unit. This test was eye opening, and it led to a series of experiments on Governors Island with FDNY.
For those experiments, I acted as the equivalent of an operations chief for the research, working directly with George Healy as the FDNY’s operations chief for the experiments. We were under the unified command of Jerry Tracy and Dan Madrzykowski to get the experiments done. The biggest takeaway was the speed at which fire can spread and how quickly conditions can change with something as simple as a window failure. Also, there are alternative strategies that can be deployed (wind-driven curtains, floor below nozzles) because sending crew after crew down the hall against the wind is not the best way to get the job done.
FR: When did the UL offer come, and what made you decide to make the move?
Kerber: I received an offer to build on the firefighter research being conducted by UL in 2008, and I made the move January 2009. I decided to make the move because of the opportunity to take firefighter research to the next level. The ability to apply for and conduct research funded by the Assistance to Firefighter Grant (AFG) program was something we could not do at NIST.
A major deciding factor was the support from my colleague and mentor Dan Madrzykowski. We saw this as a way to multiply what we were doing together and to have more impact with the fire service. Ultimately, what made me feel this was the right move was the dedication of UL to its mission to make safe living and working environments for people, the technical expertise and business savvy of the UL employees, and their incredible facilities.
FR: How did you assemble such a great team at UL, and what was the very first project you started on when you got there?
Kerber: When I got to UL, they had already received a couple AFG grants and were working on studying what was actually in smoke during overhaul. All I had to do was support what was already in place until I could figure out more about how UL worked. It was not much different than showing up at a new firehouse; I kept my ears open and my mouth shut for a while.
It was during the 2008 AFG cycle when I got to apply for a grant that I thought was very important: horizontal ventilation. It was not until after many successful grants that UL was ready to dedicate resources to the fire service. In 2013, we formed the FSRI and I was able to hire staff.
FR: What is the FSRI, and what are the research projects that have been conducted, are underway, or are planned for the future?
Kerber: FSRI is dedicated to increasing firefighter knowledge to reduce injuries and deaths in the fire service and in the communities they serve. Working in partnership with the fire service, research departments, and agencies, FSRI executes cutting-edge firefighter research and makes the results widely available to the global fire community. With a team of pioneering experts and access to UL’s leading infrastructure, equipment, and vast knowledge and insights, FSRI conducts and disseminates research and training programs that focus on the changing dynamics of residential, commercial, and industrial fires and the impact they have on fire service tactics and strategies.
We have completed projects on floor collapse, smoke hazards during overhaul, horizontal and vertical ventilation, solar panel systems, basement fires, exterior fire spread, and attic fires. We are currently studying PPV, fire attack and the link between tactics, heart attacks, and cancer in partnership with the Illinois Fire Service Institute and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
FR: Give us a description of your team at UL: who they are, what they do, and why they’re the greatest at what they do.
Kerber: The UL FSRI is currently a team of three. Julie Zipperer was my first hire, but she was not new to firefighter training. She has built every online training program put out by UL for the fire service. She has a master’s degree in instructional design and has a great ability to put our research results in a format that is easier for the fire service to understand. Every online training program that Julie develops gets better. I personally look forward to the completion of each one. She also plays a vital role in FSRI’s operations. With only three of us, we all have many roles to fill, including getting the advisory board and technical panels together, filming experiments, and editing reports.
Robin Zevotek is a fire protection engineer with a fire service background. I met Robin as a fellow live-in at the CPVFD. Robin was one of my line officers, and I was excited that he was looking for a career change, as we had an open position. He has spent time as a firefighter in upstate New York, where he is originally from, and in South Carolina, where he was working as a consulting engineer. Robin brings very good analytical skills to the team and is never afraid to get dirty and work hard to get the job done. Expect to see great things from Robin as FSRI grows.
FR: How are FSRI’s projects funded?
Kerber: Most of our projects are funded by the AFG program. We apply to the Fire Prevention and Safety Grants (FPSG) section. In 2005, Congress expanded the eligible uses of FPSG funds to include firefighter safety research and development.
FR: What is the one most remarkable or amazing discovery you’ve found in each of the FSRI’s research projects?
Kerber: I wouldn’t say that we have discovered anything, but we have developed data and visual evidence that support fire service experience, and some that does not. In most of the projects, the results seem very simple afterward but before and during were not so obvious. Conclusions include the following: New floor construction can collapse sooner because less wood needs to burn before structural integrity is compromised, air makes the fire bigger, and water on the fire is a good thing. All of these are things much of the fire service knows, but there are many subtleties around these simple statements that are very important to firefighter tactics, safety, and effectiveness.
FR: What are you going to talk about at FDIC during your keynote, and why?
Kerber: This has been one of the most challenging things I have ever had to prepare for. Not a week has gone by since Bobby Halton announced that I would be giving the keynote that I have not thought about what I might say. The theme of my keynote is the evolution of the fire service and what I feel the future holds. I think we have made significant advancements in the past couple of generations, but we have opportunities to take advantage of what previous generations did not have.
FR: What’s next for Steve Kerber and the gang at UL?
Kerber: We need to continue to give the fire service answers to the questions they ask. Fire service research has the ability to provide insight that experience gained going to fires can’t. There is no shortage of questions, so we will work hard to continue to elevate the importance of research and get funding to conduct research with the fire service.
This will only be successful through partnership, so we plan on working with strategic fire service partners and some nonfire service partners to improve the effectiveness of firefighters worldwide. Our vision is to become the trusted global partner to the fire service by being the preeminent leader in firefighter safety research and disseminating the results through a global network of collaborators.
FR: How can one become involved in the FSRI’s research, observe a test, and become a technical review panel member?
Kerber: All of our research is conducted with the fire service. Every study we do is driven by a fire service technical panel that is selected as part of an application process that is open to anyone. We feel that transparency is the key to making research a part of the fire service. One way we do this is to allow anyone to come out and watch our experiments. All of these opportunities are posted on our Web site and social media channels. During the studies, we provide continuous updates via our Web site and social media channels. If a firefighter is interested, we want to give him a way to monitor the progress of every project.
FR: What advice would you give someone looking to become a fire science researcher or scientist?
Kerber: Fire science is a relatively young science, and there are many opportunities for new researchers to make a positive impact on society. If you are going to do fire service research, surround yourself with open-minded firefighters–there are many out there.
FR: Where do you see the fire service in the next 10 years? And how do you think your research will impact this direction?
Kerber: In 10 years, I see a smarter fire service: more thinking firefighters who better understand fire behavior and know the impact of their tactics on potential occupant survivability and firefighter effectiveness and efficiency. I believe our research will play a key role in allowing new firefighters to have a better foundation of fire behavior understanding. They’ll be able to start their careers and learn from other firefighters who have experience; their experience will make more sense, which will lead to future experience that is as well understood as possible.
I also see a fire service that is not as afraid to look outside. Departments will look to other departments for best practices for fireground issues as well as other issues such as financial, communication, legal, etc. Fire departments will also see the benefit of nontraditional partnerships such as private industry, universities, and subject-matter experts assisting with emerging issues including new hazards posed by technological advancements, big data, and overall relevance in society.
Erich Roden is the editor in chief of FireRescue. He is a battalion chief with the Milwaukee (WI) Fire Department, assigned to the 5th Battalion. He previously served as a chief in the Training Division. Roden is an executive advisory board member for FDIC and Fire Engineering, is a lead instructor for the FDIC Urban Essentials Hands-on Training program, and gave the 2014 FDIC keynote address. He can be reached at email@example.com.
To read more from Erich Roden, visitwww.firefighternation.com/author/erich-roden.