NIST/ISFSI Live Burn Study on Safer Tactics

Firefighters in Spartanburg, S.C., battle a 'test burn' of an abandoned house in an experiment to demonstrate new techniques for combating flashover. Researchers from NIST, the International Society of Fire Service Instructors, and state and local fire and safety officials participated in the tests the week of Jan. 20.Photo Dan Madrzykowski/NIST

How can the fire service vastly improve firefighter safety on scene without reducing the impact of attacking fires? It will take money, expertise and effort to answer that question—but concrete solutions will be available as soon as this summer.

Backed by $618,000 from an Assistance to Firefighters Grant program award, the International Society of Fire Service Instructors (ISFSI) has partnered with the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the South Carolina Fire Academy to gather firsthand data on live burns, and translate that data into a new training module.  

The goal is to develop and disseminate a new set of tactics that are proven to be safer for firefighters; specifically, they’re looking at initially attacking residential fires from the outside, before firefighters enter. “The approach can be summed up as ‘think fast water,’” says Project Manager Vickie Pritchett, a long-time ISFSI volunteer in charge of coordinating the burns and meeting the grant guidelines. “[Our theory going in was] why would you not soften the target and increase your safety before you go into that environment?”

Burning Down the House(s)
With help from the Spartanburg (S.C.) Fire Department, the organizations planned and executed live burns that involved eight houses. “Spartanburg Fire did all the prep work on the houses. They were the workhorses of the project,” Pritchett reports.

One or two experiments were conducted on each house, where data was collected through NIST’s extensive instrumentation and video. “These were single-family homes in what I would call a rural environment,” Pritchett explains. “That’s not like other tests that have been done in New York and Chicago. This could have been Anywhere, USA. That brings this information to a new level, I think.”

According to Shane Ray, South Carolina State Fire Marshal and former vice president of the ISFSI, the ISFSI “recorded the impact of our firefighting tactics, while NIST recorded the burn data. Ultimately, we’ll look at the effects of [different] fire attacks on occupants as well as on firefighters.”

Because the ultimate goal is to reduce firefighter injuries and fatalities, one main component of some of the tests was the placement of simulated firefighters  inside the structures (which were basically boxes wired with instrumentation) wearing full gear, right down to department-issued T-shirts, to see if human firefighters would survive conditions when various tactics were used.

Watch & Learn
Project leaders allowed any interested individuals to observe the burns as they happened—and about 600 did so. “That is a first—typically these tests are pretty closed,” Pritchett states. “But Chief Ray wanted any chiefs, firefighters or instructors to be able to watch. We also had a media tent set up where media could watch a live feed from inside the structures.”

Pritchett says she—as well as the other onlookers—was fascinated by what she saw during the testing, as structure fires were aggressively and successfully reduced before firefighter entry. “You could certainly draw conclusions based on just observing,” she confirms. “I overheard some interesting comments [from onlookers], too. Some very traditional firefighters were watching and were impressed when they saw what happened when [firefighters] put water on the fire from outside.”

Next Step: New Training
Once the data has been reviewed and analyzed, NIST will share it with the ISFSI and the fire academy so that they may apply it to a training module. “The South Carolina Fire Academy provides the resources to translate science into training,” Ray explains. Fire instructors will also tailor the information to different audiences; there will be training targeted to fire officers as well as recruit schools, for example. “We ultimately want this to become part of everyone’s fire training,” Pritchett says. “We need to make the [message] different, make it cool. Many of the traditional instructors feel that it’s less aggressive. That’s not true—you can be just as offensive and aggressive from the outside.”

A Win-Win Partnership
This multi-organizational partnership was the first of its kind for most involved, but all deemed it a success. “I was impressed by the dedication of the NIST team to provide facts in a way that the fire service can use them,” Pritchett says. “And NIST is excited about [giving their data] straight to fire instructors, because they believe the information will go directly into the fire culture—and nobody can conduct these tests like NIST.”

Ray points out that this project is “a perfect example of a federal/state/local/private partnership. It’s a win-win for everybody. For example, at the local level, the fire department provides the houses [for live burns] as part of the community’s redevelopment plan. So the community is giving back to its fire department.”

Watch the Web!
The goal of the project is to make the final training module available online by mid-July. To access the module, visit; it’s sure to be available on other sites as well. Eventually, it will be used in classroom training, and will be presented at various industry conferences. “We hope to influence firefighters around the country,” Ray says. “And eventually, we hope to translate the training for use in public safety education.”

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October 2017
Volume 12, Issue 10