Becoming Better Informed on the Fireground

Over the last five years there has been much debate regarding the growing advocacy for modified tactics in accordance with research being conducted by UL, NIST and other groups throughout the country. The most contentious has been the debate surrounding the use of exterior streams to “reset” the fire prior to making entry. I think most within the fire service have become acutely aware that there are two distinctly different views on this issue. On one side are those who view this tactic as too passive and threatening to the survivability of potential occupants. On the other are those who claim that by quickly applying rapid water on the fire (from a position of safety) we can slow the growth of the fire, immediately reduce the interior temperatures and create a more tenable environment for the occupants and advancing firefighters.

I recently had the opportunity to travel to Spartanburg, S.C., where NIST, in conjunction with the staff of the South Carolina Fire Marshal’s Office and the International Society of Fire Service Instructors (ISFSI), conducted a series of live burns in acquired structures to evaluate alternative tactics for fire attack, including the use of exterior streams.

To be clear, I’m a strong supporter of the ongoing research being conducted by these groups and I believe this form of research will improve the safety and operational effectiveness of our chosen tactics. That said, I remain a skeptic, and I constantly seek opportunities to better understand and validate the recommendations being put forth. Spartanburg was another opportunity to prove or disprove my previous assumptions.

To the credit of those involved, the scenarios chosen for this research were designed to validate the use of modified tactics based on operational effectiveness. For example, is it more effective to attack an attached garage fire head on with a direct attack or to force entry through the front door of a residence and attack the fire from the unburned side through the interior door? To many, the answer to this question may seem obvious, but can we factually defend one approach over the other?

The purpose of research is not to choose sides; it’s simply to provide data to help validate the debatable points of a chosen tactic and provide a greater degree of certainty for a recommended tactic. Keep in mind, with facts in hand, the fireground remains a dynamic situation and no tactic can or should ever be considered absolute. The goal is to provide as much factual information as possible so we can make informed decisions before, during and after the fire.

Some interesting points I took away from Spartanburg that I think deserve discussion and consideration:

  • Will closing the door of an occupied residence reduce the survivability of a trapped occupant? In previous discussions the assumption was that if we closed the door to snuff out a fire, we’d be snuffing out a trapped occupant as well. The research conducted proved this to be a false assumption. A smoldering fire with limited oxygen will not produce a more toxic environment for a trapped occupant.
  • If we control the flowpath (the influx of air/oxygen), less water is needed to control or suppress a fire and the old adage “big fire, big water” may no longer be valid. The research proved this assumption to be true, but the added safety value of taking more water than required still needs to be considered.
  • The survivability profile for an occupant behind a closed door is far greater than expected. If the door to an interior room is closed and there is no visible fire within the room, odds are the atmosphere is tenable and victim survivability is probable. The research proved this statement to be true.

The burns in Spartanburg were another proving ground of opportunity. Firefighters and fire officers representing urban, suburban and rural fire departments came to witness firsthand what true research is all about. Though not all in attendance were believers when they arrived, or even when they left, I can say that those who attended are better informed about fire behavior and the effects of specific tactics on victim survivability.

If there is one thing that is certain, it’s the fact that we will never be 100% in agreement when it comes to tactics—and there’s nothing wrong with that. What we do need to agree on is that research is a tool that helps better inform us about the modern fire environment, and healthy debates are the grounds for improvement.

They say that seeing is believing, but to truly understand what we see, we need to see the facts that research provides. It’s time to take the debate to the next level and be part of the research and debates that will help define the next generation of fireground tactics.

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September 2016
Volume 11, Issue 9
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Pennwell