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6 pioneers of fire-behavior research

Here's a look at how scientific research took us from reacting to fire behavior in the 1800s to predicting and controlling it today


This feature is part of our Fire Chief Digital Edition, a quarterly supplement to FireChief.com that brings a sharpened focus to some of the most challenging topics facing fire chiefs and fire service leaders everywhere. To read all of the articles included in the Fall 2015 issue, click here.

Combustible cities forced us to learn how to fight fires and to fight them well. The complexity and ferocity of fire, in chemical and physical terms, demanded that we learn to fight first and ask questions later. The fires, and they were often big ones, came so regularly that little time remained for asking questions.

The engineers responsible for designing fire engines, public water systems, and building codes had to catch up with the bravery of firefighters. It would be a hard struggle with many losses until science and engineering were armed with tools to join the battle against urban fire.

Throughout the 19th century, North America's abundant forests provided the expanding U.S. economy and its growing population a steady source of building material. Although many other countries offered lessons on the risk of building combustible wooden cities, it was a lesson the U.S. failed to heed and for which it would pay a huge price. A standing example was the popular wooden mansard roof that European cities banned, because of its contribution to the spread of fire from building to building and that played a role in Boston's 1872 fire.

While U.S. fire insurance companies, specifically those under the control of stockholders, knew about such problems, they were not inclined to act. In contrast, the factory mutual insurance companies were quite active in applying fire-prevention and protection measures to their insured properties.

The scientific study of fire behavior as it pertains to buildings began in the late 1800s and gained headway early in the 20th century. Until science was applied to the fight against fire, the strategy had been more about defending cities than saving buildings.

By the 1920s, it was accepted that an effective municipal fire defense system included trained firefighters, a fleet of pumping engines, a pressurized public water system that met fire flow demands, fire-resistive building construction and zoning regulations. Based on this knowledge, the National Board of Fire Underwriters (and later the Insurance Services Office) inspected and graded towns and cities on their ability to defend against conflagrations and suppress fires in buildings.

From roughly 1865 to 1965, firefighters learned to better defend urban centers, first by containing fires to blocks of buildings, then to individual buildings, then to individual floors and then to single compartments or rooms. This was no small achievement and came at a great cost, occurring throughout the transition from horses and steam fire engines to motorized apparatus. Out of this, there were a few individuals who stood out for their significant contributions to formalizing the practice of structural firefighting and their study of fire behavior.  

James Braidwood
The mantle of father of the modern fire service must go to a man born in Edinburgh, Scotland. James Braidwood (1800–1861) was first trained as a surveyor of buildings, which provided him with an exceptional knowledge of building construction and materials. At age 24, he was appointed the master of fire engines for Edinburgh after a serious fire nearly destroyed the city center.

Braidwood soon established the foundational principles of firefighting that are still applied today, specifically the critical importance of getting fire hoses inside to the seat of the fire.

The interior attack for Braidwood was the key to reducing damage, but more importantly for that era, the best tactic to prevent the spread of fire between buildings. He did not hold with the convention that thought it satisfactory to fight building fires from the street. He trained his men to enter the fire building at all costs and remain there until they successfully extinguished the fire or were ordered to withdraw their position.

Under Braidwood's leadership, Edinburgh's firemen earned a reputation for skill and daring and in the process achieved a level of professionalism unknown until that point. Casualties were frequent, but fatalities were rare because of Braidwood's principle that no fireman should enter a building alone. His rule, in effect, meant that any firefighter injured or overcome would have a comrade alongside to help.

And while that was happening in Edinburgh, volunteer firefighters in a few American cities of that era typically baled water (if they had enough of it) through windows and doorways or sometimes just battled with one another.

Braidwood's notoriety quickly accelerated after 1830 when he published the first firefighting manual in English — there was a Dutch manual written earlier in 1690 detailing Amsterdam's firefighting system. His book provided theory as well as detail. An example is his discussion on fire engines. He favored compromise in sizing the pump, looking for effectiveness balanced by weight and the reality of using muscle power. He stressed getting up close to the seat of the fire (his words) with a good steady stream of water and applying it directly.

His concept required firemen to find middle ground in any decisions regarding the size of pumping engines — a unit's size ultimately affecting pumping capacity and thereby total weight. Smaller pumps offered maneuverability and thus allowed getting closer to the fire, while larger pumps dictated a stance farther from the fire. He required servicing and maintenance of the fire pumps after each fire, as well as routine monthly testing. The engine design called for conveyance by four men, with horses rarely needed. Four-wheeled units were better than two-wheeled, because the larger size meant more capacity to carry essential tools of the trade.

He considered riveted fire hose more reliable than sewn hose and required that new fire hose undergo testing to ensure suitability for service. Before placing the riveted hose into service, it was subjected to a pressure of approximately 200 feet of head (roughly 87 psi). A pressure head of 500 feet (about 217 psi) would cause riveted hose to rupture violently. The waterway diameter of the hose was 2 3/8 inches, thus close to the 2 1/2-inch hose used in the United States.

He also recommended that fire stations be centrally located, preferably on a hilltop next to a police-watch station, thus allowing quicker notice of alarms of fires from the watchmen and permitting fire engines a rolling start downhill. The firehouse should also be well ventilated and have a stove for drying wet hose.

His phenomenal accomplishments set the tone for how things should be done and the weight of his ideas permeated through Scotland, England and the United States. This is just a short list of his work.

  • Developed the framework for metropolitan fire services.
  • Recruited tradesmen such as roofers, carpenters and masons who could apply their various fields of expertise to firefighting.
  • Recruited mariners for knowledge and skills hauling and moving heavy objects, useful for hauling fire engines and ladders.
  • Developed original ideas of practical fire service organization and methodology and published them in 1830.
  • Was recruited in 1833 to become the first director of the London Fire Engine Establishment.
  • Was distinguished for his heroism on the occasion of great fires in Edinburgh and in London.
  • Undertook a pastoral role, along with his wife, introducing visits to ordinary firemen and their families by the London City Mission.
  • Published a book on the science of fire protection, "On the Construction of Fire Engines and Apparatus," due to a lack of publications on fire engines in English.

On June 22, 1861, Braidwood was killed at the infamous Tooley Street fire on Cotton's Wharf near London Bridge Station when a collapsed wall trapped him and another firefighter. It took two days to recover their bodies. His heroism led to a massive funeral on June 29 with a funeral cortege stretching 1 1/2 miles behind the hearse. It was one of the largest funerals ever seen in London as the people of the city turned out to mourn their great fire chief. His second book, "Fire Prevention and Fire Extinction," was published posthumously in 1866.

Eyre Massey Shaw
Braidwood's successor, Eyre Massey Shaw (1828–1908), was born in Ballymore, County Cork, Ireland and educated in Queenstown and at Trinity College, Dublin. He considered joining the church but decided on a career in the Army, gaining a commission in the North Cork Rifles. He attained the rank of captain, but resigned on being appointed chief constable of Belfast in charge of both the police and the fire brigade. In 1861, following Braidwood's death, Shaw was recruited to head the London Fire Engine Establishment at age 33.

In 1865, British Parliament passed the Metropolitan Fire Brigade Act thus replacing London's insurance fire brigade system. From 1861 to 1891, as superintendent of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade (today's London Fire Brigade), he introduced modern firefighting methods including steam fire engines and increased the number of stations.

Shaw lived at Southwark Station and was absent only 16 days during his first six years as chief of the Brigade. Just as Braidwood had done, Shaw conducted training drills late at night as that is when serious fires occurred.

Shaw was an influential thinker on firefighting, publishing at least one book on the subject. While he expanded the use of steam fire engines, introduced the use of telegraph for communication between London's stations, and added fire stations to cover the growing city, he is more notable for another idea.

Shaw theorized that given existing firefighting capacity, the separation distance of buildings fronting each other should be in proportion to their height; in fact, as a simple rule, it might be laid down that they should be separated by a distance equal to half their combined height. Thus a building of 60 feet and a building of 30 feet might occupy opposite sides of a street 45-feet wide.

With a well-organized and properly equipped fire brigade of the era, he found that 60 feet was the greatest height at which a building can be quickly protected, and that 216,000 cubic feet, is the largest cubical capacity that can be protected with reasonable hope of success after a fire has once come to a head. Following that theory, the concept for height and area limitations in model building codes becomes relevant.

Shaw was knighted by Queen Victoria on his last day of service. There is a historic London fireboat, named the Massey Shaw — and it still exists at a fireboat museum. The craft, constructed in 1935, made several trips to Dunkirk to assist in the evacuation of British troops from France in 1940.

John Damrell
Born in Boston, John Damrell (1829-1905) joined the Boston Fire Department as a volunteer and quickly rose through the ranks. His knowledge and handiness with steam fire engines inspired confidence among his peers and superiors.

During this period, he was elected to represent his ward on the Boston City Council, or Common Council as it was called. He was elected to the position of chief engineer of Boston Fire Department in 1866 at age 38.

He began his tenure by warning city officials about the danger of fire in the business district. His concern was with the water supply, distribution of fire hydrants, lack of fire equipment and the density of tall brick buildings with wooden mansard roofs throughout the downtown district. His strident pushing against city officials regarding the city's inadequate water supply made enemies among elected and appointed officials. 

In 1871, like many other chiefs from large cities, he toured the ruins of the Great Chicago Fire to learn about the cause and progression of that devastating conflagration. Intuitively he knew Boston would see yet another destructive fire and his prediction became fact in November 1872.

In the aftermath of the Great Boston Fire, a commission was established to oversee the Boston Fire Department. In the wake of the commission, Damrell resigned as fire chief to avoid being attacked by city politicians bent on covering up their own negligence. Damrell, however, continued his crusade for better building and over the next decades his ideas took hold.

He helped organize and served as the first elected president of the National Association of Fire Engineers (now the International Association of Fire Chiefs). Damrell continued his persistent advocacy for building codes through a report to Boston City Council "Unsafe Buildings in Case of Fire."

In 1891, Damrell joined with representatives from the fire underwriters, architects, builders, building inspectors and fire engineers (fire chiefs) in support of so-called general suggestions for building laws to be recommended to all state legislatures. That action foreshadowed a joint effort that resulted in the 1905 "National Model Building Code." At the 20th Annual Convention of NAFE in 1892, Damrell addressed the group on Boston's efforts to limit the height and area of buildings. At this time, Boston was the only city in the country prescribing height and area limitations.

By this point, firefighters and fire underwriters understood the importance of pressurized, distributed public water supplies and fire-safe building construction, but they could not seem to apply that knowledge to the urban fire problem. Despite the steam fire engines, horse-drawn apparatus, staffed fire departments, public water systems and fire hydrants getting streams of water into the upper floors and onto fires remained a problem. A civil engineer working for the factory mutual insurance companies proposed some guidelines to address that problem and others.

John Freeman
The mantle of father of fire service hydraulics goes to John Freeman (1855-1932). Although born in West Bridgton, Maine, he would be in Boston during the Great Fire of 1872. Witnessing the fire as a freshman college student, he learned something of conflagrations and water supplies.

He graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1876 with bachelor's degree in civil engineering. While he understood the need for a good water supply with which to fight large fires, he recognized another problem: How to get water into tall burning buildings. The mansard roofs that adorned Boston's brick buildings had contributed to the 1872 conflagration. The city water supply, available pressures and distribution of hydrants were inadequate for the firemen to direct hoses on the burning roofs.

Freeman first worked for the Essex Company, a waterpower company in Lawrence, Mass. In 1886, he became engineer and special inspector for the Associated Factory Mutual Fire Insurance Companies in Boston. In that position he reorganized the inspectors, conducted experiments to improve the fire prevention apparatus and researched the causes of fires.

During this period, he presented two papers to the American Society of Civil Engineers: "Experiments Relating to the Hydraulics of Fire Streams" and "The Nozzle as an Accurate Water Meter," both earned him awards from the Society.

While in Boston, Freeman arranged to give half of his time to a consulting practice in waterpower, municipal water supply and factory construction. He wrote extensively on fire protection matters and in 1905 published "The Safeguarding of Life in Theatres," which represented a comprehensive study of theater fires, their causes and means of prevention.

In 1915, he presented to the International Engineering Congress at San Francisco an influential paper "The Fire Protection of Cities." The tables of friction loss in fire hose and the charts on the reach of fire streams familiar to fire engineers, fire science students and pump operators are the work of John Freeman. He developed and published tables of data related to friction loss in piping, hydrants, fire hoses and nozzles. His work also included tests of fire streams to determine their reach at various angles of elevation and nozzle pressure.

National Board of Fire Underwriters
The 1866 conflagration in Portland, Maine prompted the establishment of the National Board of Fire Underwriters. Initially formed to control fire insurance rates, the members of the NBFU, in response to the many large fires in U.S. cities during the second half of the 19th century, became one of the major fire prevention organizations in the country. The group was ultimately responsible for molding Damrell's ideas on building codes into the first model building code in the U.S., as well as the first electrical code.

In the early 1890s, NBFU started a small program to survey the fire and water departments of the largest cities. The Great Baltimore Fire prompted the NBFU to expand the survey into a municipal inspection system using engineers to assess the ability of major cities and towns in the U.S. to prevent multi-block conflagrations. This evolved by 1916 into a formalized program for grading cities and towns with reference to their fire defenses.

We have remnants of this inspection system operating today as the fire suppression grading schedule of the Insurance Services Office.

Building on Freeman's work, NBFU engineers developed a more precise formula for calculating needed fire flow in high-value commercial districts. This formula also relied on population to determine fire flow needs. NBFU engineers estimated the needed fire flow for areas outside the commercial district.

In 1948, NBFU engineer A. C. Hutson recommended a new formula based on a building's construction type and size. The formula eventually became the standard for determining needed fire flow, now published in the ISO "Guide for Determination of Required Fire Flow."

In 1914, the director of the National Bureau of Standards told Congress that U.S. fire losses were 10 times those of European countries stating, "The greatest fire losses are in cities and towns having laws and regulations." In response to the testimony, Congress authorized funds for the National Bureau of Standards (NBS, now the National Institute of Standards and Technology) to conduct a series of investigations into fire behavior.

Formally, it was to be a study of the fire-resistant properties of building materials. At that time, losses from fires in terms of both lives and property was high. A notable fact was that so-called fireproof buildings were involved in many of the worst fires. A review of city building regulations by federal government engineers found the local regulations to be "full of the most absurd data regulating the properties of materials."

Given the scope of the anticipated studies, the NBS sought the help of the National Fire Protection Association and Underwriters' Laboratories. The partnership between these organizations made it possible for a comprehensive study of the behavior and relative safety of building materials common in various types of construction under all possible fire conditions.

Simon Ingberg
The study would furnish architects, builders, state and city building bureaus and insurance interests with basic engineering data. NBS placed Simon H. Ingberg (1877-1971) in charge of the study. The scope of the investigation quickly grew to involve much of the scientific and engineering laboratories of the NBS.

Born in Ringsager, Norway, Ingberg immigrated to the United States with his parents in 1881. He grew up on a Minnesota farm and from his junior year in high school through the next 10 years he taught in local public schools. He eventually left teaching to attend college, subsequently earning a bachelor's degree in civil engineering and a master's degree in theoretical and applied mechanics.

After graduation, he worked for a year with a Chicago firm and in 1914 went into federal service with the NBS. During his tenure at NBS, his work on fire-resistance testing would lead to changes in building construction and safety codes that still have impact on our daily lives.

When forced to retire in 1947 because of his impending 70th birthday, he did not stop working. Instead he set up a small fire-testing facility in his home garage and continued to contribute to research supporting the work of his NBS colleagues. His most important contribution to fire safety is the concept of fire loading and its direct relationship with occupancy as used to determine the type of construction and necessary degree of resistance to fire. 

Using data furnished by city and state authorities on the fire-resistant and heat-insulating properties of common building materials, and those used in fire-resistive construction, led to Ingberg's work on the standard time-temperature curve. This time-temperature curve specified the furnace temperatures to which the elements of a structure became subject in any period of time up to 8 hours. Building materials and construction design were thus classified by the hours of ultimate fire resistance, making it possible to draft regulations that ensure building into any structure a reasonable degree of fire resistance.

As the program developed, panel-testing furnaces were constructed and parts of buildings, steel and concrete columns and numerous other structures were erected and destroyed in controlled tests. For years, Ingberg and NBS project staff made trips around the country to probe the debris of large city fires for additional data for their studies. Research papers, technical bulletins, conference papers and handbooks recorded the results of the investigation. These published documents formed the basis for new rules and specifications or revisions to building and fire codes issued by city and state authorities and by the various fire insurance associations.

The NBS was so through in conducting the test burns of abandoned commercial buildings in Washington D.C. in the 1920s that the buildings were fully furnished as offices of the era. The extreme conditions produced by the burning buildings on June 17, 1928 at the corner of 10th and B Streets NW, and their contents, resulted in fires so severe and threatening that the DCFD banned further tests of buildings in the congested business district.

Lloyd Layman
A native of Fairmont, W.Va., Lloyd Layman (1898-1968) served overseas as an officer during World War I, after which he joined the West Virginia State Police, rising to the rank of captain by 1926. He organized and directed the agency's first training academy, which became a model for other states and brought him recognition as a leader in law enforcement.

While commanding the state police unit in Parkersburg, Layman was asked to serve as the city's fire chief, a post he assumed in 1931, though not before he spent time with several progressive fire departments. Layman applied military tactics to the fire service, initiated pre-fire planning, and in 1941 authored a pamphlet titled "Fundamentals of Fire Fighting Tactics."

After the disastrous fire on the troopship Normandie in 1942, the Coast Guard asked Layman to direct its fire research and training efforts. Commissioned and promoted to the rank of commander, he established and led the Coast Guard Fire Fighting School in Baltimore, which trained over 7,000 personnel. At the time, the use of water fog was quite limited, but Layman's research through shipboard tests led to the development of the indirect application of fog as a successful suppression method.

Following World War II, Layman returned to the Parkersburg Fire Department and applied the indirect attack method to structural fires. Confident of his work, he presented on the subject at 1950 Fire Department Instructors Conference. His talk, titled "Little Drops of Water," was very well received.

Subsequent tests in Miami and other sites confirmed its suitability and automatic sprinkler heads were redesigned to incorporate the concept. Articles in trade journals of the era reveal that fire departments quickly began to conduct field experiments with fog-based fire suppression theory, first duplicating exterior attacks then later adding evolutions with firefighters in breathing apparatus, presumably leading to interior attacks with fog nozzles. Unfortunately, it was not exactly what Layman had proposed.

Layman's books "Attacking and Extinguishing Interior Fires" and "Fire Fighting Tactics" became firefighting classics through the 1950s and '60s. Despite the radical nature of his idea, changes in fire attack with water fog came only incrementally, being fed only periodically by new products from fire equipment manufacturers, specifically fog nozzles, lighter hose and breathing apparatus. Over time many variations in Layman's method of fog attack were adopted as tactics by some who misunderstood the precepts of the original theory. In the process, many firefighters suffered injuries.

After retiring as fire chief, Layman was asked to serve as the director of the Fire Office, Federal Civil Defense Administration, the first federal position having an advocacy responsibility to the nation's fire service. He played a major role in preparing the Fire Safety and Research Act of 1968, but unfortunately died shortly before its enactment.

The National Commission on Fire Prevention and Control proposed many ideas in the landmark 1973 publication, "America Burning." Of interest is what the experts who testified before Congress had to say. One of those who testified on behalf of the Commission in 1973 was then-Maryland State Fire Marshal J.C. Robertson, who spoke to the need for collecting better fire data and a study of fire prevention methods.

In an age when we expect little from our Congress, the significance of "America Burning" and the corresponding testimony before the Congress of that era cannot be understated — for the results were a national fire agency, the U.S. Fire Administration and a place for training current and future leaders, the National Fire Academy.

In December 2012, a group of firefighters, engineers and researchers met in College Park, Md. to discuss how contemporary changes in building construction methods, materials and building contents are affecting the way fires grow and develop in today's homes. From the proceedings of that meeting, the U.S. Fire Administration published, "Changing Severity of Home Fires Workshop Report." Firefighters may agree that fires today are growing more severe, but they do not unanimously agree on some of the suggestions made in the report.

But that is nothing new for the fire service to disagree over something perceived as different or not fully understood or even to adopt something new before it is fully understood and so misapply it.

The reality of today's fires places us in a spot like the 1840s, 1880s, 1920s, 1950s and 1970s — times when new ideas and information struggled with traditional methods and entrenched beliefs about how fires should be fought. Fire is a complex phenomenon that we didn't really understand until scientific-based research began in the 1920s, yet we don't know everything, more must be learned. Observations based on one's experience has its rightful place. But such empirical knowledge must stand for scrutiny against scientifically derived facts to find truth. It goes both ways. 

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