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Video: Listen to the smoke — Why flames are only one piece of the fire puzzle

While the fire is the flashiest part of the scene, the smoke plays a supporting role in helping crews understand how to knock it down

Every structure fire emits smoke, as it is a constant byproduct of combustion. And, regardless of the size or location of the fire, the smoke will find an opening and exit the building due to the pressure differentiation, as smoke always seeks out the low-pressure zone outside the structure.

This fact should be considered by crews on scene, as the smoke provides important information that can assist firefighters in determining how best to attack the blaze. Reading smoke can be worked into the initial size-up activities. The company officer should also get a more detailed look with a 360 walk-around (if permissible) to assist with decision-making.

What can smoke tell us?

If you have never taken a Reading Smoke class, I highly encourage you to do so. The smoke is essentially advertising to the firefighters what it’s doing, what it will do in the future, and the potential consequences of certain fireground actions. When these advertising signs are missed or ignored, fireground outcomes are impacted.

In today’s video, you can see one side of the building where smoke is exiting the eaves and the window tops. Notice the volume, velocity, density and color of the smoke as it exits the structure, and how those conditions change as crews attack the blaze or when the fire progresses from one phase to another.

At the 1:55 minute mark, we see turbulent brown smoke, indicating the wood framing of the building is burning. At the 2:04 minute mark, we see dark black smoke exiting rapidly from the window, indicating high heat and smoke ready for air to mix with it for combustion. You will also note the smoke exiting the eaves – turbulent, high velocity and brown in color, indicating again structural members burning.

While the flames are important, we cannot ignore the information delivered by the resulting smoke. Look at it, read it, and understand what it’s telling you.

Training time

After watching this video with your company, take time to engage in these training activities:

  1. Review key points from Dave Dodson’s “The Art of Reading Smoke” video and/or the reading smoke-focused chapters in the Incident Safety Officer 3rd Edition textbook.
  2. Seek out other fireground videos and discuss how crews would interpret the exiting smoke at the scene and the information’s impact on the fire attack strategy.

Mark van der Feyst has been in the fire service since 1998, currently serving as a firefighter with the Fort Gratiot Fire Department in Michigan. He is an international instructor teaching in Canada, the United States and India. He graduated from Seneca College of Applied and Technologies as a fire protection engineering technologist, and received his bachelor’s degree in fire and life safety studies from the Justice Institute of British Columbia and his master’s degree in safety, security and emergency management from Eastern Kentucky University. van der Feyst is the lead author of the book “Residential Fire Rescue” and “The Tactical Firefighter.” Connect with van der Feyst via email.