12 things we learned burning S.C. homes

Scientific testing on how fire burns in contemporary structures will give fire chiefs the tools to incorporate safer and more effective firefighting tactics

Editor's Note

I'm very pleased to announce Chief John Buckman III has joined our team as Fire Chief and FireRescue1's Leadership Advisor. Chief Buckman brings 40 years of fire service experience to Fire Chief, ranging from serving as fire chief of a small volunteer fire department to his term as president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs. He's someone who understands the macro and micro issues facing fire chiefs, and we're excited to bring you his insights.

Chief Buckman attended last month's fire-behavior research burns in South Carolina. See what happened and how that data may change our firefighting tactics.

I hope you are not just hearing about fire dynamics and the research that has been going on probably for the past five years. This research is demonstrating that there is a different way to attack today's structural fires.

The latest live-burn experiments were held recently, and I was there.

If we have learned most of what we know about fire behavior from our experience, was it the right experience? In many cases we did not learn much from our past experiences because we continue to repeat similar mistakes time after time.

That's why this research is so important to the fire service.

There are two major research and testing organizations involved in the fire-dynamics research: the Firefighter Safety Research Institute and the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

Spartanburg, S.C. hosted a research project in May. NIST, FSRI, United States Fire Administration, International Society of Fire Service Instructors, South Carolina State Fire Marshal and the South Carolina Fire Academy along with over 600 firefighters from 32 states and the province of British Columbia, Canada.

Burning Spartanburg
ISFSI funded the project with a fire prevention and safety grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The funding provides for eight live fire burns with NIST gathering data. The research will test firefighting tactics based on existing research and science and develop a training program that will focus on firefighter safety in residential fires.

NIST and staff members of the South Carolina State Fire Academy spent two weeks before the burns preparing the structures. In some cases they installed drywall and furniture to make research burn more realistic by replicating what is found in the real world. This realism helps to validate the data.

The plan in Spartanburg was to burn six single-family, wood-frame dwellings over six days. The burn plan was to test:

  • Residential sprinkler response.
  • Vehicle fire in the garage to determine if a closed door would reduce extension into the living portion of the home.
  • Fire in the living room.
  • Fire on the second floor to determine if fire control could be achieved from the exterior application of water initially and then progressing to the interior to complete suppression.
  • Basement fire tactics and the potential spread.

The overall goals of the research is to determine:

  • Fire growth factors.
  • Water application and the effect on the temperature on the interior of the structure when varying amounts of water are applied.
  • Strategically ventilating and isolating fires to reduce the potential for or at least delay flashover.
  • Transitional fire attack tactical operations.
  • Flow-path control.
  • Exterior attack.

Scientific process
Research is a complicated undertaking. The amount of time, effort and financial investment is huge. In order for a valid outcome, it must be based upon sound scientific principles and practices.

Yet the science is not exact and in many cases, because of the variables in fire growth, a black-and-white answer cannot be given.

The research data must be studied by firefighters, officers and chiefs to make informed decisions on how to extinguish fire with the least risk to the public and firefighters.

These diverse groups have conducted many research projects over many years on a variety of topics, not just in fire-based research. Their research is based upon science and not the emotional response that many of our firefighters have to a fire.

New data
The science is based upon real world experiments along with laboratory experiments. The books written by the fire service for the firefighter have helped firefighters make tremendous progress in understanding the dynamics of fire behavior.

But, by the time you read a textbook, the information is at the minimum three years old. The science of fire behavior has changed significantly in the last 20 years.

This includes changes in construction techniques and change in the flammability of the contents in a structure. But the information provided to a firefighter hasn't kept pace.

The fire triangle and the fire tetrahedron are still taught as the basis of fire behavior and fire growth.

Here's what the research is showing us.

  • Firefighters will always have to go interior to extinguish the fire.
  • It may be appropriate to apply water from the exterior and then proceed to the interior.
  • The interior will be cooler.
  • Fire growth should have slowed allowing for quicker knockdown of remaining fire.
  • Use of the thermal imaging camera as a tool by the incident commander can assist in determining the correct strategy and the proper placement of water.
  • Controlling the front door and the subsequent air provided to the fire can make a significant difference in the survivability of any occupants.
  • This tactic also impacts the firefighters ability to gain entry into the structure to extinguish the fire.
  • Applying water through windows does not spread the fire.
  • If a firefighter has a charged hose line and is passing a window with fire blowing out or visible on the interior with the window already gone and there are no firefighters on the interior, put water on the fire.
  • Put water on the fire fast.
  • Delaying the application of water can allow fire growth to continue and makes the suppression operations more difficult to gain interior access.
  • The front door is not always the right place to deploy an attack line.

The challenge for our firefighters is to really study the new tactical options and not be so proud and bound by the "way we have always done it."

The challenge for officers is to determine what information from the science is applicable to their department and specifically to the fire they are confronted with and implement.

The implementation phase will require significant training and a rethinking of our current policies and procedures. Instructors will have to spend time digesting the research data to develop a training program for their firefighters and department.

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