Many of the rules that used to apply to firefighting no longer apply.
That means fireground strategies and tactics must change. And that was the underlying message from the Chicago Fire Department's James Dolton and Peter Van Dorpe during an FRI seminar on basement fires.
Their presentation was about more than basement fires; it was about how modern houses burn, the science that bears that out and how to attack those fires.
Van Dorpe, the city's director of fire training, said not to focus on the components of lightweight construction, such as gusset plates, but to focus on the loss of mass. Things are changing so fast that gusset plates are now the most massive, robust things used in lightweight construction. Everything else is worse than gusset plates and trusses.
"We can engineer extra mass out of buildings and will continue to do so because it saves cost," Van Dorpe said. "We're going to have more fuel and less mass and we're just going to have to learn to deal with it; that's our job."
Dealing with it means more than just determining if the building can be saved. It's a life-and-death issue.
The two leading causes of firefighter deaths — heart attacks and vehicle crashes — are both trending down, Van Dorpe said. Deaths from catastrophic failure or building collapse are trending way up.
Part of learning how to deal with it has been a five-year-long relationship between Chicago Fire and Underwriters Laboratory. They've been studying effects fire has on modern construction and fuel loads by burning things down. And the science is proving out what is being seen in the field, Van Dorpe said.
One thing they are finding is that even something as simple as wood is not the same as it once was. A piece of 2 x 10 dimensional lumber from a 40-year-old home lasted 18 minutes under fire, while the same size piece from Home Depot lasted 7 minutes, Dolton said.
"Do not become over complacent in dimensional-lumber buildings because materials have inherently changed and so will the fire performance times," Dolton said.
Dolton, Chicago's coordinator of research and development, knows what he's talking about when it comes to building construction. He was an architect and structural engineer before joining the fire service.
A floor built using lightweight construction becomes unstable after being exposed to fire for 3 minutes. And when these fail, Dolton said, it is not a 2-foot hole opening up, it is a section large enough to take out a five-member crew.
Starts with education
The first solution to this problem is educating new firefighters. The three things needed to survive a firefighting or officer career are fire behavior, building construction, and tools and equipment, Van Dorpe said.
"We spend all of our time on tools and equipment and breaking stuff; that's fun," Van Dorpe said. "Two of those knowledge bases that we really have to master, we spend no time on because we don't build it into our curriculums."
In the six months that Van Dorpe has his recruit class, they will only get two hours of fire behavior; that's based on national Firefighter I and II standards. An officer candidate is not required to study anything regarding building construction according to the national curriculum.
"That's within our ability to change as fire chief or training officer," Van Dorpe said.
Most departments don't have SOPs for lightweight construction buildings, Van Dorpe said. Looking at what we are going to do differently and putting it on paper is an important step.
"The first thing that happens in a modern-fuel environment when you ventilate is that temperatures go up; they don't go up a little bit, they go up to flashover conditions," Van Dorpe said.
Yet, new firefighters are still taught that the reason to ventilate is to remove heat.
"It's not so much that that is wrong, it is that it is dangerously incomplete," Van Dorpe said. "You are removing hot gasses, but you are also bringing in a lot of air that allows this fire to accelerate."
Another critical approach is to assume every building is lightweight construction until proven otherwise. Also, anything with exposed wood is inherently dangerous. Even legacy buildings were not engineered to withstand today's fuel loads.
Van Dorpe also advises to upgrade the response early and not wait to call for auto aid.
Modern houses also demand different tactics. The fire service has a tendency to move from aggressive interior attack to surround and drown.
"There's a whole lot of room between aggressive interior attack and surround and drown," Van Dorpe said. "We have to look at occupying that middle ground. That does not mean you have to abandon ship. You have to retreat and regroup enough to get a better assessment of what's going on."
This may involve starting an interior attack from the exterior. Bust a window and put water on the fire before sending a crew inside, Van Dorpe said. This also can be done using the deck gun.
"Put some water on the fire to back this thing up a little bit before you commit your limited crews too far into these buildings," Van Dorpe said.
The fire-push myth
The fear that this tactic will push fire into unburned portions of the structure is unfounded, Van Dorpe said. "You can't push fire with water."
A fog stream pattern will change the flow pattern, so Van Dorpe said to use a tight stream and bank it off the ceiling to replicate sprinkler action.
"The lesson is it is not where the nozzle is located, it is stream selection and technique," Van Dorpe said. "Understanding the science a little better can help you make better decisions on the fireground."
Another tactic is to expose void spaces. Thermal imaging cameras cannot be relied upon for floor stability because coverings like carpet or tile will mask the heat.
"The first guy through the door should be putting one hole in the floor and one in the ceiling to expose the void spaces," Van Dorpe said. "Fire has to go to a low-pressure area and you created a low-pressure area (with the inspection hole); it has to come to you. We want to see it; then we can do something about it."
The hardest decisions will involve when and how to perform rescues. Van Dorpe said that even when there is a high probability of a victim, a crew with limited manpower must make controlling the fire its top priority.
"It is faster to remove the hazard from the victim than it is the victim from the hazard," he said. "Rescue is your first priority on the fireground, without a doubt. It is a strategic priority, not a tactical priority. Sometimes I'm going to recognize that putting water on the fire is the best way to accomplish that strategic goal."
It is critical to keep in mind when the clock starts, Dolton said. If the average response time is 10 minutes, a crew is likely to find a structure already compromised upon arrival.
Time is not on the firefighter's side. There are new, ever-present dangers that require new thinking and new tactics.
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Bobby EugeneWednesday, August 29, 2012 6:19:31 PMFirst of all, you absolutely can push fire with a fog stream - especially if it is flowing insufficient GPM's.
More specific to the article however is the fact that although some of these points may be well founded and applied to new, lightweight construction; somehow changing strategies and tactics seem to get applied to ALL firefighting unecessarily. The truth is, the vast majority of firefighting in established communities does not need to change.
Lastly, there is nothing new about putting the fire out. That is and has always been the best way to take care of every problem on the fire ground, not just rescue. Its just that fire chiefs, safety sallies, and fire magazine contributing editors keep making it harder to justify.
David WilsonWednesday, August 29, 2012 7:06:39 PMThey have to have something for those fire science degrees they all have. College has become a joke.
Bobby HahnThursday, August 30, 2012 7:35:25 AMCAN SOMEONE SEND ME AN EMAIL ADDRESS FOR JAMES DOLTON/PETE VAN DORPE.
Larry JenkinsFriday, August 31, 2012 5:43:08 AMI've been around a long time and this is my perspective of this. Yes, building construction knowledge is one of the most important classes that every firefighter should have. New construction will not hold up as long as the older buildings where the fire has entered the void spaces. Donít get hung up on how long this thing has been burning, but how long has it been eating at the building materials itself. A room and contents can burn for ten minutes, but if the drywall has kept it out of the void space then the building will be safe to attack from the interior.
A good officer can tell from the color of the smoke upon arrival if the building is burning or just the contents. You should be able to tell whatís burning by the color of the smoke and the smell. The art of reading smoke is another class that all firefighters should attend.
Thomas ConnollyFriday, August 31, 2012 6:30:35 AMGenerally if it's brown, the building components are burning.
Peter Van DorpeFriday, August 31, 2012 2:56:14 PMTo Robert: Technically, you are not pushing fire with that fog stream, you are altering the flow path of the fire gasses, and yes there IS a difference. Understanding that difference can help you make better decisions on the fire ground. Also, the change in fuel loads within the buildings in established communities calls for a change in tactics. Its not just about the construction. Ask your brothers and sisters in Homewood, IL. To David: I got my degree crawling down hallways in Chicago for 32 years . . .you?
Peter Van DorpeFriday, August 31, 2012 3:02:40 PMAnd for what its worth, James Dalton is a Firefighter on E177 on the west side of Chicago, one of the busiest in the city. He and his company have a well earned reputation for being some of the most aggressive, kick ass, and SMART firefighters in the city. Information and judgement trumps snap decisions and testosterone every time.
R.c. GlennFriday, August 31, 2012 9:32:35 PMGreat article
Amy HowardTuesday, September 04, 2012 6:24:15 PMI hope the 20 year veteran chief realizes these issues and adjust training tactics.
Michael L. StrongWednesday, September 05, 2012 1:33:46 PMSounds like some great work to help us all do our jobs safer and more efficient! I agree with all that was said in the article, and appreciate the work being done. As an Instructor I would like to see more time built into the FF I & II , as well as the Officer curriculums in Building Const, and Fire Behavior. I also firmly believe it is just as important to refresh/update our people in these topics specifically the new trends frequently. Just reading trade journals doesn't cut it anymore, however helpful they may be. One last thing, respectfully A 20 year career is no excuse for lack of training in current trends/science, as some things do in fact change. Our lives as well as those of others depend on our ability, and willingness to keep up!
Tim HicksThursday, November 01, 2012 8:57:42 AMDown the hatch to fight fire.Fighting fire on ships is difficult.And more demanding.